China’s urban dream and hukou stratification

23 Feb

Following the American ideal, China’s urban dream constitutes a great migration of the population from rural dwellings into the city. As stated in a Guardian article by Hilton (2013) by 2025, China’s government aspired to moving 70% of the population into towns which, at that point, involved the relocating of 250 million people.

Yet this migration not only has the physical strains of resource pressure; with carbon emissions augmenting as more workers use cars and buses for commuting (Hilton, 2013), but also social impacts. The implications of Mao Zedong’s 1950s “hukou” categorising are still present today.

Hukou is the system by which persons are labelled, in wider terms, either “rural” or “urban”. It is based upon maternal hometown and status and has far-reaching effects, especially in the case of rural to urban movement. For its dream to be realised, China is encouraging those of rural villages to migrate into towns and yet within towns there is still discrimination against rural hukou status holders. These include the denial or limiting or higher expense of schooling, housing, jobs and insurance to those of this category. Even though there was an increase economically for migrants, this was still lower than that of those with urban hukou status (Zhang, Treiman, 2012)

Furthermore, one type of rural hukou holder, as Zhang et al (2012) would say those of “collective hukou conversion” are further degraded by the fact that their migration was from the absorption and seizing of their land by a growing town or city. This is done since some of China’s towns have little tax revenue and so must assimilate farmland to subsidise themselves. This has been said to cause social unrest (Hilton, 2013)

Zhang et al (2012) stated that it remained difficult for those of rural hukou to upgrade into urban hukou and that those who were of “mixed” rural status (rural hukou from maternal hometown and status but grew-up/ were born in urban environment) were more likely to transfer successfully. However, to realise its urban dream and prevent social unrest, China may have to promote, for example, the policies which allow this transfer to become easier.

There are also other ways of upgrading hukou status such as obtainment from a job giving urban hukou rights and owning enough local property to be designated with the status (also known as a blue stamp hukou) (Zhang et al, 2012). However, since Hilton (2013) states that the hukou system allows for cheap migrant labour, these fast-passes to urban hukou status may not be available for many rural hukou holders.

Overall then, perhaps a national incentive against hukou status discrimination be promoted, or, the abandonment of the system altogether.

Hilton, I. (2013) If China is to realise its urban dream, it should drop the Los Angeles model. Guardian. [Online] [date accessed: 23/02/14]. Available from:

Zhang, Z., Treiman, D. (2013) Social origins, hukou conversion, and the wellbeing of urban residents in cotemporary China. Social Science Research. 42 (01). pp. 71-89. [date accessed: 23/02/14]. Available from:


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