The Hukou system: The real face of China’s Urbanisation?

9 May

In recent years the Chinese government has stepped up its drive for urbanisation, spending an estimated $6 trillion on infrastructure in anticipation for the extra 400 million people expected to become urban residents in the next decade. However the extent to which this is legitimate urbanisation can be debated. Indeed, it can be argued that a third of China’s 700 million current urban residents are not ‘fully urbanized’. This is due to the fact that they are not in possession of a local ‘Hukou’, a red booklet documenting evidence of household registration. A vast majority of those finding themselves in this situation are rural migrants that have been lured to the cities by the numerous job opportunities offered by the booming manufacturing industries. Thus the problem arises due to the Chinese national registration system, which ties all citizens, and the public benefits they receive, to their hometowns. Consequently many migrants moving to cities are denied access to social security entitlements, and public housing, whilst their children are prevented from gaining admittance to public schools.

Due to the fact that a large proportion of these migrants are employed within the manufacturing sector, it can legitimately be argued that the major economic boom China has experienced in the last thirty years has been partially brought about the ‘Hukou’ system. If such a system was not in place, the creation of the humongous army of exploitable labour that powered the manufacturing industry would not have been possible. With this being the case, the traditional association between urbanisation and prosperity cannot be applied in the case. On the contrary, this prolonged development has lead to the formation of an urban underclass. Furthermore, since ‘Hukou’ is hereditary by law this low social status is passed on from generation to generation in an arrangement not dissimilar from the Indian Caste system. It can thus be asserted that major fundamental changes will need to be made if China is to combat the growth of urban inequality in the future.



4 Responses to “The Hukou system: The real face of China’s Urbanisation?”

  1. gw2g11 May 11, 2013 at 4:08 pm #

    This is a good, short reportage by The Guardian that really highlights the problems of the Hukou system, especially how it affects the migrant children. Despite being born in the city, their access to education and other services is very limited by the Hukou. If a migrant family doesn’t have much money, and if they don’t have local hukou, children of those families might not be allowed to enrol in the public schools. 1 out of 3 of Beijing’s migrant children depend on private schools that are funded by fees and donations, but many of those risk being closed down, and children could have to be sent back to their registered hometown, where they perhaps have never set foot in their life.
    What I wonder if why the Hukou system has to be inherited?


  2. ab25g1125g11 May 15, 2013 at 9:10 am #

    The consequences of the Hukou system are also highlighted through Beijing’s hidden slums. Unlike other rapidly expanding economies such as the slums of India and the favelas of Brazil, these areas of extreme poverty are harder to find in China’s capital. The many migrant workers without a Beijing Hukou are forced to make compromises on their living conditions and other social benefits available to urban residents, such as education and healthcare.

    The slums encompass a number of locations across Beijing including old villages which have now been engulfed by the expanding city and others reside in the damp, dark conditions of former air-raid shelters scattered across the city. In eastern Beijing the poorest are forced to cram entire families into a single room, within make-shift concrete structures. There are no showers or kitchens and residents use outdoor open sewers as toilets. Such bleak living conditions generate severe health risks to those most unable to afford the consequences. The State ignores such slums as they provide a large cheap migrant workforce; facilitating the rapid urbanisation across the city. The government only intervenes when a slum becomes too large or imposing on the image of the city, simply demolishing the slum and selling the land for development. The residents have no say or ability to prevent such events and are forced to move further afield.

    Despite all these issues of residential living developed through the Hukou system, especially for migrant workers, slum residents remain hopeful for their future in Beijing. Most migrants can find work, poverty and disease is not as severe as other slums, such as Mumbai in India. Furthermore the government promise of social change has contained those within the slums; there is little sense of civil injustice or unrest. They have seen the continual development across China in the past 30 years, so as long as their living conditions look set to change slum residents remain content.

    However without reform to the Hukou system and development of affordable mass housing the number of residents in these extreme conditions will continue to exponentially increase. Perhaps generating a greater sense of civil injustice within the slum communities leading to social unrest, which would be very problematic for the State and the image of Beijing as a global city.

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