Steve's China Blog

Friday, March 12, 2010


I have not done much lately that has been worth posting about, so I thought I would talk about some things in China that I have not talked about before. One of the things that is interesting here is some thing called hokou (户口 hùkǒu), which is a system of residency permits for citizens of China. The system was originally introduced in ancient times to help keep track of people for taxation and conscription purposes, and it also became a method of social control by the communist party in the 1950's.

Basically, your hukou ties you to where you are born and allows the government to control the movement of its citizens, especially between rural and urban areas. If someone resides in a place and they do not have a hokou for that place then they can not officially get a job, a place to live, education for their children, health care, get married, etc..., and you can be detained by police and deported back to your permanent residency location.

Although a person is required to live in the area designated on their hokou, in practice the system has largely broken down. After Chinese market reforms, it became possible for some to unofficially migrate and get a job without a valid permit. Since the 1980s, an estimated 200 million Chinese (about half the population of the US) live outside their officially-registered areas, with much less access to education and government services, and in several respects occupy a social and economic status similar to illegal immigrants.

To move your hokou from one place to another is not very easy, but it is easier today than it was in the past. I have a friend here at work who wants to marry her boyfriend, but their hokou are from two different places, so they can not get married. They are in the process of moving his hokou from another city in another province to Chengdu. Seems like a major bureaucratic pain the butt.

This sort of reminds me of the internal passport system that existed in the Soviet Union. Communist countries always seem to want control of every little aspect of everyone's life. I wouldn't be surprised if the regime in Washington comes up with something similar for the US (under the guise of controlling immigration and/or health care costs, no doubt).