Chinese Villagers Kept a World Apart
Even after reforms, China's policies put rural people in the position of second-class citizens, explains Mark Selden.
The family is the crucial unit in terms of rural poverty.
Despite the easing of restrictions on migration for China's rural villagers after three decades of reform, the villagers retain a "second-class status" that is often exploited by the central government, said Mark Selden, a research associate of the East Asia Program at Cornell University, at a lecture hosted by the UCLA Center for China Studies on Jan. 29, 2008.
Under the hukou household registration system, which grew more regimented during the 1950s, migration to cities from the countryside remains technically illegal.
"While significant numbers of rural workers have made income gains in the coastal and urban industry… the structures of inequality, particularly the state-structured inequality through the hukou system, is one of the factors that holds the [rural-urban dualism] in place," said Selden.
Before the era of reform that began in the 70s, China's government strictly controlled the movement, or rather non-movement, of the people. Hukou classified all citizens as rural or urban, and rural citizens were never allowed into the cities. Hukou papers were required in order to get food rations or a job.
But after the reforms, the government relaxed the movement of rural citizens as part of its efforts to revive the rural economy, which was to boost the national economy. With more freedom of movement, villagers migrated to other villages or cities in search of work and income, no matter how meager.
"It opens up the hope and possibility for rural people that they could share in some of the particular gains that urban people have taken advantage of," said Selden.
While it is openly acknowledged that millions have migrated to work in factories—producing a transportation crush every Chinese New Year—the hukou system remains in place. Villagers can still be kicked out of the cities or find their children refused admittance to public schools, and businesses have used the hukou system to not pay employees.
In the meantime, as citizenship rights continue to evolve, Selden said the necessity of earning income for the family will drive villagers to the cities.
"The [rural families] on the edge are the ones without someone slaving in the cities, earning meager cash earnings... The family is the crucial unit in terms of rural poverty," said Selden.
Published: Thursday, February 14, 2008