In China, you have to ask the government for permission before you move from one part of the country to another. That policy faces increasingly vocal opposition from Chinese journalists and academics–a controversy that suggests both how far China has traveled on the road toward liberalism and how far it still has to go.
"In a market economy, the right to seek employment is fundamental," Chinese economist Mao Yushi recently told The New York Times. "If that opportunity is blocked, how can people earn their bread?"
Mao had in mind the rules that prevent residents of rural areas, often desperate for work, from moving to cities. Beijing authorities, who want to reduce the number of rural migrants in the city, have declared 103 employment categories, including jobs in the tourist and hospitality industries, off-limits to them.
Such restrictions are aimed at placating city residents by shielding them from competition. "It is understandable that urban administrators, facing employment pressures from laid-off workers, will want to play up local protectionism," The China Business Times observed in an editorial last month.
But this protectionism is hardly consistent with the shift from central planning to markets, or with the Chinese government's avowed commitment to free trade. "I can't believe what I'm seeing and hearing," a reader who had recently returned from Japan wrote in The China Youth Daily. "A country that is enthusiastically demanding to join the World Trade Organization is treating its precious labor resources as a burden and inhibiting the economic interests, the very livelihoods, of tens of millions of rural laborers."
As such criticism indicates, opponents of the government's attempts to control where people live and work are concerned about justice as well as efficiency. "This issue goes beyond economics," Mao told the Times. "It's an issue of human rights."
In the United States, where people see the ability to move wherever they can find work as a fundamental aspect of what it means to be free, that argument ought to resonate. And it does–up to a point.
You can move from Nome to Key West or from Honolulu to Bangor in search of a better life without getting official approval from anyone. Not so if you want to move from Tijuana to San Diego or from Toronto to Buffalo.
The standard explanation for such distinctions revolves around the concepts of citizenship and sovereignty. But these terms seem to do little more than restate the puzzle: "Citizens" are the privileged ones who get to live and work in a particular place, because the government that exercises "sovereignty" there says so.
How different is this kind of preferential treatment from the control that Chinese officials try to exert, for which they are condemned by international observers as well as domestic critics? The resemblance between the two situations seems pretty strong.
The U.S. government, like the Chinese, claims to believe in free trade. But it makes exceptions for certain categories of contraband, including stolen property, biological weapons, and human labor.
In the United States, as in China, the people who are barred from jobs are generally poorer and therefore less choosy than the natives whom the restrictions are intended to protect. In both places, employers have trouble hiring people for jobs that natives are reluctant to take.
Last month The China Economic Times noted that vacancies for nannies, delivery men, and other low-paid workers were going unfilled because "Beijing locals turned up their noses at them." Meanwhile, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has sharply curtailed workplace raids aimed at illegal immigrants, conceding that employers facing a tight labor market need them to staff their laundries and restaurants.
"It is just the market at work, drawing people to jobs," said one INS official, "and the INS has chosen to concentrate its actions on aliens who are a danger to the community." The real question is not why the INS has lately changed its focus but why it ever went after aliens who were not "a danger to the community," who wanted only to make a living in peace.
Most Americans would agree that fear of such people does not justify blocking immigration from the Chinese countryside to Beijing, or from New York to California. If there's a compelling reason why a different standard should apply to immigration between countries, I haven't heard it yet.