The recent forced eviction of thousands of migrant workers from Beijing (see this ChinaFile discussion for an overview) has been a rather depressing confirmation of what I wrote about in my socialist urbanization series of posts earlier this year. China’s urbanization policy is, unfortunately, still captive to a vision of top-down management of population flows with its origins in socialist planning.
While there were campaigns to push migrants out of Beijing earlier this year, the latest one has been notably harsher, and has attracted much more public criticism. I can’t begin to sort through everything, but one interesting tidbit did turn up in the flood of online commentary. An article from 2016, describing a 1955 campaign to expel rural migrants from Tianjin, has been reposted across the Chinese internet–without additional commentary, since the parallels are pretty obvious to everyone.
After Tianjin’s port opened in 1860, rural villagers gradually developed a tradition of seeking work there, because of Tianjin’s advantageous geographical location and transport links, along with the difficult conditions in surrounding rural villages. After the foundation of New China [in 1949], the spontaneous movement of peasants into Tianjin did not decline. In just seven days in March 1953, more than 1,450 people “blindly” moved into urban districts. In the year from January 1954 to February 1955, the rural population migrating to Tianjin reached 119,923 people.
From the perspective of the government, peasants “blindly” migrating to Tianjin was not beneficial to the city or the countryside. Therefore, in 1955 Tianjin carried out its first campaign-style program of “mobilizing the blind inflows of people into Tianjin to return to the villages and work.” This program used many kinds of mobilization strategies simultaneously, and in the end, many tens of thousands of rural migrants in Tianjin were successfully returned to their villages. In the following decade, the Tianjin government repeatedly organized campaigns to return peasants to their villages, but generally their methods were based on the 1955 campaign.
The government was fairly worried about all the peasants moving on their own into the city. At the time, the Tianjin Municipal Committee said: “After these people move in, the vast majority do not find work, and become part of the city’s consumer population, adding to the burden on the government.” But this statement is not entirely consistent with the actual situation at the time, and did not help people understand the true reasons why rural people were moving to the city. According to the statistics of one police station in Tianjin for February, April and October of 1954, “after these people came to the city, 21% found steady employment, and 23% found irregular employment.” That is to say, in the area covered by this police station, 44% of the rural migrant population had found work. …
One of the ways peasants would make a living in Tianjin was to use city friends or relatives, or the labor market in Wandezhuang, to find positions as temporary workers or apprentices in factories, mines, enterprises and shops. Another was for them to carry their own simple tools and walk down the streets and alleys asking for work. …In fact at the time, because grain rationing had not yet been implemented in the cities, and urban wages were fairly high, they could feed their families. From the perspective of the peasants, moving to the city is the natural result of a rational calculation.
But this was not the case from the government perspective. The development strategy of prioritizing heavy industry limited the ability of the city’s labor market to absorb new workers. According to statistics, every 100 million yuan of investment in light industry would require 16,000 workers, but the same investment in heavy industry would require only 5,000 workers. … After the start of the heavy industry construction under the First Five-Year Plan, investment in commerce and services gradually declined. One result was that people’s life in the city became less convenient, it became harder to find places to eat or make clothes; another result was that the number of job openings shrank, and Tianjin’s job market could not absorb all the people coming from the countryside.
The large-scale migration of peasants also reduced the farm labor force and threatened agricultural stability, and with it the national plan for economic development. The propaganda of the time said: “if agricultural development cannot keep up with the demands of industrial development, and industry cannot obtain sufficient supplies of grain and raw materials, socialist industrialization cannot be achieved.”
Overall, from the government perspective, the “blind” migration of peasants to the city damaged the order of the nation’s planned economy, worsened the pressure on urban employment, reduced the productivity of the countryside and affected agricultural output. It’s worth pointing out that in 1953 and 1954, Tianjin carried out two operations to discourage rural migration, but because only regular methods were employed, they were not very effective.
Because of the increasingly serious in-migration problem, in 1955 the Tianjin Municipal Committee decided to launch the first focused, citywide operation to mobilize the migrant population to return to the villages, led by the Party committee and the government and assisted by multiple departments. This operation required all work units to “take effective measures to ensure the migrant population in a planned and step-by-step manner returns to their villages to participate in production, and to prevent continued blind inflows of external population to the city in the future.” Designated as a project with “historical significance for the work of socialist transformation,” it was Tianjin’s first campaign-style peasant mobilization since 1949, and policymakers had high expectations for its success.
“Propaganda and education” was very important to the mobilization work. Compared with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the Chinese Communist Party is better at techniques of “persuasion and education,” and these were used the most. … But in practice Tianjin also used administrative measures relating to labor, household registration and grain to consolidate and expand the initial results of the mobilization campaign.
From 1949 to 1954, the city government’s administration of hukou was fairly relaxed. During this period, due to the relevant provisions of the “Common Program” [the temporary constitution of 1949] on the right to freedom of movement, Tianjin basically did not restrict the transfer of hukou and migrants could apply for an urban hukou as long as they had migration permits. However with the 1955 campaign to mobilize peasants to return to their, such a relaxed policy was no longer appropriate, and in July the Tianjin Municipal Committee restricted the hukou registration of “people blindly entering Tianjin from the countryside or other places.” However, the ability of the household registration system to control migration would not have been great without its being linked to grain supply and employment.
In August 1955, the State Council and Tianjin Municipality announced the start of the grain rationing system in Tianjin. Each resident of Tianjin would be issued grain vouchers for a fixed amount of grain, depending on their work and age, and grain would be supplied according to the vouchers. Without a Tianjin urban hukou, it was not possible to complete the procedures to obtain grain vouchers, and thus impossible to buy grain. The supply of grain was also limited: in 1955, the first allocation plan called for distributing an average of 26.51 pounds per person, 2.81 pounds less than the original plan. Many people felt that this was not enough to entertain friends or family, or make festive dishes for the holidays. Because the grain quotas could only satisfy, or not even completely satisfy, their own needs, urban residents found it difficult to assist their rural friends and relatives.
For those unemployed workers that fit the profile of those to be returned to their villages, the Tianjin municipal employment agencies stopped providing job placement services, and stopped or delayed their unemployment relief. In May 1955, the Tianjin Administration of Industry & Commerce also carried out a campaign to ban unlicensed street vendors, and to mobilize rural street vendors to return to their villages. In August 1955, the effort was expanded to licensed street vendors who met the requirements for being returned to their villages. To encourage the vendors to leave, state-owned companies stopped supplying them with goods, and local police stations limited the distribution of grain vouchers. By the second half of 1955, those peasants doing business on the streets of Tianjin could tell which way the wind was blowing. …
By mid-February 1956, when the mobilization campaign concluded, 126,324 peasants in Tianjin had been mobilized to return to their cities, and the flow of population into the city had been greatly reduced. …
Before the founding of New China, the Chinese Communist Party thought of peasants as the predecessors of workers, and that therefore in the future many millions of peasants would enter the cities and work in factories. But after the founding of New China, the government did not welcome the rural population spontaneously flowing into the cities. It thought that the building of the nation must be carried out in a planned and organized manner, and that peasants must not be blindly drawn into the cities.
The author is Wang Linran, a historian at Nankai University in Tianjin. The Chinese citation for the original article is 王凛然,《“进城”与“还乡”：1955年农民“盲目”进津与政府应对》, 《史林》，2016年，第4期，第157-168页.