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Friday, July 26, 2013

Can Vietnam Hold Back the Tide of Urbanization?

It turns out that Vietnam has a household registration system (ho khau) borrowed directly from China (where it is called hukou) to keep track of people by keeping them in their place. Lien Hoang has an article in today's New York Times describing this system and digging into its history and, even more importantly, its current policy implications.
Although the country no longer rations food, it has kept ho khau in place, in the hopes of staving off a population explosion in the cities. Not only has the policy failed to accomplish that, but it has created, in a country that professes classlessness, a group of second-class citizens.
In the controlled free market that has now largely supplanted the subsidy system, Vietnamese rely less on the state for basic goods and services and so have much more incentive to go where the jobs are. Many private businesses don’t ask for ho khau when hiring.
There are no statistics on the number of undocumented migrants, according to Nguyen Thi Hong-Xoan, dean of sociology at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City. But Hong-Xoan, who wrote her doctoral thesis on ho khau, told me that most people don’t change their paperwork when they move. And according to the 2009 census net migration from the countryside to the cities was 1.4 million people between 2004 and 2008. The figure was 770,000 people for the five years leading up to the 1999 census.
The government has just cracked down on these "illegal migrants" in Hanoi, and the fear is that this will spread to other cities, as well, deepening the divide between those who can legally live in cities and those who cannot. As Lien Hoang points out, this has created a class system in Vietnam (as it did in China) in a supposedly classless society, because economic opportunity is much greater in cities than in the countryside ("How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm, After they've seen Paree'?)

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