Every year, millions of China’s poorest and most vulnerable people are arrested on the streets of the nation’s cities merely because the way they look or speak identifies them clearly as “outsiders,” not native to the city in question, or because they are mentally ill or homeless. Yet before the release of a Human Rights in China report1 on the fate of such people, this routine, officially sanctioned practice of treating citizens like illegal immigrants in their own country had received virtually no attention internationally, and almost no critical reporting inside China.

Although the people detained are never charged with any crime or brought before a court, they can be locked up for anything from a few days to several months, generally in abysmal conditions; they then may be forcibly sent home. Many of the hundreds of Falun Gong practitioners who went to Beijing to register their opposition to the July 1999 ban on the meditation group have been held in this way. During the annual session of the National People’s Congress in March some of those who traveled to the capital to express their grievances were also detained.

These detentions are part of periodic urban “clean-ups” through which metropolitan authorities attempt to maintain the image of Chinese cities as a showcase for “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” They are carried out under regulations on “Custody and Repatriation,” which are intended to send people back to their place of origin if they don’t have official permission to live where they are found. This involves the arbitrary detention and expulsion from the city of people considered undesirable, such as beggars, street children, garbage collectors, prostitutes, the homeless, and the mentally ill, and also migrant workers and petitioners who have traveled to the national or provincial capitals to complain to the higher authorities.

The rules for Custody and Repatriation have long been a part of the Chinese system. At birth, every Chinese person is assigned to a particular location, called the household registration, or hukou. In addition, a person’s place of registration is categorized as either “agricultural” (rural) or “non-agricultural” (urban), and this division is used to enforce a system of segregation between urban and rural areas. Set up soon after 1949, the hukou formed the basis of a national economic and social structure that systematically favored the cities over the countryside, providing comprehensive welfare benefits to urban residents and leaving rural dwellers largely to fend for themselves.

While rural-urban segregation is not as strictly enforced as it once was, the policy of concentrating resources on the cities is still being followed. It is one of the many ironies of the history of contemporary China that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), after coming to power on the crest of a “peasant revolution,” has consistently discriminated against the country’s rural residents in the allocation of national resources. The hukou system and, in particular, Custody and Repatriation (C&R) are manifestations of this discrimination.

Since China’s economic reforms of the late 1970s, millions of farmers have left the land to seek work in the cities. The combination of the need for cheap labor and the relative relaxation of state controls over the movement of people has meant that the “floating population” of Chinese living away from their place of hukou registration now amounts to about 120 million people, according to the latest official figures. Rural workers are drawn to the export-processing industries that have sprung up in the coastal areas, particularly the southern province of Guangdong, as well as to construction projects. In the cities many are also engaged in petty trade, domestic work, the sex industry, and other service businesses.

But as temporary sojourners in the cities, rural dwellers are constantly at risk of falling afoul of the authorities. For their temporary stay in the city to be “legal,” they must obtain a number of different permits—among them a temporary residence permit from the police that in some places has to be renewed monthly, a work permit from the local labor bureau, a family planning permit, and a permit to rent accommodation. Confusingly, the system for applying for and issuing these documents is different in each city. Under the vague terms of national and local regulations governing C&R, those who fail to comply with the permit system can be detained at any time.

Although upward of two million people are detained under C&R every year, it has so far received no attention outside China, and little inside either. One of the reasons for this is that most of those arrested belong to some of the most marginal groups in society, generally referred to by the city authorities as “three not-haves” (sanwu renyuan)—i.e., having no papers, no job, and no fixed abode. Another is that dissidents have rarely been detained in this way.


Human rights activists, groups of UN experts, and Chinese legal scholars have long been urging the Chinese government to reform its laws governing detention. Under such pressure, some minimal safeguards have been erected to protect the rights of people arrested on suspicion of having committed criminal offenses, such as the requirement that the police charge them within thirty days of their initial detention. But the concentration on the criminal process and its treatment of detainees, important as it is, ignores the fact that large numbers of people in China are detained through administrative procedures. C&R is just one of a number of such “administrative” forms of detention used by the Chinese authorities.2 Officially, however, C&R is not “detention” but a “forcible administrative measure” that has nothing to do with the legal system and is not a punishment.

C&R is authorized by a national statute passed by China’s governing State Council in 1982, as well as by local regulations enacted by particular provinces and cities. The national regulations outline a system for detaining, “educating,” and sending home beggars and indigent rural people who are away from their place of hukou registration. This is officially categorized as a type of “welfare,” and, outside Beijing, all the detention centers holding C&R detainees are run by the civil affairs bureau, an agency which also administers orphanages and other welfare facilities.3 The police are charged with picking up people and taking them to the C&R centers.

Under the national and local regulations, although “guidelines” state that people should be sent home in a “timely fashion,” generally within a month, detention in C&R can be extended virtually indefinitely. There is no judicial procedure for determining whether such detention is appropriate; and there is no effective way for detainees to challenge their detention during the time they are in custody.

In most of the thirty-plus individual cases of C&R detention that Human Rights in China (HRIC) investigated, the people were first taken to a police station, then to an urban C&R “transfer station” from where they were dispatched after a couple of days to one of the large C&R camps outside the city. Detainees have to pay for their detention, or work to make the money to pay for it, and in most cases, the people we spoke to were “released on guarantee” after their family or friends paid a sum ranging from several hundred to over a thousand yuan4 to get them out. Evidently, C&R facilities have an incentive to maximize the number of paying “guests” they hold and minimize the number of genuinely destitute, since they are dependent on the “guarantees” to cover costs. While the detainees we spoke to in south China’s Guangdong province were held in custody for no more than ten days, those whose families did not come to bail them out were not sent home so quickly. The latter type of detainees have to work until they have paid for the cost of their board and lodging and their ticket home.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the scope of C&R expanded unchecked, as unpublished local administrative orders have added to the categories of people who may be subject to such custody. Thus, in practice, the use of C&R depends only on the perceived “needs” of urban authorities to detain certain types of people. Based on incomplete statistics—the government does not publish comprehensive figures for the number of people detained annually—HRIC believes that in the 1990s, the numbers of people detained under C&R have more than doubled from less than one million to over two million.5 A recent article by a Chinese scholar cites a ten-fold increase in the use of C&R in Shanghai in the first seven years of the 1990s.6

Of the people suffering in C&R detention most have been arrested for not having the proper documents to show that they were permitted to live and work in that particular city. Police pick up many in the course of ID checks in migrant neighborhoods. They often claim, with no evidence, that people have committed crimes or have fake documents.

For example, in July last year Mr. Wu from Hunan province was hawking herb jelly from his cart in Xiancun Village, Guangzhou, next to a man selling bicycle parts. The police arrested his neighbor, accusing him of having stolen the parts. Then the police said Mr. Wu had colluded with the parts seller, and took him away to a C&R center, ignoring his protests that all his papers were in order. This was his third such detention in three months, and he attributed this to his appearance and his inability to speak fluent Mandarin or Cantonese.


Articles published in Chinese professional journals for civil affairs department officials have said that the “vast majority” of detainees are now migrant workers. Surveys have found that even in cities where compliance with the system of permits for migrants is at its highest, 20 percent of migrants do not have the necessary permits to make their stay in the city “legal.” In the migrant enclave of Longgang in Shenzhen, the Special Economic Zone which has become a mecca for job seekers from the countryside, almost everyone had a story about being detained in C&R centers or helping their friends get out of them. It is common practice for factory managers to hold on to migrant workers’ permits so that they cannot quit without notice. Among C&R detainees interviewed by HRIC, many were in this situation, but police who picked them up refused to listen when they explained the reason why they were not carrying their documents.

But even having all the right papers is no guarantee. One evening in July 1999, a police patrol stopped Mr. Ling and asked him where he was from. Mr. Ling did not think of himself as an “ordinary” migrant. He pointed to his brand-name clothing and the certificate he holds stating that he is qualified as a trainer of factory technicians. When he told the police he was from Hubei province, the officer rudely asked him to show his ID card. Mr. Ling asked what crime he had committed for them to ask to see his ID. The police said that perhaps he had stolen the wallet he was carrying. This made Mr. Ling angry, and he took out his wallet to show the police his credit cards, driver’s license, technician’s certificate, and temporary residence permit. One police officer took his temporary residence permit and tore it up, saying: “What do you have now, then?” He was pushed into a prison van and sent to a C&R Center in Shenzhen’s Bao’an District. Mr. Ling’s indignant attitude earned him several beatings.

Many people suffering from acute mental illness or mental disabilities are also held in C&R centers, and most provincial regulations explicitly authorize this. The conditions in the C&R centers are hardly appropriate for such people, and may only serve to exacerbate acute conditions. This is partly an indication of a severe shortage of psychiatric hospitals and beds in China, as well as a dearth of outpatient mental health services of all kinds. According to most recent available estimates, China has only 140,000 psychiatric beds for its 1.2 billion people. Also, a very small proportion of the population has health care coverage that will pay for such treatment, so many families cannot afford to send relatives suffering acute psychiatric problems to a hospital.7

Homeless and runaway children are often to be found at C&R centers; official reports say they make up between 5 and 20 percent of the total. According to a study published last year, China now has an annual total of between 150,000 and 200,000 indigent children,8 while there is a serious shortage of orphanages, and foster care is almost nonexistent.

In all the C&R centers that HRIC investigated, children were routinely held together with adults. In Dajianshan C&R Center in rural Guangdong province, inmates reported that children as young as eight were in the regular cells and were forced to do dirty chores for the cell bullies. Boys over twelve were sent out to work in the fields with the men. Some children can get stuck in C&R centers for long periods when no one is interested in arranging for their long-term care. Local officials think people whose hukou is registered elsewhere are not their responsibility. Tong Yi, Wei Jingsheng’s former secretary who was held in the Changping C&R Center on the outskirts of Beijing in 1996, described the children she encountered:

There were ten children there altogether, aged three to fourteen, including disabled and retarded children. Some of them had been there for several years. It did not seem that there were any plans to send these children home. No one looked after them; their room was the dirtiest….

There was a girl named Xiao Qin, who had lost both her parents when she was twelve. She lived with her grandmother, but then decided to move in with a relative in Beijing to try to learn some skills. She took the train to Bei-jing by herself. After she got off the train, she asked a policeman whether he could help her find her uncle. Once the policeman found out that she was an orphan, he sent her to the C&R center. She had been held there for at least seven or eight months when I arrived. She had been told she would be kept there until she was eighteen, because her grandmother was unable to take care of her. She had asked to be sent to an orphanage, where she could at least go to school. The answer was always, “We are discussing this.”

The complete lack of supervisory systems, whether public or institutional, combined with the shortage of funds means that conditions inside the C&R centers are generally very abusive. In all but one of the C&R centers on which HRIC collected information, inmates are held in overcrowded conditions in large cells, sometimes with up to ninety inmates crammed into one room, sleeping on the floor or on a common platform. In most places, water is provided only at certain times of day. Windows are generally small and high up, so there is very little natural light or ventilation. Articles in official Chinese journals admit that many C&R centers are in dilapidated old buildings which are filled far beyond their intended capacity.

Inmates often have only tap water to drink. In most places in China, people boil water before drinking it, and in the absence of such precautions the inmates are liable to become sick. Many also develop skin problems and pest infestations, and they have little, if any, access to medical attention. Food is routinely dirty and of low quality. Huang Xiang, a dissident poet sent to a C&R center in Beijing in 1995, described the struggle for food there:

As for meals, there were no bowls or chopsticks…. The so-called meal was no meal at all. An iron cart was brought in. It had watery stuff in it with yellowish leaves. You couldn’t tell what dirty stuff was in that thing. When the cart arrived, the crowd would rush to it. Many people didn’t have any utensils and just stuck their head in and ate like pigs…. Those who could grab something in the fight would have something to eat, the others had no other way, and would go hungry. I went hungry for two days….

There was no water to drink because there was no boiled water at all. You were treated as an animal, not as a human being. We asked the person in charge for some water. He dragged a hose from the bathroom and poured water into our mouths. How could you drink like that?

Violence is common, with most inmates reporting beatings, abuse, and theft of personal belongings, both by guards and by other inmates. The system of “cell bosses,” bullies who are allowed by guards to exercise control over other detainees, is well entrenched in many C&R centers, even though most provincial regulations explicitly ban the practice.

Many inmates are required to do labor—mainly in the rural areas to which people are sent after being processed in an urban center. They frequently work twelve to fourteen hours per day, mostly doing farm chores. In some centers in Guangdong, inmates were sent out to work in neighboring electronics and shoe factories when these were short of workers.

The former inmates of the C&R system we spoke to were deeply resentful of the treatment they had received. Mr. Zhou, a migrant factory worker, said the entire experience had been a nightmare. “I was thinking that if nobody came to bail me out, I would commit suicide. It was such a hell in there.” Since he had disappeared for four days, Zhou lost the position of senior technician to which he had just been promoted.

Neither Mr. Zhou nor any of the others we spoke to saw anything they could do about their suffering. Inmates are generally not even permitted to make telephone calls, and some were forced to sign statements saying that they had not been beaten before officials would approve their release. Even if they could get the news out, censorship means the press can hardly ever report on the subject, and there are no independent groups or institutions to act as advocates for those detained under C&R. The atrocious abuse of people whose only crime is to be poor or from rural areas remains virtually invisible in China, except to those who have experienced it.

A much-repeated cliché in the international press today is that Chinese people now enjoy the freedom to choose their jobs, buy apartments, go to nightclubs, travel abroad, and buy all the consumer goods they like. With all this choice, it is said, people don’t really care much about things like freedom of expression and association. They accept restrictions on such freedoms in exchange for the right to make money.

But the reality is that although urban incomes have risen fast, inequality has increased even more rapidly and only a small proportion of Chinese people are reaping the fruits of the new consumer paradise. Many more are struggling to get by. The poor, particularly those in and from rural areas, are more likely to suffer from the arbitrary power of Chinese officialdom, since they don’t have the connections or the money to buy their way out of trouble. As HRIC’s investigation of C&R shows, the most vulnerable and powerless members of society are often subjected to even worse abuse than political dissidents.

The elements of a democratic system—freedom of expression and association, transparent and accountable government—can sometimes be even more important to the poorest members of society than to the well-to-do or the middle class. As Amartya Sen has pointed out in his analysis of the Asian economic crisis, this is especially so in times of economic downturn, such as the one China is now experiencing, when those living a marginal existence find their basic livelihoods under threat.9 Only when the poorer Chinese can freely make their voices heard, and independent advocates can help them to protect their rights, will the brutal discrimination of the hukou system and its C&R enforcement arm be exposed and redressed.

This Issue

May 11, 2000