Active but Apolitical: How does Return Migration Shape Political Efficacy and Participation?


What could happen when a large group of migrants return from the host city to home community? How are returning migrants different from their fellows who did not migrate? The existing literature focuses on socioeconomic differences. We instead examine the political impact of return migration. We hypothesize that returnees’ broadened experiences through migration improve their sense of political efficacy and participation in local politics. We study these questions in China where an unprecedented rural-to-urban migration also gives rise to an understudied urban-to-rural returning. Using four nationally representative surveys spanning almost a decade, we document the trend, scale, motivation of return migration in China, which often deviates from the official narrative. We find that returnees exhibit weakly improved political efficacy. However, returnees’ heightened political efficacy does not raise their participation in local politics. They actually quit local politics. We further propose an explanation and conduct exploratory analysis to account for this seeming contradiction. Both quantitative and qualitative analyses suggest returnees’ experience with a dominating state dampens the enlightening effect of migration experience and returnees’ withdrawal from local politics engenders nuanced influence on governance.

Working Paper