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Something I’d heard about vaguely before I went to China and was hoping to learn more about on my trip was the system of internal controls on migration—the hukou cards or residency permits. But when I asked some hosts/minders about it I was assured there were no controls on internal migration, and none of the various local officials we spoke to ever mentioned anything about one unprompted. And yet, “trust but verify” seems like a good motto on a tour of that sort, and it doesn’t take much googling to see that there is, indeed, an important system of controls on internal migration in place and that it’s a subject of considerable political controversy in China. (None-too-persuasive efforts were made to convince us that there are no political controversies in China).

The basic story, as I understand it, is that at first glance you’d think the massive economic disparities between the major coastal cities and the rural and interior areas would lead to a huge flow of people toward coastal areas of opportunity. It doesn’t, however, because people aren’t allowed to just go move to Shanghai or Beijing. Or rather you can move to the big city, but you can’t avail yourself of any social services if you move. Which means, among other things, that your kids can’t go to school. So if you move to Shanghai, you tend to leave your family behind (school, you know), and live as a migrant laborer. And if you lose your job, instead of getting any unemployment insurance or other social welfare benefits, you’re supposed to move back to the countryside and live on your farm.

My guess is that this helps explain why the largest metropolitan areas in China are smaller than the biggest metros in other big countries like the U.S., India, Japan, Indonesia, and Brazil.

At any rate, like much else in Chinese politics the status quo is pretty illiberal but it was much worse in the past and there’s continued talk of further reform. Recently, the country’s major daily papers all simultaneously editorialized in favor of abolishing hukou, an unusual act of apparent defiance that Wen Liao plausibly conjectures should be seen as representing disagreements inside the political elite. Back in March when this happened, Kam Wing Chan of the University of Washington published a brief analysis of the most recent reforms and offered suggestions for more robust reforms.

Something I got interested in over there is the question of to what extent this system creates a mass constituency for authoritarianism. Intuitively, this system couldn’t persist in a democracy. But the class of privileged permit-holders is pretty large and the privileges involved seem non-trivial. It’s not simply a case of access to better jobs for yourself, but access to a better future for your children. Entrance to universities is controlled by examination, so if you have a permit to live in a place where the schools do a good job of prepping kids for the exam, they’re in good shape. I’ve seen a fair amount of recent commentary about anti-democratic attitudes among China’s urban bourgeoisie and it seems to me that desire to preserve this system could plausibly be a driver of said attitudes.

That’s all pretty speculative, however, and I don’t have a great deal of confidence in my understanding of the relevant issues. Recommendations for good up-to-date further reading would be appreciated.