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Population Characteristics, Migration

hukou, perceived differences, urban migration, Chinese citizens, western China

In the 1950s and 1960s China sought to alleviate the increasing population pressure in the east by encouraging Han people to migrate westward. The government also hoped the migration would help secure the sensitive frontier areas of the west and northwest. These areas lay far from the center of government, and the people who lived there had fewer cultural and historic ties to Beijing. However, in recent years Han migration to western China has slowed. Most of the population growth there has resulted from a comparatively higher birth rate and declining death rate among non-Han peoples. Meanwhile, the government also sought to control rural-to-urban migration because there were not enough urban jobs for additional city workers. To control the movement of all Chinese citizens, the government instituted a household registration (hukou) system in the late 1950s. Similar to an internal passport system, it allowed no one to move without police permission. Such permission typically was granted only to individuals who had obtained a job in a state-supported enterprise. Most rural people were denied the right to move off their farm or out of their village, even to a neighboring town.

During the political upheavals of China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the government sent urban youth to rural areas to live and work among the peasants. This program attempted to lessen the perceived differences in income and material well-being between city and countryside. The government was also motivated by its inability to provide sufficient food for the populations of China’s growing cities. Forced migration to the countryside decreased after the death of Communist leader Mao Zedong in 1976. Economic reforms adopted in 1978 virtually eliminated the practice. However, the government still controls migration from rural areas to urban areas through the household registration system.

Beginning in the late 1970s the government permitted limited and temporary migration to the cities. This move came about in part because a booming economy had created the need for unskilled workers in construction and low-level service jobs. As a result of this migration, China’s cities now have two classes of urban citizens. One class works in state-supported enterprises and receives housing, schooling for children, health care, and other subsidies. The other class consists of those who have migrated to cities as transients to work in construction, manufacturing, domestic service, or other low-wage positions. Many temporary migrants do not have proper housing, sanitary facilities, or access to medical care or educational opportunities for their children. Despite these deprivations and difficulties, peasants continue to migrate to cities because they perceive the opportunities for employment and the quality of life to be better. Even so, China’s population remains predominantly rural. In 2000, 68 percent of the total population lived in the countryside.

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