internal migration in China

I just finished reading a delightful book written by Chinese journalist Karoline Kan. Her work is autobiographical, and more, since she writes also about the lives of a cousin, her parents, grandparents and great-uncle. The 300-page book is very readable, and, at the same time, very informative. I recommend it highly. Among other things, I learned that government control of internal migration began centuries ago, long before the Communist government came to power.

Here is a portion of the book that explains the migration controls. In her memoir, Ms Kan goes on to explain the effect these controls had on her, and on the lives of her parents and grandparents.

The greatest obstacle was the hukou, which strictly controlled and facilitated the rules of internal migration. The hukou system began in ancient China, when the emperors wanted to prevent free migration. When Sun Yat-sen and the Nationalist Party founded China’s first republic in 1912 after the Qing dynasty was overthrown, they promised to end such restrictions. The Republic of China’s first constitution in 1912 acknowledged freedom of movement as a human right. The Chinese Communist Party upheld that right for the first few years, and then they began to change their minds.

A decade after the People’s Republic was founded, … [a] new plan was put into place, requiring rural residents to remain with the land to ensure food production; thus, the hukou system was reinstated in an effort to balance a number of people working in factories against those working in the fields. Citizens had to register their age, gender, marital status, and, most importantly, their home-town. After 1958, moving from village to city was not allowed unless the government approved.

Migration became less tightly controlled after Reform and Opening Up in 1978. But the right to migrate freely never returned to China’s constitution.

Where you could work and where you could get married, as well as whether you received a good education, health care, or a pension, were all determined by hukou, and urban workers had it better than farmers.

This unfair, discriminatory system exists today, enshrined by law.

Karoline Kan, Under Red Skies: Three Generations of Life, Loss, and Hope in China (Hatchett Books, New York City, 2019), pp. 58-59.

Ms. Kan was born in Tianjin in 1989, and given the Chinese name “Chaoqun”. Her mother defied the one-child policy by giving birth to her. The Kans moved from a rural village to towns, and eventually to Beijing, seeking a better life for the family and education for their daughter, who was able eventually to gain admission to the prestigious Beijing International Studies University. After graduation Chaoqun worked as a research assistant for the New York Times, writing under the pen name “Karoline”. She continues to reside in Beijing, where she is now an editor at China Dialogue.

 

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