The hukou system, or Household Registration System, is a system of residence permits unique to China. It identifies a person as a resident of a particular area of the country and includes basic information such as date of birth and marital status. Under the old hukou system, which dated back to the Mao era of collective farming and a planned economy, each household accessed services from its place of registration, posing huge social problems for China's hundreds of millions of migrant workers and their families who had no access to schooling or medical care in the cities where they worked.
The key reason for people’s geographic mobility being linked very positively with their social mobility is the existence of the people’s household registration system (hukou system) in China. Under the Chinese hukou system, people with urban hukou enjoy social welfare privileges provided by both the central and the local government.
However, people who originate in rural areas cannot enjoy such welfare; they need to pay for everything themselves and the quality ofservices such as roads, water, education, healthcare in rural areas is much worse than in urban areas. Therefore, in most cases, once rural people move out of their villages and settle in urban areas they achieve a certain upward social mobility because they become the members of another group in urban areas (although the urban hukou may not available to them at all).
Supposedly dating back over 2,000 years, in fact it was first started incities in 1951 and extended to the rural areas in 1955. In the early years of the system, it served largely as a monitoring, not a control, mechanism of population movements. Due to the unexpected dramatic inflow of rural migrants to urban regions, the authorities issued a number of documents to control the huge domestic movement. When measures prompted by these state guidelines failed to stanch the population flow to major cities, hukou system was promulgated as a permanent system in 1958. But as this set of regulations was put into effect, the country was swept by the Great Leap Forward. As the top priority of the state shifted to accelerating industrial growth, this new legislation was simply brushed asided as urban enterprises stepped up recruitment of labor, prompting some super-high rates of rural-urban migration in 1958-1959.
In 1964, the central government started to put tight control on domestic migration. The State Council approved the Regulation of the Ministry of PublicSecurity on Hukou Change, which put tight control on migration to towns or cities fromthe countryside or to cities from towns. Consequently, from 1965 on, movement from rural to urban areas became virtually impossible because hukou was (and is) ascribed at birth based upon one’s mother’s hukou status, and could not be altered easily.
Since the beginning of economic reforms in 1978, China has witnessed one of the largest increases in urban-rural income inequality of all countries with comparable dataavailable (Yang 1999). Millions of individuals, known as rural-to-urban migrants, havecome to cities from rural areas to pursue economic opportunities and chances of better lives. Almost 150 million rural labors were currently working in various cities across China. This type of movement is unprecedented in Chinese history. Interestingly, in the absence of government support (in some cases governments at various levels even became an obstacle before the mid-1990s), rural people have managed their movement to the cities through personal channels. Guanxi networks play a very important role in the process of rural people’s movement into urban areas.
Local governments in provinces or cities in certain areas provide different rights to citizens, based on whether they have hukou. For many years, the Beijing municipal government issued temporary residence certificates to people without hukou who were studying, working or living in the Chinese capital to make their stay more convenient. However, people without hukou still faced inconveniences in obtaining hospital treatment, applying for driver’s licenses and benefiting from social security insurance.
The hukou, a household registration system, gives Chinese citizens access to social service such as public schooling and healthcare based on where the hukou is linked to, which makes it the golden key to settle down in big cities like Beijing. Life can become very inconvenient for people working in Beijing without a local hukou. The inconvenience of living in Beijing without hukou haunted many people's daily life and made them feel they are secondary-class citizens who did not belong to the city.
The hukou system was reformed in 2014 to supposedly rely on a person's place of residence and job rather than their birthplace, and officials promised at the time that the transfer of hukou registrations to another place would become possible. But the promises haven't made life easier in practice for migrants, with authorities still requiring a considerable laundry list of proofs and documentation that many have found hard to obtain. The DNA collection scheme could be linked to plans to open up the current household registration, or "hukou," system, to make it easier for rural residents to move into some of the smaller cities.
On Oct 1, as part of the reform of China’s residency system, Beijing began issuing residence certificates, ending the 31-year policy of temporary “stay cards” for residents without a Beijing hukou. Even though the ones who get the residence certificate still can’t obtain exactly the same services compared with local citizens, the new system has already provided more key services compared with the old one.
In October 2016 the State Council released a circular to urge rolling out plans to grant hukou to rural migrants living in urban areas with steady jobs. According to the circular, the urbanization rate of household registered population will rise an average of 1 percent each year, or more than 13 million people, during the 13th Five-Year Plan period (2016-2020).
By 2020, urbanization rate should reach 45 percent, a 2 percent drop from 2013 in the difference between urbanization rates of registered population with hukou and permanent residents. Except for a few megacities, restrictions on urban hukou should be eased for rural migrants, especially if they are moving to cities through education or military service, living in cities for over five years or with their families, and for the new generation of rural migrant workers.
For large and super cities, different hukou policies should be created for downtown areas, suburbs, and new districts according to occupation, residence, participation in social security, and years stayed. Medium and large cities should not set barriers on hukou for house purchasing, investment, or tax payment. Meanwhile, cities with a downtown permanent population below 3 million should not implement the credit-based hukou system.
The circular also called for more efforts to provide financial support for rural migrants’ urbanization. For cities absorbing more rural migrants, the central budget will provide support in infrastructure and affordable housing. Meanwhile, land usage of urban construction will be linked with urbanization of rural migrants to accommodate new residents.
The circular also urged improving financing for urban infrastructure construction, with work done to enhance information disclosure, rating, and issuing management of bonds, standardize debt financing of local governments, and promote cooperation between governments and social capital in urban public service and infrastructure building.
The State Council issued opinion documents on 25 December 2019 that called for the cancellation of hukou restrictions in all Chinese mainland cities with fewer than 3 million permanent residents. Hukou restrictions will be relaxed in cities with 3-5 million permanent residents and the system will be improved and simplified in major first- and second-tier cities. The issuance of the documents follows a recommendation in April by the state planner, the National Development and Reform Commission, to scrap restrictions on rural residents of cities with populations of between 1 million and 3 million. A vestige of the planned economy, the hukou system assigns each Chinese resident a jurisdiction of residence that determines their access to education, motor vehicles and a vast array of social welfare services.
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|