Editor's Note: This is the second part of a three-part series on China's household registration system and its effects on the country's labor force and economy. Part 1 explained the origin of the system; Part 2 discusses the role of the system during the Mao era and after China's economic opening; and Part 3 will examine how the Communist Party of China will use the system to support its push for inland development.
The contemporary hukou system is far more comprehensive and rigid than previous incarnations. This is, in large part, because the Communist Party's long-term goal of building a nationally integrated, modern industrial economy is more ambitious — and the constraints on achieving it more profound — than anything attempted by previous dynasties. Understanding these constraints requires looking at post-1949 and especially post-1978 China in the context of deeper-set patterns of population growth and economic change.
Hukou Under Mao
In 1740, China had a population of around 140 million. By 1949, that number had grown to 540 million. Thirty years later, it reached almost a billion. In less than 250 years, China's population has grown nearly sevenfold. But China's territory — and in particular, the quantity of arable land — did not. Unlike in the United States, where population growth coincided with the westward movement of settlers, the 18th and 19th century Chinese population booms occurred in the same tight, geographically enclosed space that had been occupied and cultivated by roughly the same people for more than 2,000 years, the area now known as "Han" China.
China's population boom was made possible not by movement and expansion but by innovations in agriculture and irrigation that facilitated increasingly intensive farming on existing plots of land. Through piecemeal adjustments, each generation of farmers in places like the Yangtze River Delta and the North China Plain managed to squeeze out slightly larger grain surpluses from the same plots of land tilled by their parents, making it feasible to raise and feed a few more children, who would again cultivate the same plot even more intensively.
Over several hundred years, this process generated huge pools of surplus rural labor relative to available land. This labor was underemployed in the best of times. In the event of a social or environmental disruption (as occurred continuously throughout the late 19th century), it easily devolved into large, uprooted and potentially destabilizing "floating" populations.
The pattern of environmental change giving rise to population migration and rebellions that challenge a dynasty's grip on power was not new. But the unprecedented population growth of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries was. At its root, the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 represented the inevitable collapse of a model of economic organization — one based in ever more intensive cultivation of limited farmland — that could no longer feed and accommodate the population it had created. This was the China the Communist Party inherited: a country bursting at the seams with overpopulation and dependent on an outdated and inadequate economic model. As Mao Zedong and the Communist Party understood, supporting China's population without sacrificing the country's political unity would require industrialization on an enormous and highly centralized scale.
The Communist Party's first task upon taking power was simply to clean up the mess left by a century of mismanagement, internal rebellions, civil war, invasion and overfarming. Restoring basic elements of order to a country as completely destroyed as post-1949 China took several years, occupying most of the Party's efforts during the First Five-Year Plan (1953-1957). It was not until the Second Five-Year Plan (1958-1963), that Mao and the Party could afford to think ambitiously about China's future industrial development trajectory.
But industrializing an economy as populous and heavily agricultural as China's (in 1949, only 12.6 percent of China's 541 million people lived in cities), and doing so anywhere near as quickly as Mao wanted, raised a variety of questions. Chief among those questions were how to amass urban populations large enough to sustain a national industrial base and also how to prevent those cities from growing too big too quickly. The Communist Party had to industrialize without succumbing to uncontrolled labor migration from heavily populated and extremely poor rural areas to newly industrializing cities.
In the early 1950s, during the first phase of national rebuilding, the Party actually promoted migration to cities (especially in the interior), which had been decimated by decades of war and revolution. But by the late 1950s it became clear that unrestricted population movement to the cities would create financial and social burdens too great for underequipped cities and the cash-strapped central government. The Party needed a system to not only track the movement of labor, but also to limit it by tying an individual's livelihood directly to his or her place of birth.
The hukou system accomplished this by strictly curtailing the ability of farmers to move to and work in even nearby villages, let alone major cities like Shanghai or Wuhan. At the same time, because of its long historical pedigree and intimate ties to traditional institutions of family mutual responsibility, the hukou system — and Beijing's ability to effectively implement it — was used by the Communist Party to bolster its domestic legitimacy.
Two key constraints therefore combined to produce the current hukou system. The first was overpopulation relative to existing resources and economic capacity. The second was Beijing's need to manage and control the social consequences of building a dual-sector economy (agricultural and industrial) characterized by an extreme lack of integration, both between regions and between industrial and agricultural economies.
The hukou system was presented as a horizontal model of social organization, grounded in geography (where one was born) rather than class. In theory, agricultural and non-agricultural hukou holders were separate but equal. Urban, non-agricultural workers were guaranteed access to urban social services on the assumption that by moving to cities they had lost traditional village and family support networks. Rural workers were denied such services because they, it was presumed, retained those familial networks. In practice, the division was hardly equal. In many ways, it entailed a vertical hierarchy, with urban hukou holders increasingly constituting the privileged "elite" and rural hukou holders a de facto underclass. Nonetheless, given the extreme poverty of the country as a whole until the 1980s, these class distinctions were often blurred. To a large extent in Mao's China, everyone — rural or urban — was equally poor.
The Hukou System After China's Opening
This changed dramatically after 1978. With the economic opening and the rise of coastal-based export-oriented manufacturing, the relationship between geography and class in China became more complicated. Prior to 1978, China's industrial base was not in coastal cities like Shenzhen and Shanghai, but in inland cities like Wuhan, Chongqing, Shenyang and Xi'an. Divisions between city and countryside existed and were in some cases stark, but Mao's concerted effort to push industrial production away from traditionally wealthy, independent and restive regions like the Yangtze River Delta and Guangdong and toward inland regions more reliant on central government aid and favor meant that the rural-urban divide did not coincide with the traditional regional divisions.
After 1978, as the predominately urban coast became increasingly wealthy and the predominately rural interior lagged behind, these traditional regional divisions re-emerged and took on strong class connotations. This is reflected in widespread anecdotal reports of coastal residents' mistreatment or hostility toward poorer migrant laborers from rural Sichuan, Henan and Shaanxi provinces.
China's post-1978 economic growth "miracle" would not have been possible without the hukou system. Had there been no hukou system, or had Beijing moved to replace it in the early 1980s with a unified registration system allowing for unrestricted labor movement, China almost certainly would have experienced the problems that befell other developing countries in the wake of colonialism — namely, large pools of surplus rural labor flooding into cities at unmanageable rates, putting enormous fiscal and infrastructural burdens on city governments and leading to the formation of slums.
Slums in cities from Mumbai to Lagos to Rio de Janeiro are both symptomatic of the breakdown of dual-track agricultural and industrial economic systems and in themselves represent a major challenge to urban industrial development. With the hukou system in place, Beijing was able to temporarily circumvent this problem by maintaining strict control over the amount and kind of rural-urban migration allowed, as well as the legal status and benefits afforded to those migrants.