To listen to some official Chinese pronouncements and US media coverage, one might think that the Chinese hukou (household registration) system is on the verge of complete dismantlement. Wu Dong, chief of the Bureau for the Management of Public Order at the Ministry of Public Security announced on March 8 that Chinese authorities would deepen reform of the hukou system in 2007, according to a March 9 Legal Daily article reposted on the People’s Daily website. Reforms would aim at replacing temporary residence cards, migrant marriage documentation, and other controls over the migrant population with a unified residence permit system.
Chinese provincial authorities have previously made announcements regarding the elimination of distinction between "agricultural" and "non-agricultural" hukou status. Western media has picked up on some of these pronouncements and characterized them as efforts to “abolish” or “eliminate” the hukou system.
This is wrong. The Chinese hukou system is not disappearing. But it is mutating.
For starters, take a look at Wu’s own language in the March
We should adjust our policies on shifting one’s place of hukou registration, using possession of a legal and fixed place of residence as the basic criteria for obtaining hukou registration [in an urban area], allowing those in the migrant population who fulfill this criteria to obtain hukou registration in their place of ordinary registration, and guiding the migrant population to merge with the local [urban] society. Model migrant workers, advanced workers and technicians, and others who have made outstanding contributions, will be granted preference in obtaining hukou registration [in urban areas].
This is not a proposal to wipe out the hukou system entirely. It is a call to gradually allow those migrants deemed desirable, and who satisfy particular criteria, to obtain urban hukou registration. This is, in fact, entirely consistent with the general trend of Chinese hukou reforms over the past twenty years.
Chinese authorities have regularly pressed policies to grant
urban hukou status to migrant workers who have a "fixed place of living" and a "stable source of income." But local
regulations often define these terms to require ownership of one’s own home or
professional employment. Naturally, this
excludes many low-wage migrants.
Migrants must obtain local hukou in urban areas to receive public services and benefits on an equal basis with other urban residents. But since local hukou reforms continue to apply strict economic and housing criteria to determine migrant eligibility for obtaining urban hukou status, many continue to suffer from institutional exclusion. And since hukou status is inherited, children of low-wage migrants can be born and raised in urban areas, yet not enjoy the same status as their urban counterparts.
One reason for the confusion in reporting on hukou reform:
outsiders don't understand the system that well. Chinese authorities have indeed moved to
eliminate the distinctions between "agricultural" (nongye) and "non-agricultural"
(fei nongye) hukou registration. In the
pre-reform era, this distinction played a critical role in determining whether
one was eligible for food rations. But with
the advent of private markets for food, that role has largely disappeared. Chinese scholars have noted that these
reforms have progressed relatively smoothly precisely because they "don’t involve
substantive content," as noted in a
In contrast, the linkage between one’s hukou registration in
a particular city and the ability to enjoy municipal health or education
services on an equal basis with other residents remains alive and well. In 2006, intergovernmental research groups created
by the State Council noted that hukou reform would be difficult to carry out
without comprehensively addressing these issues, according to a January 31 post
For more details on the above issues, see the topic paper of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) on "China's Household Registration System: Sustained Reform Needed to Protect China’s Rural Migrants," and Fei-Ling Wang, Organizing through Division and Exclusion: China's Hukou System (Stanford University Press, 2006).
Other shifts regarding the treatment of migrants are also perhaps less
substantive than they might seem at first glance. A draft resolution before the National
People’s Congress would create delegate quotas for rural migrant workers in
next year’s NPC, according to a March 8 Xinhua article. But it is unclear that this proposal
would necessarily aim at enfranchising ordinary migrant workers to vote for
such delegates, as opposed to merely creating a requirement that municipal
authorities select a certain number of migrants to serve. The article paraphrases one migrant:
Where migrant workers can vote and be elected remains a problem, Sun said, as the farmers-turned-workers have no "hukou" or urban residence registration, which means they do not belong to a precinct in cities, nor are they willing to return to their rural hometown for an election because of travel expenses and troubles and the fear of losing jobs.
At least some of the hukou reform efforts appear aimed at not only improving the livelihood of migrants, but also at increasing the state’s ability to monitor and control the migrant population. Chen Jiping, head of the leading group on the management of public order for the migrant population, called for a dual policy of "service" to and "management" of the migrant population, according to a press communiqué carried on the CCTV website. Measures to be taken include increasing the numbers of people involved in managing migrants, creating comprehensive databases of temporary residents and rental apartments, and strengthening management of public order by implementing better controls over renters.