Migration and Welfare in Maoist China
By Bryan Caplan
The welfare state is an appealing rationale for migration restrictions. Normally, of course, it’s a rationale for international migration restrictions. In Maoist China, however, the urban welfare state swiftly became a rationale for restricting domestic migration from the countryside, enforced by mass deportation. As Frank Dikötter explains in his excellent new The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History 1962-1976:
As soon as the bamboo curtain came down in 1949, the new regime had started emptying the cities of entire categories of people described as a threat to social order and a drain on public resources. Prostitutes, paupers and pickpockets, as well as millions of refugees and disbanded soldiers, were sent to the countryside, which became the great dumping ground for undesirable elements. In the intervening years, as the household registration system imposed strict controls on the movement of people, a sometimes deadly game of cat and mouse developed… Migrant workers had no secure status, and risked expulsion back to the countryside at any time. Once in a while, a purge would cleanse the cities of people without proper documentation. Those who were caught were sent back to their villages, while hardened recidivists were dispatched to the gulag.
In 1958, at the height of the Great Leap Forward, as targets for industrial output were ceaselessly revised upwards, more than 15 million villagers moved to the city. But three years later, with the country bankrupt, 20 million people were deported back to the countryside.
The welfare state connection:
Class background mattered a great deal in the socialist state, but ultimately the inability to earn a living was a far greater stigma. Destitute members of society, in other words, were treated like pariahs. The economy was in the doldrums, and the state wanted to reduce the number of people who represented a drain on its resources. In many parts of the country the most vulnerable categories of people were sent into exile…
In Shanghai the authorities even envisaged reducing the population by one-third. As early as April 1968, all retired workers and those on sick leave were ordered back to the countryside without pension or medical support if they lacked the proper class credentials. A year and a half later, after more than 600,000 people had been deported, including students and other undesirable elements, a new plan proposed to increase the number of people earmarked for removal to a total of 3.5 million. Half of all medical workers were to be sent off, as well as all unemployed and retired people. Those suffering from chronic illness were added to the list. Even prisons were to be relocated outside the city limits. The plan was never fully implemented, but for years the population of Shangai stagnated around the 10 million mark.
When people claim that deporting millions of illegal immigrants from the United States is “impossible,” I always furrow my brow. With totalitarian brutality, it’s totally possible.