Intermarriage and Social Exclusion in China

Wang, Yu and Christine R. Schwartz
Working paper no. 2015-01


Hukou is a key status marker in contemporary China. Urban Hukou status conveys large economic benefits such as preferential access to good schools, prestigious occupations, and state-subsidized welfare benefits. As such, trends in Hukou intermarriage convey important but previously underappreciated information about social mobility in China. This article examines trends in Hukou intermarriage between 1958 and 2008. We find that Hukou intermarriage is surprisingly common and has grown steadily since 1985. Hypotheses derived from Western contexts do little to explain this trend. Educational expansion, changes in availability, and increased inequality each fail to explain the trend in ways predicted in prior work. A common hypothesis is that increased inequality should reduce intermarriage by making it more costly for individuals to “marry down.” We find the opposite in China–increasing inequality is associated with increasing Hukou intermarriage, which suggests that the costs of marrying down may be outweighed by the incentives in this context. Our results also suggest that administrative changes in the ease of Hukou conversion play a large role in increased intermarriage. These findings highlight the uniqueness of the Chinese case and suggest that standard hypotheses about assortative mating may not be applicable in contexts with strong state controlled social boundaries.