BEIJING — Han Chun and her daughter make for a pair of unlikely phantoms.
They look real enough, a mother and toddler struggling to get by on the western edge of Beijing. Friends call Han by name. She shops at the local market alongside her neighbors. Two-year-old Han Ye romps with playmates at a nearby day-care center.
Together with Han's husband, they seem the model of a hard-working Chinese family. Yet by the city's reckoning, Han Chun and Han Ye are complete nonentities: invisible and unacknowledged, officially null and void.
What consigns them to this shadowy purgatory is their lack of the proper permits to live in Beijing. Han comes from a poor village in eastern China. Though she has been married to a native Beijinger for four years, and though Han Ye was born in the Chinese capital, neither mother nor daughter is recognized as a legitimate resident.
They are victims of one of the world's biggest experiments in social control: China's household registration system, a stubborn relic of the old command economy that some experts have likened to South Africa's former apartheid system.
For decades, the policy has severely restricted where Chinese can live and work, tying most of the nation's 1.3 billion people to the places they were born and walling off society into rigid rural and urban populations.
The market reforms of the last 20 years have poked holes in the system, allowing freer movement and creating a vast pool of internal migrants who leave their villages in the countryside to seek better fortunes in China's bursting cities.
The plight of these undocumented workers is similar to that of illegal immigrants in the U.S. Migrant laborers occupy the lowest rung of the urban social ladder and are blamed for increasing crime and relegated to jobs no one else wants--sweeping restaurant floors and gleaning recyclable items from garbage dumps. They qualify for none of the benefits that legal city residents expect as their due, from health care to pensions to schooling for their children.
Government Moves to Ease the Rules
In October, the Chinese government finally began to catch up with reality by easing the rules somewhat, allowing peasant farmers to move to 20,000 smaller towns and cities across the country and to apply for a coveted urban hukou, the Chinese term for household registration.
Officials know that freer movement of labor is crucial for China's continued economic development, especially after its entry into the World Trade Organization this month.
"The registration system that has existed for more than 40 years is being slowly dismantled," the Guangming Daily newspaper said. "The idea that peasants can become city dwellers is no longer just a dream."
The word "slowly," however, is the key.
The relaxed regulations do not cover major hubs like Beijing or Shanghai, two of China's most affluent cities and most alluring destinations.
And despite improved prospects for many migrants, the loosened rules still overlook countless others, including a particular subset of people like Han Chun: rural folk whose only "mistake" was to marry urbanites.
There are millions of such cases, residents penalized simply because of whom they fell in love with, often forced to live like second-class citizens. And, experts say, almost all of these people are women.
Here in Beijing, they make up a large proportion of the estimated 820,000 non-permit-holding long-term residents (excluding temporary migrant workers) out of a population of 14 million. Collectively, these women are known as waijiajing--"outside" women married to Beijing men.
For them, life is often harsher than it is for the single young women who come here from the countryside looking for work and often bounce around in search of jobs. Many ultimately go back to their hometowns to settle down.
But the waijiajing are captive to their adopted city, anchored by their responsibilities as wives and mothers. They no longer belong to their old villages, but neither are they officially welcomed or acknowledged in their new environment. They live in limbo.
"Their situations are worse than migrant girls," said Li Tao, a journalist who has researched the problem. "As wives of Beijingers, they can't move on to other cities looking for work," yet they also lose their inheritances and land rights back in their home villages.
"Many of these women are very disappointed but are nonetheless strong," Li said, "which is why I admire them."
Han, 35, came to Beijing 10 years ago on an educational fellowship--the chance of a lifetime for a young woman from backwater Anhui province who had to drop out of school so that her impoverished parents could send her brothers instead.
"It was my bridge to the city," said Han, who brims with the hard-won confidence of one who is self-taught. "I wanted to find a way here to learn, to try out new surroundings, maybe look for work."
Like Mother, Like Daughter