Hukou in the Reform Period

17 Mar

Hukou (China’s household registration system) is in part a census and in part a tool for the control of social mobility. Its roots are far-reaching; China has almost always employed a system of registration for one’s family. In 1958 the Ministry of Public Security established a set of regulations that built upon the old priorities of keeping a census, maintaining social stability, managing and restricting urbanisation and also included the allocation of state resources, managing the economy and maintaining strict social control. During Mao’s period most migration was ‘state-planned’; citizens who legally changed their hukou status did so through the proper legal channels and made an ‘official’ migration. ‘Unplanned’ migrations were rare as only those who possess the correct hukou status could expect state employment and benefits. 

To change one’s hukou status has become a little easier since the beginning of the reform period but still remained a difficult process. Someone wishing to transfer from a rural town to Shanghai or Beijing, for example, would have to undergo a long process during which certain criteria must be fulfilled in order to successfully migrate to the city. These criteria vary from location to location and are notoriously strict for affluent towns and cities. The criteria are set by local government authorities and reflect local desires for economic development and social stability. For example, if a developing town wishes for more skilled workers to boost its economy it may tighten the criteria for non-skilled workers and relax it for skilled ones.

For some the criteria for migration symbolised a bar too high to leap over. in 1985 a new solution arose in the form of ‘temporary residency permits’ which allowed rural workers to legally work and reside in urban areas whilst retaining a rural hukou status. Whilst this still did not solve the problem which rural-hukou faced with local authorities (in that they were still not eligible for local welfare such as health insurance or education) it meant better regulation for the employment of these workers and therefore better employment conditions. Some of these temporary workers found, as the market opened, that they did not have to rely upon the local authority for various social welfare and could live comfortably without changing their hukou status.

Unfortunately not all citizens who live and work on a temporary permit can afford privatised education or healthcare. The complications of hukou on urban migration are still a major issue for contemporary China.

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