Making real hukou reform in China

Author: Kam Wing Chan, University of Washington

Yes it’s true – hukou (household registration) reform is again back in vogue in China’s ‘post-crisis’ conversations. Premier Wen Jiabao has been talking about it and, unusually the catch phrase has also been placed in the first ‘Central Document’ of 2010. Following the lead of these two sources, hundreds of newspaper articles and commentaries have opined on it in the last few weeks. On March 1, 13 big-city newspapers from 11 provinces in China also made a rare joint appeal for accelerating reform of the hukou system in a co-signed editorial. In sum, the issue is firmly in the spotlight, and hopes have been raised for some real hukou reform.

The hukou system is a big deal in the People’s Republic.  For the past 52 years, the system has served to segregate the rural and the urban populations, initially in geographical terms, but more fundamentally, in social, economic and political terms. It is the linchpin of China’s divisive dualistic structure (eryuan jiegou), and the foundation for its two classes of citizenship. Five years ago saw a media chorus that appeared to presage China’s abolition of the hukou system. For example, The New York Times then proclaimed: ‘China to drop urbanite-peasant legal differences.’ As it turned out, that claim was a clear misunderstanding of the facts. It was not the only one. Indeed, from 1994, journalists have been interpreting official statements on hukou reform as foreshadowing an end to the system.

But is the Chinese government ‘for real’ this time?

The main specifics proposed so far – making hukou acquisitions easier in small and medium sized cities — are not exactly new, and are not likely to be very useful. Migrant workers, who are a group centrally affected by the system, generally find jobs in bigger cities.  Indeed, we have seen measurers directed at eliminating rural-urban ‘legal differences’ in recent years, but these measures have only been targeted at local peasants allowing them to give up their land in exchange for an urban hukou, rather than migrant workers, the main victims of the hukou system.

We all know that for China to move forward it cannot have two classes of citizenship. But how to bring forth genuine hukou reform? Where is a good starting point?

At the beginning of a new lunar new year, I offer the following suggestions on hukou reform.

First, from the perspective of China’s economic strategy, it would make sense for the government to consider opening local hukou registers to skilled migrant laborers with regular employment, whether in the small or big cities. China badly needs these workers to help move manufacturing up the value chain. Employers also need them to operate more sophisticated machines in that upgrade, as is illustrated by current labor shortages in coastal regions. Skilled workers also make more money, and so can help fund social services within cities. For the workers part, a local hukou would allow these workers to receive health, retirement and unemployment benefits, and would entitle them to send their children to local schools.

This then, is largely a win-win scenario; employers and local government benefit, and so do the migrant workers. It is a logical step that extends the practice, already present in many major cities, of giving city hukou to migrant college graduates after a few years of employment in the city. This is the relatively easy part.

The harder and broader reform is to build institutions that foster rural-urban equality. This leads to my second suggestion. The Party Congress in 2007 pledged to bring equal voting rights to rural and urban populations in elections as part of China’s efforts in creating a harmonious society. Taking up this directive, last October, the standing committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) decided to amend China’s current election law to give equal representation to rural and urban populations. This motion is being examined at the now-ongoing NPC standing committee meeting, and is scheduled to be vetted by the full NPC in a process beginning next week.

In my view, this first step should be expedited in order to bring about the political equality of rural and urban residents. Crucially, this reform has the practical effect of subjecting urban and rural citizens to the same system of ‘one head one vote’ (currently, the ratio is 4 to 1 in favor of the urban population).  Of course, under China’s present political system, the significance of this reform is largely symbolic, but, in the battle for rural-urban equality, symbolism is an important first step.

There remains a difficult logistical question in relation to this voting reform; where will rural migrant workers vote? Customarily, everyone votes where his or her hukou is registered. This might have worked quite well before the huge army of rural migrant laborers emerged.  But it is now obviously impractical to have these migrants vote in rural areas when they are spending almost the whole year in the cities, rarely returning home. Thus, without practical reform of the voting system, the majority of migrant workers would not have a practical entitlement to vote, and the latest move to bring about rural-urban equality in voting would seem rather hollow.

The only logical and practical way to make the proposed amendment meaningful would be to let migrants vote where they ordinarily live, i.e. in the cities.  This would bring voting rights in line with the method already used to count a city’s population; beginning in 2005, the National Bureau of Statistics has counted migrants staying six months or more as part of the resident population (changzhu renkou) of a city in many of its annual statistics.

I know that this issue of where rural migrants will vote is too technical to be considered in the current around of NPC meetings. But it seems to me that this is not a question that can be deferred forever.

My understanding is that China is continuously working to make its various levels of People’s Congress more accountable and responsive to the needs of their constituencies. If my understanding is correct, and my first and second suggestions are acted upon, then I think there is a good possibility of making some real hukou reform.  This is especially true of the second ‘voting’ point.  Once migrant laborers get to vote in the urban areas, some real hukou reform may actually happen.

The journey to real hukou reform is still long. But in the new year of the Tiger, our wish for some real change may finally be translated into some action.

Kam Wing Chan is Professor in the Department of Geography and Full Faculty Member of the Chinese Studies Program, Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.