Three decades after Deng Xiaoping unleashed his market reforms, resentment over China's internal immigration policy -- particularly the hukou registration system -- has finally boiled over. On March 1, 13 state-run newspapers, including the well-regarded Economic Observer, simultaneously carried a front-page editorial calling for the system to be abolished because of the "invisible fetters" it placed on all Chinese citizens. The government seemed wise to the growing resentment, with Premier Wen Jiabao promising to reform the system in an online chat days before the editorial came out and announcing some reforms today. But the unprecedented outcry from the press still caught many in Beijing off guard. So is the Fourth Estate beginning to flex its muscles in China?
Not really. It is hard to imagine that the papers brandished the editorial without advance official sanction. Although one editor might have had the courage to risk his career with the editorial, organizing so visible a joint protest would have brought severe punishment had it not received some wink of approval from on high. Indeed, it is more likely that the government recognized that it needed to fix the hukou system and decided to appease resentment over it in advance of the just convened National People's Congress (NPC) -- during which the Chinese Communist Party will try to stifle or hide all evidence of a house increasingly divided.
The hukou system, modeled on the Stalinist propiska (which also lingers on in today's Russia), effectively controls internal immigration: The government decides how many people can move their registration from one, usually rural, district into another, usually urban, one. People who move to another part of the country without permission risk losing basic rights. They cannot officially live or work anywhere. Their children cannot get schooling; they cannot get medicine. (On a personal note, when I wanted to get married in China in 2006, I could not do so in a civil registration because, having lived abroad, I could not produce a hukou.) Unless illegal migrants can bribe a local official to transfer their papers, they become a refugee in their own country.
The lack of a hukou and its corresponding rights and privileges is why most migrant workers -- the vast majority of whom are male -- rarely bring their families with them when they move to a city seeking work. And, as it impacts China's huge number of internal migrants (estimates place the number between 100 million and 150 million), it -- alongside the relentless petty corruptions of Chinese society -- is a major point of public anger.