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December 20, 2012

China’s Hukou System Faces Increased Scrutiny

by Sarah Williams

Two recent cases in China have sparked renewed debate about the country’s hukou system. The hukou is a residency permit used to minimize the movement of people between rural and urban areas.  

The hukou can determine the course of a person’s life by assigning where Chinese will live, work and be educated.

“It was developed during the days of the state-planned economy, where urban workers were connected with a danwei, or sort of a work unit, that provided most social services,” said Angela Merriam, senior policy analyst at China Policy in Beijing. “Rural residents, land owners, and farmers were organized into cooperatives that looked after their health care, education, etc.”

But Merriam said China’s tremendous evolution into a global economic power in the past few decades now makes the hukou an anachronism.

China has pledged to speed up reform of its hukou system as part of its urbanization drive. The Wall Street Journal reports the country’s top economic-planning agency, the   National Development and Reform Commission, has promised to speed up household registration reform.

The Hukou and Children

Merriam said the hukou system creates special problems for children.

One group is composed of youngsters who accompany their parents to urban areas.

Recently 15-year-old Zhan Haite, who has lived in Shanghai since she was four, was told she could not continue in high school, or take the gaokao - the college entrance exam - because she does not possess a local hukou.

“These children are more likely to be middle class, and there’s a lot of concern with educational equity in terms of access to the high quality education provided in public schools in these urban centers,” said Merriam.

Another case involves the so-called “left behind children” who are not able to join their parents when they move to seek greater economic opportunities outside their home area. The higher school fees charged to migrant’s children, who don’t have local hukous, often prevent parents from taking them to their new location.

The tragic deaths of five cousins, who perished in a dumpster recently in China’s southern Guizhou province illustrates this problem. The boys died carbon-monoxide poisoning after lighting a fire to keep out the cold. Their deaths sparked an outcry on the Internet.

“I think that case resonated so much with the public because many people in China feel real effects with the hukou system on their daily lives,” Merriam said. “They’ve left their children behind or they see left-behind children like Zhan Haite, who are unable to access the same level of education as urban residents.”

The controversies are causing a re-evaluation of the hukou system on education. China’s State Council recently suggested that more students be allowed to take the gaokao - or college entrance exam - in their place of residence, rather than return to their place of hukou. 

But such changes have yet to be adopted in China’s two largest cities. “Some local governments are implementing these suggestions, they’re allowing more migrants to take the university placement test in the place where they live,” said Merriam. “But major cities like Beijing and Shanghai are not doing so.”