You’ve Seen Global Outrage Against Indian Caste System. Have You Ever Heard About China’s Hukou, A System Made Worse By Communists?

You’ve Seen Global Outrage Against Indian Caste System. Have You Ever Heard About China’s Hukou, A System Made Worse By Communists?

by Aravindan Neelakandan - Apr 29, 2020 11:44 AM +05:30 IST
You’ve Seen Global Outrage Against Indian Caste System. Have You Ever Heard About China’s Hukou, A System Made Worse By Communists?A Chinese construction worker. 
  • How the global media is selective in its reports about caste discrimination and social exclusion in India and China.

Social hierarchies and social exclusions exist in all the societies. In pre-modern societies, they were mostly birth based or clan based. Historical factors like colonial expansion and colonial impoverishment have made these hierarchies and exclusions flexible and rigid.

However, it is only in the context of India that social hierarchy and social exclusion are used to essentialise Hindu culture and religion, as if they alone define Indian culture and society.

In an unbiased world of media, academia and polity, jaati system would be considered as one among the many cultural variants of social hierarchies and discrimination.

Jaati and varna would be studied for its pros and cons as well as fundamental deficiencies in the context of historical dynamics. Not only does that not happen but also such systems, which are more malevolent and define the very economy in certain cultures, are strategically underplayed in media.

Consider the following event.

Scholar John Flower and his wife from the United States was attending a village festival in an exotic Asian country. It was deep inside the countryside. A 17-year-old girl from the village was acting as the guide for the couple.

At the end of the day, they decided to visit the village animal husbandry bureau. The official offered them chairs. The couple asked the girl to sit in the chair and the girl obliged. As soon as she sat, the official, even as she was talking to the couple, forcefully lifted the girl from the chair and made her stand. The officer continued talking as if nothing had happened.

Later, when the couple asked the girl, who tried to act as if nothing had happened, about the incident she mumbled "we lower castes always run into this kind of incident”.

If someone is asked where this event happened, the answer would be, unhesitatingly, India. One might even blame Hinduism.

But the above incident happened in the small city of Ya’an in Western Sichuan province of China in 1992. The girl, Yao Suhai, muttered to Flower and his wife, "we peasants (nongmin) always run into that kind of thing”.

Had the event happened in a Hindu village, perhaps, it would have even made its way to magazines such as Frontline or Outlook. Flower would have been invited to dozens of literary festivals across India – from Jaipur to Thiruvananthapuram – as the expert on Indian culture.

But it happened in China.

So, the incident recorded in 1992 in the field notes of Flower would appear in 2001 in an academic publication titled "Post-Socialist Peasant? Rural and Urban Constructions of Identity in Eastern Europe, East Africa and the Former Soviet Union" (Ed D Kaneff, Springer, 2001).

The Designed System

Traditional Chinese society had its own social discrimination like any other premodern society. The system called Hukou (Huji) allowed the authorities to assign a person’s place, role and resources available to him or her at birth. The system was inherently biased against the ‘peasants’ or in traditional Indian terminology the ‘shudras’.

It severely restricted the access of a peasant to quality education, medical services and a decent lifestyle. But like most traditional systems encountering modernity, it was undergoing changes for the better in pre-Mao China – and like most traditional hierarchies it was flexible.

One would have expected the great revolutionary Mao Zedong to abolish the Hukou system lock stock and barrel. But despite all lip service to socialism and equality and also ruthless experiments in Stalinist style, Mao actually made the Hukou even more rigid but profitable to the state machinery and party bureau elite.

As industrialisation and modernisation started peasants from villages started moving to urban areas. Leaders of Communist Party China detested this. Despite the explicit and exhibited hatred for tradition that Maoists showed, the party leaders did not hesitate to quote the admonition of traditional Chinese scholar Guo Tinglin: "When the masses dwell in the villages, order prevails; when the masses flock to the cities, disorder prevails”.

Initially the system was based on where a person was residing. From 1959 onward, the system became birth based and the residency status became inheritable. The anti-peasant masterstroke of Maoist regime is that the inheritance was not patrilineal but matrilineal.

Historian Professor Glen Peterson explains:

By assigning hukou status through the maternal parent, the opportunity for upwardly mobile fathers to bequeath urban hukou status to their offspring was eliminated. … Hukou controls were the state’s primary mechanism for allocating - and denying - access to a wide range of state-supplied goods and services: schooling, food, housing, employment, consumer products, and other benefits. Following the great famine of 1959-61, moreover, China’s leaders came to regard a peasantry bound legally and permanently to the land as the most effective means of guaranteeing the country’s precarious food supply.
The Power of Words: Literacy and Revolution in South China, 1949-95, Pages 121-2

So here, one has a system that is birth based, and removed any possibility of upward mobility and then strictly decides allocation of resources and services – from food to health, standard of education to type of employment, strictly on the basis of that birth-based division.

It was only in 1998 that Hukou inheritance was made possible "by the biological or adoptive father’s hukou”.

The Intended Impacts

The way this birth based division changed literacy in China is quite revealing.

In India, the Maoist-Marxist narrative accuses Manu and Hinduism for denying education to the masses which was quite untrue.

In the case of China, Maoism did exactly the same in quite a diabolical way.

Peterson writes:

After 1949, these traditional stimuli to literacy were either eliminated or driven underground. Literate specialists were denounced and forced to renounce their former ‘feudal’ occupations. ... The hukou system made urban state schools - which were always remote from villagers - effectively out of the reach of most production team children.

Peterson says there were only three ways a child under peasant Hukou could get education:

One was to join the Communist Party, a second was to join the army, and a third was to gain entry to the state school system. Of the three, entrance to state schools appears to have been the most rare. Literacy and education were means of advancement under the collective system - but only within the closed corporate confines of the production team or brigade.

This apartheid in education stems from another deeper historical fact. While in the traditional system, the social exclusion was against those then considered as residing in the fringe or as socially undesirables.

So, the social exclusion never enveloped the entire masses thoroughly. But in the case of People’s Republic of China (PRC), the system was designed and implemented to specifically exclude the masses.

Dr Fei-Ling Wang, Professor at Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, who as late as 2005 had to depend inevitably on 'anonymous interviews' from China for his book on Hukou system, points out:

China’s imperial hukou system functioned as a quasi-institutional exclusion. In addition to the location-determined population immobility, there always lingered an inherited hukou categorization of various noble clans, ordinary people (mainly peasants), and various low-class clans (slaves, floaters, untouchables such as paupers or prostitutes). In the last two dynasties (Ming and Qing), the legally equal ordinary people were categorized into four inherited hukou types: military, peasants, merchants, and handicraft workers. They had the same legal status but frequently different and adjustable treatment regarding tax burden and the right to participate in the imperial examinations, as well as the right to move. Several categories of low-class clans were further excluded. ... Unlike the current PRC hukou system, however, the imperial hukou system formally excluded not the majority of the population but mainly the socially undesirable minority or fringe groups.
Organizing Through Division and Exclusion: China’s Hukou System, Stanford University Press, 2005, Page 39

While in India, knowledge has been sought across all strata of society for liberation and seeking of truth, in China it has been for becoming ‘an official’ – a surprising resonance with Macaulay’s "education for creating clerks".

Only in the Chinese case, it was even worse. Anthropologists Sulamith Potter and Jack Potter (whom Peterson also quotes) explains the situation in their detailed study "China's peasants: The anthropology of a revolution" (Cambridge University Press, 1991):

As a result, from the point of view of social control, Maoist Zengbu was a kind of bureaucratic feudalism, with party cadres closely controlling peasants who had been structurally immobilized in their teams. Peasants were separated from urban residents by legal restrictions creating a caste-like barrier against both geographical and social mobility that was virtually impenetrable. If one was born a peasant, one remained a peasant for life and was not free to leave one’s team. The structural similarities between Maoist bureaucratic serfdom and the classical forms of European feudal serfdom are clear. The Maoist peasant was fixed as firmly in his team as the serfs of feudal Europe were fixed on the manor. By fixing peasants on the land, and having the team control their labor, the Maoist state created a set of serf-like conditions more classically “feudal” than the pre-Liberation society, in which peasants controlled their own labor, and could leave their villages.
(emphasis not in the original)

What we have in China is then not an evolved system of social hierarchy and exclusion as in India, a situation which forces of social emancipation within the very Indian culture have always been striving to change through reforms, legislation and democracy.

What we have in Maoist regime is an imposed structure of social discrimination, which is designed with the singular aim of benefiting largely the elite and their posterity.

The Curious Case Of Missing Global Outrage

At the same time if one looks at comparative studies of India and China, say made in 1980s, one finds that India’s caste system is always pointed out while Hukou is seldom mentioned.

For example, there is a paper comparing "Chinese and Indian education systems" by Robert Arnove in the journal Comparative Education Review (August 1984). The paper mentions caste 28 times in Indian context but Hukou is not mentioned at all.

Though the paper touches upon the cadre/non-cadre divide and even points to the better educational infrastructure of urban China, it does not point out the Hukou system, which was a birth based serf-system.

In 2008, Pallavi Aiyar, who worked as China bureau chief for The Hindu, published a book on China which too never touched upon the Hukou system.

Always well-known within informed circles and surprisingly well documented still Hukou is paradoxically the dragon in the room never discussed except for a handful of reports in the media. Unlike caste studies and study of ‘Brahminism’ which has become major ‘cottage industry’ for every ‘South Asian’ department in the West, there is no flourishing ‘cottage industry’ studying Hukou system.

There are studies that show that Hukou system adversely affects human potential very similar to caste system.

For example, a study published in 2015 showed that making the lower Hukou identity salient, reduces relatively the students' academic performance and ranking ("Social identity and inequality: The impact of China's hukou system", Journal of Public Economics, Vol 123, March 2015).

The study itself was derived and expanded upon another study that showed how making the 'low' caste identity salient affected student performance in India. While this shows that Hukou system affects the individuals in the same way as caste discrimination, there is an important difference.

In India, society at large, reformers and the state fight against caste discrimination while in China the state has designed and imposed the system. As Prof Wang points out Hukou is a system that "serves as the basis for a nationally uniform institutional exclusion with a scope, rigidity, effectiveness, and resilience rarely seen elsewhere."

In his recent book The Myth of Chinese Capitalism, author Dexter Roberts, who reported on economics and business from Beijing for two decades, points out how central Hukou is to the success of present China:

By ensuring that migrants remained an underclass in the cities, the hukou also guaranteed that there would be no end to China’s pliable, low-cost labor force; with little recourse, legal or otherwise, most migrants accepted, albeit unhappily, the meager wages and poor working conditions. That in turn was to underpin the rapid GDP growth China experienced over the last several decades. As Chan wrote, the policy is perhaps China’s best-kept secret behind its unprecedented economic growth. And so a policy that sacrificed the living standards of rural workers to ensure cheap raw materials for industry and food for elite urbanites, once central for industrialization, now had a new role: ensuring that China had the labor force necessary for the current era. Excessively long work hours and harried workers under the yoke of the hukou would support the rise of China’s export-oriented economy. 
(emphasis not in the original)

In the ultimate analysis, Mao ended up creating a state machinery which in turn imposed a huge serfdom, which would eventually provide cheap labour for the Western capitalism.

Perhaps, that may be the reason why the Western media is by and large silent about the system and definitely does not essentialise the PRC with Hukou, though the Maoist Reich deserves such essentialising better than Hindu society with the ill effects of caste system.

Perhaps, this may also explain why despite being well-known Hukou also continues to be the well-kept secret, discussed at best in the periphery.

Let us take the example of pandemic reporting.

There are reports about Hukou system and how Chinese officials are relaxing the rules.

However, there are no atrocity literature based on Hukou despite it being the world’s largest state sponsored birth-based system of discrimination and serfdom.

Just a comparison of this strategic mention and silence over the number of atrocity or discrimination claim stories peddled in the Western media shows the kind of bias that exists in the global media.

While these biased stories are being written about, the Hindu organisations and the government have been working on humanitarian aid without any caste discrimination.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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