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CHINA: ‘Hukou’ Registration System Trips Over Inequity

Mitch Moxley

BEIJING, Nov 25 2010 (IPS) - Yu Mengxiang is a 24-year-old office manager at a foreign company in Beijing. Although he looks and acts like a typical urban male, his household registration – or ‘hukou’ – is in a village in north-east Liaoning province, which means he isn’t entitled to government benefits in the capital. Bucking conventional wisdom, he doesn’t want any.

Yu isn’t alone. Recent studies reveal a significant majority of migrant workers living in cities are reluctant to give up their rural hukou, surprising scholars and experts who have long called for a significant overhaul to China’s household registration system.

According to a recent study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, 80 percent of migrants interviewed said they were reluctant to give up their rural hukou. A separate survey by the Chongqing Municipal Agricultural Department found that just 30 percent of the 350 migrant workers interviewed wanted to give up their land in exchange for an urban hukou.

Zhao Yuankun, the leader of the team coordinating a trial hukou reform in Chongqing, told Xinhua News Agency that the reason most migrants don’t want to change their registration is because of changes in benefit distribution. Rural residents don’t have to pay agriculture taxes and those from low-income brackets are entitled to certain benefits. Poor students, for example, are exempted from paying tuition and other fees.

Many migrants also don’t want to lose valuable land they own in their home provinces, a condition for an urban hukou in many provinces. Yu, for example, owns farmland in his home province, where he plans to return to later in life.

He says there are other preferential policies he doesn’t want to give up. He is allowed to have two children despite China’s one-child policy, for example; he receives a government subsidy to buy household appliances; and he enjoys the benefits of the rural cooperative medical system, meaning visits to the doctor are reimbursed by the government.


The trend is nationwide. In Zhejiang province, the number of people who gave up their rural hukou for an urban identity fell to 189,000 in 2009 from 577,000 in 2004. In Guiyang, Guizhou province, just 10,000 people changed their residential status in 2008. The Guiyang public security bureau found that 98.7 percent of rural residents were reluctant to give up their hukou.

Still, experts say the current household registration system is leaving tens of millions of struggling migrants without government assistance in this country of more than 1.3 billion people. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, China had 229.87 million migrant workers as of the end of 2009, making up more than one-third of the country’s urban population. The vast majority of these people do not qualify for low-income housing, cannot vote in local elections or send their children to public high schools.

Over 45 percent of Chinese lived in urban areas as of the end of 2008, 44.9 percentage points higher than in 1976, according to a report released in October by the Institute of Finance and Trade Economics under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. That number should grow when China reveals data from its recently conducted census.

“Urbanisation can’t be stopped,” says She Hexing, a professor at the China National School of Administration, which consults the government on public policy. She adds that reform needs to be carried out with the end goal of equality in mind. “The most important thing the government should do is to establish a public service equalisation system – meaning urban and rural people enjoy the same benefits on education, healthcare and work opportunities.”

She says a major roadblock to hukou reform is that while China’s big cities want to soak up cheap labour from the countryside, most do not want to take responsibility of guaranteeing public services and social security.

Indeed, hukou reform is a daunting and expensive task. A report by the China Development Research Foundation found that if the government spent 2 trillion yuan (301 billion U.S. dollars) per year to give non-agricultural residences to 20 million migrant workers, it would take 20 years to include the whole ‘floating’ population.

In some areas, household registration system reform in already underway. In Chongqing, a trial plan will see 10 million migrants registered in the city in the next 10 years. One and a half million of them will be registered by the end of this year.

The Chongqing government has said 660,000 rural students will have to change their residential status by the end of 2011. Students at several universities in the municipality have complained of being forced to change their residential status or risk losing scholarships or expulsion.

Tang Jun, a prominent sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, says migrant workers do, in fact, want urban hukou – but ones that are fair. He said some provinces have forced migrant workers to exchange their land for an urban hukou, basically amounting to a land-grab.

“Hukou reform is a good thing,” Tang says. “(But) the hukou reform we are talking about is handling the problems caused by different treatment between people of urban and rural areas….The core problem is to actually guarantee social security.”

 
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