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The Origins and Social Consequences of China's Hukou System*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 February 2009


Throughout the 1950s China implemented a code of laws, regulations and programmes whose effect was formally to differentiate residential groups as a means to control population movement and mobility and to shape state developmental priorities. The hukou system, which emerged in the course of a decade, was integral to the collective transformation of the countryside, to a demographic strategy that restricted urbanization, and to the redefinition of city-countryside and state-society relations. This article offers a documentary study tracing the origins and development of the hukou system of population registration and control, and scrutinizes its relationship to a host of connected institutions, for clues to understanding distinctive features of China's developmental trajectory and social structure in the era of mobilizational collectivism. It considers the farreaching social consequences of the hukou system with particular attention to its implications for the creation of spatial hierarchies, especially its consequences for defining the position of villagers in the Chinese social system.

Focus on Rural to Urban Migration
Copyright © The China Quarterly 1994

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1. Banister, Judith, China's Changing Population (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987), p. 328.Google Scholar

2. Lynn White records the existence in Japanese-occupied Shanghai of a system of citizen's cards (liangmin zheng) and in Kuomintang-ruled post-war Shanghai of identity cards (shenfen zheng). In the early 1950s the Shanghai government issued residents’ cards (jumin zheng) on a household basis. Careers in Shanghai. The Social Guidance of Personal Energies in a Developing Chinese City, 1949–1966 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), p. 149.

3. Michael Dutton, Policing and Punishment in China. From Patriarchy to the People (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 25.

4. Selden, Mark, The People's Republic of China. A Documentary History of Revolutionary China (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979), p. 188Google Scholar (italics added).

5. See the Government Draft of the Proposed Constitution, chapter II: “Rights and Duties of the Citizens,” article 12: “Every citizen shall have the freedom to change his residence; such freedom shall not be restricted except in accordance with law” in Linebarger, Paul, The China of Chiang Kai-shek: A Political Study (Boston: World Peace Foundation, 1941) p. 284.Google Scholar

6. Documents of the First Session of the First National People's Congress of the People's Republic of China (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1955), p. 160.

7. Lieberthal, Kenneth, Revolution and Tradition in Tientsin, 1949–1952 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1980), p. 13Google Scholar; Vogel, Ezra, Canton Under Communism. Programs and Politics in a Provincial Capital, 1949–1969 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969), p. 22Google Scholar; Friedman, Edward, Pickowicz, Paul and Selden, Mark, Chinese Village, Socialist State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), pp. 19, 25, 111.Google Scholar

8. Kau, Michael and Leung, John (eds.), The Writings of Mao Zedong, 1949–1976, Vol. 1 (Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 1986), p. 104.Google Scholar

9. White, Careers in Shanghai, p. 103.

10. Jiefang ribao (Liberation Daily), 2 May 1950.

11. Cited in Richard Gaulton, “Political mobilization in Shanghai, 1949–1951,” in Howe, Christopher (ed.), Shanghai. Revolution and Development in an Asian Metropolis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

12. Shushi, Rao, “Wei fensui diren fengsuo he fazhan xin Shanghai er douzheng” (“Smash the enemy's blockade and struggle for the development of new Shanghai”) in Jiefang ribao (ed.), Shanghai: One Year After Liberation (Shanghai, 1950), pp. 711.Google Scholar

13. White, Careers in Shanghai, pp. 103–105.

14. Renmin ribao (RMRB), 3 March and 7 May 1950.

15. Lieberthal, Revolution and Tradition in Tientsin, p. 32.

16. RMRB, 19 June 1950.

17. All interviews cited in this article were conducted in the early 1980s by Tiejun Cheng.

18. Lieberthal, Revolution and Tradition in Tientsin, pp. 53–60; Vogel, Canton Under Communism, pp. 63–64.

19. RMRB, 7 May 1950.

20. RMRB, 19 June 1950.

21. This and the other principal documents defining the formation of the hukou system are translated and assessed in Cheng, Tiejun, “The dialectics of control: the household registration [hukou] system in contemporary China” (State University of New York at Binghamton, Ph.D. dissertation, 1991).Google Scholar

22. White, Careers in Shanghai, pp. 149–150 notes the existence of May 1951 Shanghai regulations that similarly distinguished legal and illegal entry and established registration procedures.

23. Howe, Christopher, Employment and Economic Growth in Urban China, 1949–1957 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), pp. 96101, 113–15.Google Scholar

24. Dagongbao (DGB) (Tianjin), 18 October 1949.

25. DGB, 10 May 1953.

26. Kau and Leung, The Writings of Mao Zedong, p. 425. Translation modified slightly.

27. Selden, Mark, The Political Economy of Chinese Development (Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 1993), pp. 7980Google Scholar; Taihe, Zhouet al. (eds.), Dangdai Zhongguo dejingji tizhi gaige (Economic Restructuring in Contemporary China) (Beijing: Chinese Social Sciences Press, 1984), p. 29.Google Scholar

28. State Statistical Bureau, Ten Great Years (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1960), p. 38.Google Scholar

29. Kirkby, R. J. R., Urbanization in China: Town and Country in a Developing Economy1949–2000A.D. (London: Croom Helm, 1985), p. 107.Google Scholar

30. Ka-iu Fung, “The spatial development of Shanghai,” in Howe, Shanghai, pp. 274–75, 278.

31. White, Careers in Shanghai, pp. 151–52.

32. Howe, Employment and Economic Growth in Urban China, p. 69.

33. Information provided by two informants who worked in Beijing's Baiwanzhuang and Xinjiekou offices. For details on the use of secret directives and central documents for control and administrative purposes, see Lieberthal, Kenneth, “Central documents and politburo politics in China,” Michigan Papers in Chinese Studies, No. 33 (1978), pp. 7582Google Scholar, and Lieberthal, Kenneth and Oksenberg, Michel, Policy Making in China. Leaders, Structures, and Processes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), pp. 152–53.Google Scholar We assume that the declining rate of urban growth was the product both of state restrictions on moving to cities and greater efforts by migrants to conceal their presence in urban areas.

34. Guangming ribao, 7 December 1955; Qinghai ribao, 6 December 1956; Henan ribao, 9 December 1956; Jiangxi ribao, 16 February 1957.

35. H. Yuan Tien, China's Population Struggle: Demographic Decisions of the People's Republic 1949–1969 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press), p. 43.

36. Howe, Employment and Economic Growth in Urban China, p. 169; Fung, “The spatial development of Shanghai,” p. 278.

37. Howe, Employment and Economic Growth in Urban China, p. 37.

38. White, Careers in Shanghai, pp. 59–60.

39. Worker's Daily, 4 January 1958.

40. There was no unified policy regarding ticket purchase for public transport (train, bus and boat) prior to 1960. Subsequently, ticket purchasers were required to show official travel certificates before purchasing tickets, especially if the destination was Beijing and the time was politically sensitive.

41. With completion of the nationalization of private industry and commerce in 1956, most privately owned real estate, including rented housing, was also placed under joint state-private management. Under this arrangement, all rented housing was handed over to state housing offices which took charge of rent collecting as well as repairs and maintenance. Although there was no pass system at that time, staying temporarily with relatives in a city required applying to the police for a permit, and staying in hotels required an official certificate.

42. Cf. Tien, China's Population Struggle, p. 87.

43. Initially, grain ticket requirements for restaurants were not rigorously implemented in many places. For example, in 1957 in Taiyuan, Shanxi people could buy cooked food in restaurants and stores without grain tickets. Howe, Christopher and Walker, Kenneth (eds.), The Foundations of the Chinese Planned Economy. A Documentary Survey, 1953–1965 (New York: St Martin's, 1989, p. 354.Google Scholar But after 1960, this requirement, like many others, was vigorously implemented.

44. White, Careers in Shanghai, pp. 159–163.

45. Among the most rankling of the Hundred Flowers criticisms for Mao personally was the charge that the Party neglected the interests of the rural population. Mao chose to respond to critics who (rightly) noted a growing urban-rural gap with the following arguments: ”… generally speaking, the income of the workers is larger than that of the peasants, but the value of what they produce is also greater than that of what the peasants produce, and their necessary living expenses are also higher than those of the peasants. The improvement in the standards of living of the peasants mainly depends on the peasants’ own efforts in developing production. The government, also, is giving the peasants a lot of help, such as constructing water conservation projects and issuing loans to the peasants, etc.” Leung and Kau, The Writings of Mao Zedong, Vol II, p. 232. Not only was the productivity of urban labour higher than that of peasants, Mao held, ignoring the fact that this was a direct function of the state's decision to transfer substantial portions of the rural surplus to urban industry, but rural living costs were lower. Mao proceeded to compare China favourably to the Soviet Union, claiming that China had no system of compulsory crop sales and that China was reducing the scissors gap. Both claims were false. In fact the Soviet Union had done better than China in reducing urban-rural income and welfare gaps, and particularly after the 1960s it would do even better as collective farmers shifted to a system of regular cash wages and benefits and the worker-peasant income gap narrowed.

46. Kojima, Reiitsu, Urbanization and Urban Problems in China (Tokyo: Institute of Developing Economies, 1987), pp. 34.Google Scholar

47. Compare the somewhat different criteria for defining urban discussed in the 1954 constitution and other 1955 legislation as discussed by Banister, China's Changing Population, p. 328. Cf. p. 326 where Banister stresses the differential benefit structures of residents in cities, town and villages.

48. Some agonizing exceptions took place during the Great Leap famine. In addition to millions of workers who lost their jobs and were sent to the countryside, state rations were cut off for many other state employees living in the countryside, forcing them to rely on collective rations at a time when many localities confronted famine.

49. For hukou purposes, children have always been classified on the basts of maternal classification. If a state employee is male and his wife has a rural hukou, their children have rural hukou. At first glance, this is surprising, particularly in light of the fact that class status follows the male line, just as lineage position was and is determined exclusively through the male line. There were, however, practical reasons of state for this classfication. By applying this “matriarchal” definition of the position of children the state substantially reduced the number and burden of the urban population since the great majority of state employees were male. The effect of this rule was to force children and wives of families in which only the father had an urban hukou and urban job to remain in the countryside. Not only were they ineligible for state rations and housing, but children were also ineligible to attend urban schools. For a suggestive analysis of the Chinese social structure in terms of caste-like divisions between city and countryside pivoting on the household registration system, see Potter, Sulamith and Potter, Jack, China's Peasants. The Anthropology of a Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990)CrossRefGoogle Scholar especially ch. 15; cf. Friedman, Pickowicz and Selden, Chinese Village, Socialist State.

50. Selden, The Political Economy of Chinese Development, pp. 19–20; Croll, Elisabeth, The Family Rice Bowl, Food and the Domestic Economy in China (London: Zed, 1983), pp. 6671.Google Scholar

51. Howe and Walker, The Foundations of the Chinese Planned Economy p. 347; cf. Banister, China's Changing Population, p. 328.

52. New China News Agency, 16 November 1957.

53. Tien, China's Population Struggle, p. 95.

54. Banister, China's Changing Population, pp. 339–340.

55. Howe, Employment and Economic Growth in Urban China, pp. 35—38, 65, 116.

56. Ibid. pp. 65, 132.

57. Shanxi ribao, 1 September 1957 in Ibid. pp. 352–56.

58. Luo Ruiqing, “An explanation of the draft resolution on the regulations concerning household registration in the People's Republic of China by Luo Ruiqing, Minister of the People's Republic of China Public Security Department,” in Qingwu, Zhang (ed.), Hukou dengji changshi (Basic Facts on the Household Registration System) (Beijing: Legal Publishing House, 1983), pp. 8687.Google Scholar

59. Macfarquhar, Roderick, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution Vol. II, The Great Leap Forward 1958–1960 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), pp. 3640Google Scholar; Bowie, Robert and Fairbank, John (eds.), Communist China 1955–1959. Policy Documents With Analysis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965), p. 426.Google Scholar

60. Suinian, Liu and Qungan, Wu, China's Socialist Economy. An Outline History (1949–1984) (Beijing: Beijing Review Press, 1986), p. 231.Google Scholar

61. Zhou Taihe et al., Dangdai Zhongguo dejingji tizhi gaige, p. 75; Banister, China's Changing Population, p. 330.

62. Selden, The Political Economy of Chinese Development, pp. 18–20, 107–108; MacFarquhar, The Great Leap Forward, p. 200.

63. Zhou Taihe et ai, Dangdai dejingji tizhi gaige, p. 86.

64. Selden, The Political Economy of Chinese Development, p. 174.

65. We distinguish here the collective from the state proper. We see the collective (at brigade and team levels) as a servant of the state, but the collective and its officials stand outside the system of state-ranked and salaried officialdom. Collective officials occupy, in short, a position between villagers and state officials, occupying positions of power and authority, but rarely rising beyond their native villages and depending for their income on village resources.

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