Chinese authorities are considering reforms to the Chinese hukou (household registration) system. Proposed reforms would strengthen the system of temporary residence permits, expand the ability of the spouses and elderly parents of urban residents to relocate to China’s cities, and use the criteria of a "fixed, legal place of residence" as the touchstone for determining whether rural migrants can shift their hukou to urban areas.
Chinese scholars and officials note that the above reforms are merely under consideration. They also note that these reforms would not themselves address the pervasive linkage of hukou registration to a wide range of social and economic benefits, nor the resulting systematic discrimination against rural residents and migrants. But the proposed criteria for migrants to obtain hukou in urban areas do appear to be a mild liberalization over prior formulations used by Chinese authorities in the past.
Chinese Ministry of Public Security officials have prepared a draft proposal regarding hukou reform, according to a May 23 report carried on the Southcn.com website. The five main proposals are:
- Strengthening the temporary residence permit system
- Eliminating limits on spouses (of individuals holding hukou registration in urban areas) also shifting their hukou registration to urban areas
- Relaxing limits on elderly parents (of individuals holding hukou registration in urban areas) also shifting their hukou registration to urban areas
- Adopting the criteria of having a "legal and fixed place of residence" as the basic criteria for determining whether migrants can shift their hukou registration to urban areas.
- Implementing a unified registration system
Some media reports have indicated that these proposals have already been submitted to the State Council for consideration, but at least one prominent scholar involved with hukou reform has questioned that characterization. Professor Wang Taiyuan, professor at the China’s People’s University of Public Security, and one of the leading proponents of hukou reform, stated in a May 26 Beijing News article that:
The fact that the Ministry of Public Security’s opinion (regarding hukou reform) has been sent to the State Council is the media’s phrasing. I have not yet received confirmation.
Chinese scholars also note that these proposals aren’t exactly new. As Professor Wang stated in the Beijing News article,
The five major recommendations of the opinion have actually been repeatedly raised over the last year or two. I believe the only relatively new one is regarding improving the management of registration for temporary residence.
[The call for strengthening the temporary residence permit system reflects Chinese leaders stated interest in not only in improving the living conditions of China’s increasingly large numbers of migrants, but also in ensuring that they are subject to effective state monitoring.]
Nor are the broad contours of the announced reforms significantly different from those that Chinese authorities have pursued for the last 15 years. Indeed, they strongly resemble those put forward by the State Council’s leading group on hukou reform in 1993. That proposal called for hukou reform that would eliminate distinctions between agricultural and non-agricultural hukou registration, unify the hukou registration system, and use criteria such as possessing "a legal and fixed place of residence" or having "a stable profession or source of income" to determine whether rural residents could shift their hukou registration to urban areas, as reported in a May 9, 2007 article posted on the Chinacourt website.
The principles set down in the early 1990s have largely guided the hukou reform efforts of Chinese authorities over the last 15 years. For more information, see the topic paper of the Congressional-Commission on China regarding the Chinese hukou system, the chart of various national and provincial hukou reforms through the end of 2004 on the Freedom of Residence page of the Commission's Web site, the Commission's 2004 and 2005 Annual Reports, the Commission's roundtable on hukou reform, and the Freedom of Residence sections of the Commission’s 2005 and 2006. Chinese scholars and academics have criticized (1, 2, 3) these reforms as insufficient to address the discrimination faced by migrants and rural residents with regard to public services such as health care and education.
Media reports regarding the proposed reforms do appear to indicate one moderate liberalization. Provincial and local reforms implemented in the late 1990s and early 2000s generally required migrants to possess both a “legal, fixed place of residence” and a “stable source of income” in order to obtain hukou registration in urban areas. The proposed reforms appear to only emphasize the need for a “legal, fixed place of residence.”
Naturally, the significance of this change remains to be seen. Prior local reforms used specific definitions for a "legal, fixed place of residence" and "stable source of income" that effectively excluded most migrants from obtaining hukou registration in urban areas (and thus corresponding social and economic benefits). It's unclear whether similar problems may complicate the proposed new reforms. In a May 26 interview with Beijing News, Professor Wang noted that these definitional problems remain unresolved.
New Beijing News: How is the concept of "legal, fixed residence" to be defined?
Wang Taiyuan: This is a problem. Interpreting "legal, fixed residence" is relatively difficult. "Legal" – does a work unit’s dormitory count as "legal?" Is a rented apartment "legal"? These require definition. The number one (aspect) of "legal residence" is that there is no violation of laws or regulations, such as evading taxes, operation of a business without a license, knowingly selling defective goods. "Legal" requires that one must lives for several years without having these types of things occur.
"Legal" and "fixed" go together. How long counts as legal and fixed? It’s hard to set a definition for the entire country. I personally believe that, if you rent a house and live there for three years, that’s relatively stable. But in a small county seat, requiring one to rent a house and live there for three years in order to count as stable – there’s no need for that.
There’s another problem. What counts as a "residence?" 10 square meters (of floor space) per person? Or thirty square meters (of floor space) per family? If you don’t have a clear definition, there will be immediate problems. Eight people living here, each person having two or three square meters, and all registered in the same place – does that count as a legal and fixed place of residence? If we call it a "residence" then there (must) at least be a lower limit, just as there is a minimum wage system as well. We can’t not set a standard. But it’s unthinkable that the State Council should set a unified standard for the entire country. Whatever standard you set, say 10 square meters per person? This kind of detail is not appropriate for the center to set, but with reform of the hukou system, almost every question is this detailed.