Differentiated Citizenship of Chinese Rural-origin Migrants
: A grounded theory study in Chengdu

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This study began with the author’s preliminary observations and thoughts about the citizenship practices of rural-origin migrants in China. Based on in-depth discussions on the hukou regime of China, extensive literature has analysed Chinese citizenship from a dichotomic citizenship framework, i.e., rural and urban citizenship. However, the increasing heterogeneity in the migrant group in recent years suggests that the analytical tool emphasising the text-based citizenship of rural-origin migrants is inadequate to appreciate Chinese citizenship and relevant practices today. Furthermore, as shown in the literature review chapter, the thesis discusses other significant analytical frameworks on migrant citizenship analyses, including subaltern studies, ‘suzhi’ theories, space theories, and labour studies. Nevertheless, the author argues that none of these perspectives can properly explain today’s rural-origin migrants’ citizenship regimes and practices. Conversely, the recent scholarly lens on ‘citizenship’, ‘citizenship localisation’, and ‘differentiated citizenship’ in Chinese society inspired the author’s preliminary ideas about this study. Therefore, tapping into a specific locality’s citizenship regime and relevant practices, this thesis contributes new perspectives to grasp the rural-origin migrant population and the current citizenship regime in China.

All the data collection and relevant analyses in this thesis were carried out to answer the central research question: how do rural-urban migrants in Chengdu practise citizenship in their everyday lives? The author conducted this project using the grounded theory method (GTM), which is a data-driven and inductive methodological approach. Although this approach suggests that researchers cannot apply an established interpretative framework, it does not mean that relevant analyses can be ungrounded or laissez-faire. Instead, as elaborated in the methodology chapter, data collection and analyses should be based on a series of measures to guarantee the rigour of the study, such as the researcher’s sensitivity to relevant conceptions or theories, procedural precision, triangulation, and self-reflexivities. Thus, following the principles of the grounded theory method, this thesis developed three research sites based on iterative data collection and analyses: Flower Town, Western Park, and Tianfu. 

From a comparative lens across the three research sites, this thesis discussed rural-origin migrants’ citizenship in Chengdu using empirical data on migrants’ memberships, entitlements, and interactions between them and other actors. As an outcome of these discussions, the key findings of this thesis were as follows. First, although this study’s target group shared the same identity as ‘rural-origin migrants’, its heterogeneity was evident. Moreover, the current citizenship regime of Chengdu in effect channelled these rural-origin migrants to different memberships. Then, based on migrants’ self-descriptions of the entitlements they most cared about, migrants’ differentiated entitlements across the three cases demonstrated their differentiated citizenship practices in Chengdu. Furthermore, this thesis showed three different ecologies for these migrants’ citizenship practices by examining the differentiated interactions between migrants and other actors across the three sites. This thesis also argued that migrants’ differentiated citizenship was performed by visible ‘spaces’, and various citizenship practices and migrant space are interrelated and interactional—in addition to the space performance demonstrating the boundaries of differentiated citizenship, all the citizenship practices strengthened the boundaries of different migrant spaces. Consequently, this thesis showed the local citizenship regime of Chengdu as a multi-layered system that continuously produces differentiated citizenship practices and intensifies inequalities in the group of rural-origin migrants. 
Date of Award1 Jan 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorNicholas Manning (Supervisor) & Charlotte Goodburn (Supervisor)

Cite this