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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.