In China, more than 200 million rural residents have left their homes looking for jobs in urban areas, a social phenomenon that has attracted the attention of many scholars, Prof. Tong Yuying of the Department of Sociology being one of them.
After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2007, Professor Tong joined CUHK in 2008. She was a recipient of the CUHK Research Excellence Award in 2018–19. Her wide research interests cover social demography, migration and immigration, family and life course, gender disparity, and quantitative methods.
Her interest in internal migration in China has partly to do with her own experience: she lived in a village in rural China as a child, and many of her childhood schoolmates became rural-to-urban migrants.
‘I often wonder what could happen to myself if I didn’t go to college. I am interested in migrants’ life opportunities and their well-being,’ said Professor Tong.
Recently, she has turned her attention to the impact of migration on spouses’ psychological well-being, and the relationship between migration and livelihood strategies in rural China.
Professor Tong said, ‘Spousal separation is a common phenomenon in the developing world, but the psychological effects of separation on the partners left behind have not been given due attention.
‘Very often, migrants leave their family members behind in rural areas. Less than 20% of them take their families with them. This means that it is a norm for couples to live separately, and more wives than husbands are left behind.’
Some scholars argue that adult migration increases the income of a family, lifts it from poverty, and thus improves the psychological well-being of the left-behind partner.
In most patrilineal societies, they reason, the migrating partner is usually the husband, and the wife who stays behind will enjoy a ‘reprieve’ from male domination, which may contribute to better mental health, due in part to improvement of material well-being.
However, Professor Tong’s research has proved otherwise.
‘Apart from increased labour burden and less time for resting, left-behind partners may feel isolated and abandoned, which can cause separation anxiety,’ she said.
Separation also precludes physical intimacy and an active sex life, and ultimately undermines the psychological well-being of both migrant and left-behind spouses.
‘Being the master of the household, in the absence of her husband, may be more a burden than a blessing to the wife left behind, because she has to bear greater responsibilities. She may have more autonomy, but that autonomy is often a source of distress in a cash-strapped family,’ said Professor Tong.
‘Without true gender equality, it is difficult for women to reap the benefits of having more power.’
Her study reveals that depression scores are higher among those left behind by their partners for prolonged periods than among those who are newly separated or whose partners have recently returned. She has also found that the age gap between couples is positively correlated to spouses’ depression levels.
Her findings suggest that government policies should encourage family migration instead of spousal separation. There should be family-friendly options for internal migrants in China.
Professor Tong has, in another research project, ventured into a little explored field of rural migration—how the gender of the migrant may affect the choice of livelihood strategies at home.
Over the past decade, the number of female migrants has risen significantly, in spite of the patrilineal social organization. As of 2016, 48.3% of migrants were women.With more women in the urban workforce, it would be interesting to know what impact this has on agriculture.
Professor Tong’s research shows that families with migrants are less likely to engage in agricultural activities, and this is especially the case with households where there are female migrants. In other words, households with male migrants are more likely to engage in agriculture, and it is the women left behind that have to take up agricultural duties.
What is more, according to Professor Tong’s research, households with male migrants are less likely to engage in small family businesses. However, households with female migrants are as likely to run small businesses as any other households. This suggests that, in a rural setting, women are associated with farming activities, while men are expected to enjoy more lucrative opportunities. There is a clear division of labour by gender.
Professor Tong’s findings challenge arguments that migration helps rural households diversify their economic activities—those arguments fail to take into consideration the deeply-entrenched gender stereotypes and patriarchal norms in rural China.
Women’s migration, rather than changing the status quo, is in fact reinforcing traditional gender roles. Economic shots are still being called by the men.
‘The findings of this study underline the urgency and problems of rural development,’ she said. ‘The rural household is becoming less and less a unit of farming activities as more and more women, especially married women, are migrating. Rural reforms should be initiated to guarantee the continuity of agriculture and rural development in China.’
Migration studies is as fascinating as it is challenging. What proves particularly fascinating to Professor Tong is that the subject intersects with other areas of study, such as gender and family.
‘Migration should be studied together with other demographic transition issues, such as family changes; otherwise it can’t be well understood.’
To Professor Tong, the most difficult aspect of migration studies is the lack of adequate data because it is very difficult to trace migrants in large-scale data collection. Her current studies rely heavily on the China Family Panel Studies, a longitudinal social survey project launched in 2010 to reflect changes in Chinese society.
The scale of China’s internal migration is one of the largest in the world, and its impact on Chinese society is tremendous. The topic offers a fertile ground for research, and hopefully the findings will give us a clearer picture of Chinese society and help policy makers chart the way forward.
By Eliza Chan
This article was originally published in No. 551, Newsletter in Jan 2020.