Town and Country in Modern China

In this paper I will argue that the divide between rural and urban areas is the most prominent cause of inequality in China today. To convey this point I will first show that the Mao regime favored industry and cities at the expense of the countryside during and after the Great Leap Forward. Next I will argue that the reform period that began in the 1980s exacerbated inequalities between town and country. Finally, I will argue that institutional barriers in the present day in the realm of education are most restrictive for rural citizens. My ultimate goal is to evoke an image of favoritism toward urban residents and sustained, institutionalized discrimination against rural citizens during the last half century of Chinese history.

The Mao regime pursued policies that had detrimental effects upon the Chinese countryside. A recent article in Economic and Political Weekly noted that the state “has structured inequality in the form of rural-urban hierarchy, producing what in essence is an unequal citizenship regime.” Lee and Selden look to the actions of the Chinese government during and after the Great Leap Forward in order to discern the origins of this hierarchy. Following the failure of the Great Leap Forward to place China on an industrial par with the West, the state tightened the household registration (hukou) system that had been instituted in 1955. As Lee and Selden note, the effect of this policy was to “lock rural people into their villages and cut off most remaining intra-rural and urban-rural exchanges that were not sanctioned and controlled by the state” (Lee and Selden, p. 29). Furthermore, the state requisitioned grain from the countryside at artificially low prices in order to feed the urban population, a policy that worsened famine when it was augmented by rural cadres’ exaggerated reports of grain production.

Discrimination toward the countryside under Mao did not end with grain requisition. Lee and Selden identify the social benefits that accrued to urban residents under the hukou system during the Chairman’s tenure. In spite of low wages, city dwellers received cash incomes—whereas peasants received payment in kind—guaranteed lifetime employment, pensions, healthcare, subsidized rations, and superior schools. “The result,” comment the authors, “was a formal two-track system differentiating city and countryside, state sector and collective enterprises with hukou as the mediating institution” (Lee and Selden, p. 30). The authors adduce the high percentage of the 10-30 million deaths resulting from the Great Leap Forward that occurred in the countryside as an illustration of the consequences of these discriminatory policies.

Compounding the hukou designations and the grain requisitions were the regime’s multiple attempts to “send down” urban dwellers to the countryside, a practice that exhausted much needed rural resources. By sending 20 million urban workers to the countryside in 1961, Lee and Selden note, the state “shifted its burden of feeding and providing work for them in famine times to a countryside that already had a large labour [sic] surplus and confronted acute hunger” (Lee and Selden, p. 30). Here we see the Chinese state’s exploitative manipulation of population controls, which it continues to use today by tolerating migrant laborers without extending the benefits of urban citizenship to them—thus benefitting from their cheap labor without assuming the costs of providing them with social security. This was not the only wave of urban dwellers to be “sent down” to rural communities. Between 1964 and 1976, around 20 million urban schoolchildren were moved out of the cities. “Ostensibly,” comment Lee and Selden, these forced migrations were meant “to bridge the urban-rural gap through their contributions as farmers to rural development” (Lee and Selden, p. 30). “In fact,” they continue, the movement “relieved the state of the obligation to provide jobs and benefits for them,” for “to be sent down was to lose (in most cases permanently) the largesse of the state.” By this account, the Mao regime seems to have viewed the countryside as an auxiliary to the cities.

Inequality between urban and rural areas did not improve with the marketization of the Chinese economy during the 1980s. All indications are that the chasm between town and country has widened during the reform period. An article published in MIT’s Review of Economics and Statistics makes this point particularly vivid. “Chinese income inequality,” write Ximing Wu and Jeffrey M. Perloff, “rose substantially from 1985 to 2001 because of increases in inequality within urban and rural areas and the widening rural-urban income gap.” Wu and Perloff report that some scholars believe “the rural-urban income gap is the driving force for increased overall inequality” (Wu and Perloff, p. 764). Furthermore, they contradict Kuznets (1953)—who wrote about inequality in developing countries—in suggesting that the “institutional structure of China” will prevent adjustments that might equalize the distribution of income from occurring. Though “migrants from rural areas may seek jobs in urban areas,” they write, “China’s strict residence registration system usually prevents them from obtaining urban residence status (and hence access to the welfare benefits and subsidies and higher-paying jobs enjoyed by urban residents).” We see, then, that the restrictive consequences of China’s hukou system have by no means abated since Deng Xiaoping’s ascension.

Indeed, Wu and Perloff see the restrictions placed upon migrant workers and rural peasants as one factor ensuring the continuance of socioeconomic inequality in China. “If barriers to migration remain,” they argue, “then inequality is unlikely to diminish in the future” (Wu and Perloff, p. 764). As we will see, access to education and social services in China hinges upon the possession of an urban hukou, from which rural residents and migrant laborers are restricted. These hukou restrictions—originally instituted by the Chinese Communist Party to provide for the urban proletariat it hoped would usher in the age of industrialization—have congealed into a system for perpetuating inequality in the countryside. A large part of rising income and consumption inequality, argue Wu and Perloff, stems from the fact that “the Chinese government restricts free migration from rural to urban areas” (Wu and Perloff, p. 774). Yet, “even if such migration were permitted,” they note, “it probably is not possible for the urban economy to accommodate the majority of the gigantic rural population,” and thus “gaps between rural and urban incomes may persist and cause overall inequality to rise for an extended period.”

Lee and Selden corroborate this bleak analysis. “Class labels,” they write in reference “both to social class origins (chengfen) and spatial class designations (hukou),” “have been constitutive elements defining not only changing economic and social positions but also political positions and subjectivities in Chinese society from the revolutionary epoch of the 1940s through the reforms of the 1980s to the present” (Lee and Selden, p. 28). Though “relaxation of certain hukou restrictions since the 1980s has made possible the flood of migrant labourers [sic] into Chinese cities,” they note, “the second class citizenship and stigma on rural residents, including those who have lived and worked in cities for decades,” has not been eliminated (Lee and Selden, p. 30). “Even in today’s cities,” they continue, “access to education for migrants’ children, housing subsidies helping employees to purchase their homes, and even voting rights still hinge on having a local urban hukou” (emphasis in the original). The effect of this requirement—as the authors note above—is to prevent migrant laborers who have resided in cities for decades for from availing themselves of the social services offered to native urbanites. In spite of the household registration system’s origins in the 1950s, “it has only been in the reform period since the 1970s that the implications of wide disparities between rural and urban residents have been widely recognized in terms of discriminatory citizenship practices,” a fact most vividly illustrated by “the blatant, at times even fatal, abuse sustained by migrants as a result of the hukou system” (Lee and Selden, p. 30).

Such abuse—and, more broadly, the socioeconomic divide between rural and urban residents—is particularly egregious in the realm of education. Jacka, Kipnis, and Sargeson have noted the difficulties that migrant workers encounter when it comes to enrolling their children in urban schools. “Migrant workers,” they write, “sometimes have difficulty enrolling their children in schools because they do not hold a local hukou (household registration), because some urban public schools discriminate against migrant children, either charging them higher fees or denying them entry.” Furthermore, in China universities favor residents of the provinces in which they are located in their admissions decisions. “Consequently,” write the authors, “it is easier for students from provinces with a higher number of universities (especially prestigious universities) per capita to get into a good university than those from other provinces” (Jacka, p. 163). Such universities are overwhelmingly located on China’s urbanized, eastern seaboard. “Most notoriously,” continue Jacka and her colleagues, “many of the best universities in the country, including Peking University and Qinghua University, are located in Beijing, and a student who holds a Beijing hukou can get into a Beijing university with a much lower UEE score than students from other parts of the country.” College admissions, we see, are heavily tilted in favor of urban schoolchildren. Added to this institutionalized discrimination is the poor quality of rural elementary and middle schools. “In the most impoverished of rural areas, the schools are not good enough to give students a chance of competing with those from wealthier districts in the race to secure academic senior secondary school places” (Jacka, p. 171). In this fashion rural students are confronted with institutional inequalities even before the college admissions process.

The evidence presented above clearly demonstrates that governmental discrimination against rural residents has been a preeminent feature of modern Chinese society, and has had major implications in accentuating inequalities between town and country. The Mao regime sought to make the countryside an adjunct of its rush to industrialize along Western lines. This legacy is reflected today in the social inequalities perpetuated by the household registration system, which disenfranchises rural residents, migrant laborers, and their children. The inequalities resulting from this institutionalized discrimination are particularly evident in the realm of education, where rural students face an uphill battle to compete with their urban counterparts. The rural-urban divide, we have seen, is an imminent and perennial problem for the Chinese government.


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