Clos­ing a di­vide

Hukou re­form is lev­el­ing play­ing field be­tween ur­ban, ru­ral

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tact the writer at du­juan@chi­

Edi­tor’s note: This is the se­cond in a se­ries of spe­cial re­ports look­ing at the ef­fects of the hukou, the house­hold reg­is­tra­tion sys­tem, on the lives of or­di­nary cit­i­zens who have left their homes to work in other ar­eas and re­gions. More re­ports will fol­low in the weeks to come.

‘Allmy ef­fort and sac­ri­fices turned out to be worth­while when I got that lit­tle piece of pa­per,” said 57-year-old Jin Tong (not her real name), her eyes glow­ing with tears and pride.

“That lit­tle piece of pa­per” was hukou — the cer­tifi­cate that em­bod­ies China’s house­hold reg­is­tra­tion sys­tem— and Jin craved an ur­ban hukou, rather than its ru­ral coun­ter­part.

The sys­tem was in­tro­duced in 1958, at the end of a decade in which mas­sive con­struc­tion projects were un­der­taken in the wake of the foun­da­tion of the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China.

The con­struc­tion wave, which saw hun­dreds of thou­sands of ru­ral res­i­dents rush to cities in search of jobs, proved prob­lem­atic be­cause al­though the new work­ers were ur­gently needed, their ar­rival swamped gov­ern­ment ser­vices in ur­ban ar­eas. As a coun­ter­mea­sure, the au­thor­i­ties an­nounced that only ru­ral res­i­dents with let­ters of in­tro­duc­tion to em­ploy­ers would be al­lowed to leave the coun­try­side per­ma­nently.

It was against this back­ground that the hukou sys­tem, which drew a clear dis­tinc­tion be­tween ru­ral and ur­ban cit­i­zen­ship, was of­fi­cially in­tro­duced.

A dream of es­cape

Jin was born in a vil­lage in the sub­urbs of Yuncheng, a city in Shanxi province, and as she was grow­ing up dur­ing the 1960s and 70s, her dear­est dream was “to leave the place I was born”.

“I was tired of do­ing farm work day after day. Sim­ply be­ing with the soil and sun was the most bor­ing thing in life,” she said. “I wanted to see the world out­side my vil­lage. How­ever, after I failed the na­tional col­lege en­trance exam there seemed no way out.”

At the time, only non-ur­ban­ites who car­ried stu­dent cer­tifi­cates, em­ployee ID cards or mil­i­tary of­fi­cers’ cards could apply for ur­ban hukou, so­most ru­ral peo­ple had no op­tion but to stay in their vil­lages.

“I vis­ited nearby cities when I was a teenager, and I liked the clean roads, shops, schools and build­ings,” Jin said. “I wanted a life in a city so­much­more than a life farm­ing at home.”

The last straw came when her first se­ri­ous re­la­tion­ship ended be­cause her boyfriend’s par­ents ob­jected to her “ru­ral iden­tity”, which ex­cluded her from legally ob­tain­ing a job in a city. More­over, in Shanxi at the time, ac hild’ shuk­ouw as de­ter­mined by their mother’ s sta­tus, so any chil­dren that re­sulted from their mar­riage would be clas­si­fied as ru­ral res­i­dents.

“I met my first love in high school, but, like his par­ents, he held ur­ban hukou. After grad­u­a­tion, he lis­tened to his par­ents and de­cided to leave me be­cause they found him a job in Yuncheng city (which re­quired ur­ban hukou), while I had to stay inmy vil­lage,” Jin said.

After that, she de­cided that no child of hers would have to en­dure the same ex­pe­ri­ence, so she moved to Yuncheng.

“I found a tem­po­rary job wait­ing ta­bles in a restau­rant, get­ting very low pay and fac­ing the risk of dis­missal at any time. I met my fu­ture hus­band there. He had hukou in the city. Again, when we spoke about mar­riage, we faced strong op­po­si­tion from his fam­ily,” Jin said. “Luck­ily, he chose to stay by my side and was de­ter­mined to marry me at any cost.”


De­spite her mar­riage, Jin still didn’t qual­ify for ur­ban hukou, so even­tu­ally she re­sorted to sub­terfuge.

Eight years after the mar­riage, a rel­a­tive-in-law who was close to re­tire­ment agreed to ex­change her ur­ban hukou for Jin’s ru­ral cer­tifi­cate. The deal cost Jin and her hus­band a siz­able sum of money and while not tech­ni­cally il­le­gal — it didn’t abuse the city’s re­sources, sim­ply sub­sti­tuted one name for an­other — it wasn’t en­tirely le­gal ei­ther.

Jin said she would never for­get that day in De­cem­ber 1995: “I fi­nally be­came an ur­ban cit­i­zen. I would never again be looked down upon be­cause I was born in a vil­lage. My child could go to schools in the city and be treated equally like the other kids.”

Al­though her move from ru­ral to ur­ban res­i­dent took 10 years, Jin has no com­plaints about the hukou sys­tem.

“Al­though I didn’t re­ceive a high level of ed­u­ca­tion, I know the gov­ern­ment has its own dif­fi­cul­ties,” she said. “China was poor at that time. Re­sources, such as food, ed­u­ca­tion and jobs, were lim­ited, so it was rea­son­able to al­lo­cate them to ur­ban res­i­dents first. Farm­ers at least had land to feed them­selves.”

As the econ­omy soared un­der the re­form and open­ing-pol­icy de­mand for la­bor in cities rose quickly, lead­ing au­thor­i­ties to scrap a reg­u­la­tion that lim­ited ru­ral res­i­dents’ vis­its to cities to just six months. Those who worked in cities for long pe­ri­ods, usu­ally with­out hukou, quickly ac­quired the name “mi­grant work­ers”.

In­evitable re­sult

Wang Taiyuan, a pro­fes­sor at the Peo­ple’s Pub­lic Se­cu­rity Uni­ver­sity of China, said the hukou sys­tem was the in­evitable re­sult of the planned econ­omy.

“The dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion be­tween ur­ban and ru­ral hukou is nar­row­ing as so­ci­ety de­vel­ops,” he said. “How­ever, peo­ple with ru­ral hukou still face ob­sta­cles in cities, such as lower wages and lim­ited ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion and health­care. How­ever, the rea­son for this is not the sys­tem it­self, but the cur­rent stage of so­cial development.”

In 2014, the State Coun­cil, China’s Cab­i­net, pub­lished re­form guid­ance in an at­tempt to elim­i­nate the dif­fer­ences be­tween ru­ral and ur­ban hukou. In fu­ture, they will both be called res­i­den­tial hukou, and al­though the process is on­go­ing, many prov­inces have al­ready scrapped the dis­tinc­tion. Bei­jing aban­doned it in June.

The guid­ance also urged the end of a ban on hukou reg­is­tra­tion in small cities to grad­u­ally ease the big cities’ con­trol of reg­is­tra­tion, al­though pop­u­la­tion num­bers in megac­i­ties will still be strictly con­trolled.

By Septem­ber, as many as 30 prov­inces and re­gions had pub­lished plans for re­form, with some is­su­ing clear timeta­bles for change, and lo­cal gov­ern­ments have pledged to pro­vide all res­i­dents with the same level of pub­lic ser­vices, pro­vid­ing they meet the reg­is­tra­tion re­quire­ments.

“The re­form is aimed at giv­ing equal rights to ev­ery­one qual­i­fied (by the type of work they do) to live in cities,” Wang said.

No guar­an­tees

In the past, peo­ple with ur­ban hukou were pro­vided with life’s ne­ces­si­ties, in­clud­ing food, jobs, ed­u­ca­tion and med­i­cal ser­vices. Now, hav­ing an ur­ban hukou doesn’t guar­an­tee an easy life, Wang said.

For ex­am­ple, a per­son who holds ur­ban hukou in Yuncheng but works in Bei­jing will still face prob­lems ed­u­cat­ing their chil­dren be­cause only chil­dren with Bei­jing hukou can at­tend the city’s pub­lic schools.

Mean­while, about 1 mil­lion res­i­dents with Bei­jing hukou are un­able to find work in the city, ac­cord­ing to Wang, and many cou­ples find it al­most im­pos­si­ble to gain ad­mit­tance to a ma­ter­nity hos­pi­tal be­cause there is an acute short­age of ob­stet­rics ser­vices.

More­over, soar­ing real es­tate prices make it ex­tremely dif­fi­cult for res­i­dents to buy an apart­ment, ir­re­spec­tive of whether they hold Bei­jing hukou or not.

“It’s un­fair to blame the hukou sys­tem for all the chal­lenges we meet dur­ing the coun­try’s development,” said Wang, who added that in most medium and small cities, the old prob­lems as­so­ci­ated with ur­ban or ru­ral hukou are now al­most non-ex­is­tent.

Jin said she wel­comes the re­forms be­cause they will make life eas­ier for peo­ple like her, who long to change their lives. After all, if she had been born 30 years later, she might not have had to make so many sac­ri­fices just to ob­tain “that lit­tle piece of pa­per”.

The dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion be­tween ur­ban and ru­ral hukou is nar­row­ing as so­ci­ety de­vel­ops.” Wang Taiyuan, a pro­fes­sor at the Peo­ple’s Pub­lic Se­cu­rity Uni­ver­sity of China


A po­lice of­fi­cer helps ap­pli­cants to change their house­hold reg­is­tra­tion in­for­ma­tion in Wuyi county, Zhe­jiang province, after the county scrapped the dis­tinc­tion be­tween ru­ral and ur­ban hukou in April.


Work­ers re­pair a road in front of newly built houses in Gong­shan, a vil­lage in Rizhao city, Shan­dong province. The in­fra­struc­ture is grad­u­ally im­prov­ing in many ru­ral ar­eas.

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