China: Debating hukou reform

Earlier this month, thirteen Chinese newspapers joined forces in appealing to the National People's Congress’ 3,000 delegates for social reforms. They attacked China's hukou (household registration system), which severely limits the access of rural migrant workers to basic services in China’s metropolises. The editorial affirmed,

China has endured the bitterness of its household registration system for so long! (…) We hold that individuals are born free, possessing the right to move freely!


The system is anachronistic and troubling our great masses to this day. (…) It has reached a point that people’s anger cannot be quelled unless there is reform of the system.

Yet it did not take long for one of its authors to be ousted. The Economic Observer’s deputy editor in chief, Zhang Hong, was removed from his position less than a fortnight after the editorial's release, and the paper’s other top editors received harsh warning from the authorities. In response, Zhang released this letter (translated by the WSJ) explaining the reasoning behind the editorial. He said,

I have a firm conviction that legislation that disregards the dignity and freedom of the people will ultimately land on the rubbish heap of history. I hope that this system will ultimately be abolished. When the time comes I believe that many people will burst into tears from happiness and run around spreading the news. As a media person, I can only do my utmost to fulfill my duties and obligations, and each of us should also assume our respective duties and obligations.

The hukou system was adopted in the late 1950s to control population movement. It ties households and citizens to particular places of residence (both urban and rural), and in so doing determines the social benefits one is eligible for. Many government services, such as housing, education, healthcare and police protection, are tied to one's hukou. To add insult to injury, the chances of changing it from one place to another are slim, as Canadian blogger Don Tai has outlined.

Consequently, the system lags behind the mass exodus of rural migrant workers that land in China's cities. Such migrants are limited to their rural hukou, and so they are by definition not eligible for the social benefits enjoyed by their established urban resident neighbours. As a result, they often live in dire conditions, as this chinaSMACK article illustrated. Husunzi from China Study Group explains:

For those rural residents who are not thus forced to become urban residents, if they chose to work in urban areas they are (as is well publicised) treated as second-class citizens and detained or sent home as soon as they try to stand up for their interests (just like immigrant workers in the US and many other countries).

Therefore, to quote Stan Abrams from China Hearsay, the system “doesn't make sense for China’s modern economy that relies on a more dynamic labour sector.”

Zhang Hong and his comrades are not the only ones who feel the system should be reformed. Dissident Yu Jie says,

they [government officials] have never thought about the peasants, and the ‘prosperity’ that they designed for China had nothing to do with peasants — more than 1 billion peasants are simply ‘passed over’ lightly by them.

C. Custer from ChinaGeeks has also translated the following comments from blogger Wan Xiaodao:

If you let rural people become city people, the labor force in the city increases greatly, and the problem of not finding workers would be easily solved. In industrial parks build laborer areas, the houses need not be too good but they must be strong and the prices can’t be too high, no higher than 10,000 RMB […] Haha, it seems I’ve let my imagination run wild. Of course, if things were this way, it would lead to many problems, rural people would vie to be the first to get to the city, and what would we do with no one left to farm the earth?

The blogosphere has been ablaze with discussion from all viewpoints over the ramifications of the hukou system. One issue Chinese netizens seem most disgruntled with is education, as the country's hyper-competitive system is made even more challenging for non-local residents who are unable to take advantage of better schools. As one netizen wrote on KDS,

Those children being able to study is still better than having them run wild outside, basic elementary school enrollment is simply inadequate, this is a fact, many primary schools have been combined or closed. Moreover, migrant workers’ children have [sic] always been a [social] issue, and no matter what you say, migrant workers have still made a very large contribution to this city. There is no good reason (…) to attack this kind of issue. As for [the migrant workers] having more than one child issue…what, now you guys don’t talk about human rights and freedoms?

But not all opinion is so sympathetic, with anger and fear fuelling some arguments. According to another KDS forum goer,

Shanghainese children are taught by their parents from when they are small to be reasonable and have manners, so they will definitely be bullied if they are put together with hard disks raised in the wild. Looks like in the future, our children will have to start learning karate or taekwondo from when they are small.

A controversial Tianya post also protested against policies allegedly favouring rural citizens:

Why do metropolitan citizens have to spend millions to buy the housing in cities? Why can we not have a homestead in the rural areas to build our own affordable houses?


Why is there so much government welfare given to people in rural areas? On what basis? Are rural people born superior?

Both spectrums of opinion are not falling on entirely deaf ears. Premier Wen Jiabao addressed the need for further reforms of the system in a recent public Internet chat session. However, here too it was felt that several quesitons were left unanswered, as expressed by blogger Han Song.

How is genuine hukou reform to be reached, then, asks the East Asia Forum?

It would make sense for the government to consider opening local hukou registers to skilled migrant labourers with regular employment, whether in the small or big cities. China badly needs these workers to help move manufacturing up the value chain (…) a local hukou would allow [these] workers to receive health, retirement and unemployment benefits, and would entitle them to send their children to local schools.

As Stan Abrams says, it is also in the Central Government's own interest to push forward with change, in order to progress its fight against local corruption:

To the extent that the hukou system gives local officials the power to discriminate, to pick winners and losers, corruption naturally follows. Just another natural reason for the Central Government (…)  to get onboard [with hukou reform].

Indeed, during the recent NPC session, Premier Wen announced that hukou restrictions would be relaxed in towns and small- and medium-sized cities. But dedicated efforts need to be made in following through with such pledges. Fundamentally, Zhang Hong and his co-authors are correct in that change needs to be accelerated. Without deeper changes, the chasm between China's haves and have-nots will only continue to widen.


  • Good summary of the issue, and thanks for mentioning my post. Just for the record, the purpose of my post was to point out how left perspectives in China differ from the well-known liberal perspectives on the hukou issue expressed in the March 1 statement from the 13 newspapers. In short, many on the left in China worry that simply abolishing the hukou system will cause more harm than good for the rural poor, since their access to farmland is tied to their rural hukou. In fact it’s becoming increasingly common for people who have switched to urban hukou to try to restore their original rural hukou, since the benefits of urban residence have eroded and farmland has become more valuable for rent or subsistence. Critics on the left accuse liberal calls for hukou reform of representing the interests of urban real estate speculators, since hukou reform would make it easier for them to snatch up farmland.

  • […] There’s been a lot of coverage on China’s hukou system. Tania Branigan has looked at how migrants’ children are bearing the brunt of the household registration, and provided video footage here. Carl Minzner from the LA Times has also written this op-ed outlining the changes necessary in hukou reform. Finally, yours truly has also looked at what bloggers have to say on Global Voices. […]

  • […] than to have slums. Now, China’s hukou system has been criticized a lot as explained in this article which is blocked here (an example of the internet restrictions here). But to the Chinese, India’s […]

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