The forced encampment by the Chinese Communist Party of nearly 2 million members of minority groups in China’s western Xinjiang province is perhaps the largest coerced collectivization of humanity since the Soviet Union disbanded its Gulag prison system. Torture, forced sterilization, and forced labor are the hallmarks. The world has taken notice: Global companies and foreign leaders are raising concerns, and there is a burgeoning movement to boycott next year’s Winter Olympics in Beijing.
But while the world recognizes the undeniable scale of this tragedy, it is not paying much attention to another method of 20th-century totalitarian domination that the CCP is emulating. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has institutionalized discrimination by an elite, relatively wealthy minority against the rest of the population on a scale and with a degree of deliberation unseen since the apartheid-era in South Africa.
China’s apartheid system is based on the longstanding practice of hukou, a ruthless permanent caste system maintained with vigor by the party. Hukou has in common with South African apartheid decades of social and economic domination by an entrenched minority — in this case, the urban political and economic class of the Chinese Communist Party — over the majority population. South African apartheid allowed generations of white Afrikaner leaders in government and business to maintain both economic and social control over the majority (black) population. Similarly, in China, the CCP depends on hukou to control the 900 million rural poor while relying on their cheap labor to keep so-called first-tier cities afloat. The urban elite and middle class in Beijing, Shanghai, and other tier-one cities accept the system without reservation or even much recognition, much as their South African counterparts did.
China’s apartheid relies on an internal-passport system that follows the bearer for his or her life. The system is straightforward: You are born urban or born rural, and you carry that with you until you die. This designation is enforced through an intricate system of quotas and restricted access to schools, jobs, health care, and the social safety net (such as one exists in the PRC).
The government uses the restrictions to control urban migration, throttling it to ensure sufficient labor for the fast-growing cities. Hundreds of millions of rural migrants to the cities form a permanent underclass, granted access to services — health care, education, unemployment stipends — only at the level available to their rural hukou status. In their book Invisible China, Stanford University scholar Scott Rozelle and researcher Natalie Hell write that the system has created two Chinas: the Republic of Urban China and the Republic of Rural China. While Rural China citizens can travel to Urban China, they write, “even if rural parents move from their villages to the big cities for work . . . they are not legally entitled to send their kids to urban public schools or to access urban public hospitals.” Since there is not enough access to urban jobs or services for the roughly two-thirds of China that has rural hukou status, migration to cities often splits rural families apart. Fathers or mothers or older sons may migrate to the city, leaving daughters and grandparents behind.
Chinese apartheid thus sustains the vast disparity in incomes between the cities and the countryside, where the World Bank estimates — and the CCP generally acknowledges — that hundreds of millions live on about $5 per day. While the wealth gap in the United States is decried by progressive politicians, it is no coincidence that a recent analysis of OECD data for 24/7 Wall Street and USA Today placed South Africa and China — the modern era’s premiere practitioners of apartheid — at No. 1 and No. 2 on the list of top 15 countries with the widest disparity between rich and poor. Both systems depend on systemic chauvinist policies by a prosperous advantaged minority against an impoverished majority. But what South Africa abandoned, China continues.
The hukou works alongside another program known as dibao. Begun as a means-tested basic income for lower-income urban dwellers, the system is now in place across the country. In the hands of Xi Jinping’s CCP, dibao is just another form of economic and social control, helping to maintain the apartheid system. According to a recent analysis in SupChina by Alexis Smith, the government intrusively monitors each stipend recipient, relying upon neighbors and others in the community to report whether the individual is living beyond his or her means. This affects the recipient’s ability to take a higher-paying job, pursue an education, or seek other ways to improve his or her station in life. The system also contributes to the widespread practice of neighbors spying on neighbors to curry favor with local government officials.
Chinese apartheid also is instrumental in the CCP’s projection of China’s strength to the world. Beijing has created the perception that it can control economic and social mobility, manage its growth in an orderly fashion, and sustain its prosperity. In fact, China’s apartheid is a sign of profound weakness and fragility, just as South Africa’s was. Maintaining such a tight rein over most of the population to the benefit of urban party officials and their vast network of acolytes — including and especially the entire business class and public officials at every level of government — requires constant surveillance and ensures, in return, constant lies and deception. Economic projections are a web of misinformation from the local party officials all the way to the top, each layer determined not to be the one to suggest that its portion of the rigged system is failing.
The danger this poses takes many forms. For instance, what bridge or rail inspector will dare acknowledge that a hastily constructed project that depends on cheap migrant labor might be faulty? As a result, building collapses, rail and bridge catastrophes, dam failures, and other infrastructure tragedies are common in China.
Given the CCP’s tight control over publicly available information, such disasters often are not reported. In a New York Times piece in 2015 entitled “Beware of China’s Safety Record,” Chinese writer Murong Xuecun wrote that when such disasters occur, “the only government competence on show is with information control: hiding facts, forbidding media reporting and rapidly closing social media accounts suspected of spreading ‘rumors.”’
Or consider the so-called Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This is China’s subsidized infrastructure diplomacy, which the CCP wants the world to see as global soft-power projection and as a sign of Beijing’s global influence. A feature of the program, though, is that hukou and its endemic corruption are being exported. Many BRI projects in partner countries require the use of cheap imported Chinese labor as a condition of the deals. This suggests that BRI is not soft power, but a projection of China’s weakness, with potentially dangerous results. Reuters reported in 2019 that BRI agreements call for about 30 nuclear-power plants to be built by 2030 in dozens of countries around the world by Chinese state-owned companies. But Murong noted in the New York Times that, “from everything we know of Chinese building and supervision practices, an accident in a Chinese nuclear power station is just a question of when and where.”
Of course, the United States and its democratic allies and partners have their challenges and imbalances. But transparency, accountability, and the ability to self-correct are hallmarks of democratic capitalism. These correctives do not exist in China, and the trends are in the other direction. Technology is allowing for even greater control by the CCP over the everyday lives of its citizens in every dimension.
By contrast, there is worry in the U.S. and elsewhere about the deleterious impact of Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other social media on democratic norms. This will be managed through the democratic process that will attempt to find equilibrium. As always, it will involve a legislative balancing act. In the end, voters will hold leaders accountable.
In China, that cannot happen because all those platforms are banned and there is no voter voice, even as the CCP relies on facial recognition, data capture, monitoring of digital bank activity, and other forms of techno-totalitarianism. While that may reflect the power of the state, it shows not strength but weakness and fear — fear of its own people.
South African apartheid was brought down by its own inconsistencies, by courageous internal reformers, and by global consensus that apartheid was in the same class as slavery and piracy and had to end. Ultimately, it failed because it was a profound source of true weakness in the South African body politic and society. The same is true for Chinese apartheid.