The promise of a better education and higher paid job attracts tens of thousands of young Chinese to the capital, Beijing, each year. But, increasingly strict policies on residency permits are pushing many Beijing-educated "waidiren" - literally "outsiders" - out again.
In China, workers need a residence permit, or hukou, in the city or municipality they work, to be legally employed there. A hukou links citizens with their place of origin and is tied with a number of benefits such as health care, cheaper housing and child schooling.
After obtaining a degree in Beijing, students from out of town have to compete for a job that not only offers them a decent salary, but also resolves their hukou situation as well.
“For students from out of town, the first consideration when they look for work is whether they can get a Beijing hukou,” said Zhang Jingzhu, a senior at Beijing's University of Technology. “Then, because they do not have a house in the city they need to get a job with a higher salary. That is why their choices of jobs diminish.”
Should I stay or should I go?
A couple of months after receiving her graduate degree in July, Zhang will move to France, where she is planning to continue to study for a post graduate degree.
“My family has not urged me to go to work right away and I want to have a better education so that I can have a better future,” she said.
Her plan is to come back to China to look for jobs, but she said Beijing might not be an option.
“If I won't be able to solve my hukou, I probably will not stay in Beijing,” she said. “Without a hukou, I cannot buy a home or buy a car or, if I have children, they cannot receive proper education.”
Too old for Beijing
There are other problems non-Beijing residents face. Earlier this year, Beijing authorities sent an “instructive advice” to state-owned enterprises laying out age limits for students from outside of Beijing.
If the graduates exceed a certain age, companies are not required to provide them with a Beijing hukou.
Lu Jiehua, professor of population studies at Beijing University, says all big cities in China face similar problems with too many migrants putting pressure on the job market.
“In Beijing, perhaps because the number of students who graduate each year are higher than other cities, these policies are meant to control the amount of students that settle down after graduating,” he said.
Guo Bin, director general of the Equity & Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization that focuses on fair employment opportunities, said the new policy discriminates against out-of-towners.
“The new policy definitely reduces the opportunities for people coming from outside Beijing to settle down their hukou in the city, while at the same time it guarantees job opportunities to original Beijing residents and students,” Guo said. “On the paper, these policies are responding to the problem of limited resources in Beijing. But in reality they are just taking care of these hukou privileged groups, they cause negative consequences on the job market.”
Cities in China give preference to local students by reserving a larger quota of admission for their hukou-holding students who have enrolled in the local high-school exam.
In Beijing, where many of the country's top universities are located, non-Beijing hukou holders need higher exam scores than their fellow students from the capital to be admitted to school.
Guo said that is another, and very direct, example of privilege based on hukou in China.
“[Beijing residents'] grades might be lower, but they can choose more and better schools and receive a better education,” he said.
To circumvent what many perceive as unfair competition, some parents are taking extreme measures.
Recently, Chinese media focused on the case of a very promising 17-year-old student, Zhang Tu, who lived in Beijing but had an Anhui province hukou.
His father found out that foreigners could register to the much-less competitive Beijing high-school exam, or gaokao, and thus have a better chance at entering Beijing Universities.
No more hukou?
Hukou reform has long been a controversial topic, with routine suggestions of ways to relax it and pilot projects being initiated in some cities, such as Shenzhen, Guanzhou, Tianjin and other cities.
China's newly installed leadership pledged to bring 400 million people to its cities in the next decade. Many among China's highest decision-making bodies, including the State Council and the National Development and Reform Commission, publicly stated that hukou reform will be crucial to that goal.
Lu Jiehua said that abolishing the hukou system is unrealistic at this point, but added that some reforms will be promoted.
“It is possible that in the next half year we will see some cities enact special regulation to provide benefits to this migrant population of millions that enters Chinese cities,” Lu said.
Two weeks ago, the influential weekly magazine Caixin published a plan for phasing out the hukou system. The plan was developed by Kam Wing Chan, who researches China's urbanization at Washington University's Geography Department.
One of the first steps of Chan's “road map” was granting a hukou to all college-educated migrants, regardless of their place of origin.
He said that young professionals would actually contribute to the budgets of big cities and not be as burdensome as some argue.
Many in China still believe that before granting indiscriminate access to cities, the government needs to properly fund social services, such as health insurance, pensions and public housing.
Some scholars believe that, only then, will China's cities have the social infrastructure to support the large number of out-of-town job seekers hoping to build their lives, regardless of their age or skills.