The Chinese Hukou

Household Registration HukouMore and more, I find that the things I write branch out and away from China.  I think that in the long run this in inevitable, and in many respects not a bad thing.  At the end of the day, I would like to be able to tie everything back to my beloved country, but the long and short of it is that I am interested in everything.  A bit of diversity never hurt anyone.  Perhaps I will have to change the tagline of the site; A young college graduate and his quest to find the answer to life.

I have often thought about running simultaneous blogs, ones which focus on different subjects but in some way trend toward observations on culture and all of its peculiarities.  Each day I have a new idea, but each day I also find myself short of time to get material onto just one site.  I have thought on numerous occasions that it would be interest to blog about my current job (Outdoor educator), and at some point merge my interest with the outdoors into a blog on my pursuit toward leading tours in China.  It is more than a little bit lofty of me to lay such direct plans for my future, but it would be interesting.

One of the main requirements for my degree was that I complete a year long study and large paper on a topic of choice.  Being the somewhat arrogant ass that I can be, I decided to take on a project focusing on the more recently defunct Chinese Hukou system (Household Registration, 户口).  Though I was majoring in history, I had a dangerous tendency to try and study history through the writings of anthropologists and political scientists.  This is not a bad way to go about things, you just have to be careful when the time comes to put it all into historical terms.  I had approached my advisor with the idea that I wanted to study the large-scale movement that plays out amongst Chinese migrant workers and the plight that I felt they suffered.  Beyond knowing that a migration existed, I had little technical knowledge of the people, of their social position, or any of the causes behind their migration, the result being that I probably sounded like an amateur when I waltzed into his office with my plan.

My advisor was a calm, collected and very traditional man.  Having left China in his early twenties, he arrived in the United States to find that no academic institution would credit his Chinese Masters degree.  In the mindset of a true academic, he went back to school and came out with an additional B.A., and yet another Masters, followed by becoming a Professor at Purchase College.  I always found him to be a mysterious individual, and it was often difficult to gain a sense of his thoughts.  My presentation to him of a project focusing on migration was met with a very indirect response.

“Ah yes, William, you should look at Hukou”

In short, Hukou was established as a method by which to industrialize the nation at light speed by harnessing the power of the individuals living in the country side.  Now bear with me as this gets a bit complicated.  Seeking to industrialize as quickly as it could, the CCP engaged the Great Leap Forward, an ambitious plan that placed every available resource on the creation and operation of heavy industry.  In a massive rush to fill the need that was presented by this ill-fated leap, crop production quotas were set at an almost unreachable mark.  Beyond this, competition reached a feverish pitch as communes attempted to out-perform one another.  Fearing that they would appear to be slacking, local officials began to exaggerate their reports of how much food was being produced, leading other officials to do the same.  At the same time, huge numbers of the rural population began to leave the land and head to the cities to help in the great cause of pushing forward industrialization.

And then it all crashed in on itself.  Fraudulent reporting of grain stock led to a supply bubble, and the reduced numbers of farmers on the lend resulted in a massive, widespread food shortage.  This, in combination with what proved to be an atrocious growing season, led to one of the largest famines in documented history, and the country was brought to its knees.  Enter Hukou system.  In an attempt to reign in the losses and do damage control, the CCP enacted to full restrictive forces of the Household Registration system.  They bound individuals to their native region (that in which they were born) by preventing them from being able to receive social benefits in any other area.  In order to receive food rations, see a doctor, go to school and a wide variety of other civil benefits, you would need to be present within your home region and with a valid Hukou.  This forced the huge numbers of people within the cities to make an exodus back to the countryside, and kept them on the land as insurance against a repeat of the GLF.

Now this is a very simple overview of what exists as a very complicated apparatus, but you get the idea.  The main result was that the state was able to generate revenue through the collection of grain from the rural majority.  Everything that I listed above fell into the category of things that I did not understand at the beginning of my project.  I was only able to see Hukou for its restrictive aspects, and not for the major role that it played in the overall development of the nation.

Each time that I would arrive in my advisors office, draft in hand, he would read it over, make some notes, and then tell me to go back and look through my materials once more, indicating that I had once again missed the mark.  This happened many times, to the point that I was ready to give up on the whole thing, frustrated with feeling as though I was looking at the answer and not seeing it.  Finally, after many drafts and a whole box of red pens, I let go of my bias toward the system and tried to state the facts straight up;  did the system effect people in a negative manner?  Hell yeah it did, but at the same time it accomplished what it needed to, establishing a level of control as well as providing a means through which the government could feed its people, thus creating social stability.  It is a misunderstood system, a piece of political machinery so deeply embedded within the workings of modern China that its effects are seen across the board.  And as such, it was only right that my professor steer my project on the migrants in this direction, though I would have much preferred to hear about it directly and not have spent so much time playing guessing games.  Alas, I ramble.  Goodnight folks.

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