Hukou, China's Caste System

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 5/22/2007 02:24:00 AM
China's Hukou system is similar to a caste system in that the socioeconomic opportunities of individuals are largely determined by birth. The Hukou system is a remnant of the Maoist era when the government tried to control migration to large cities to prevent overcrowding by registering citizens as either "urban" or rural" residents. As China has progressed and more opportunities have sprung up in cities--particularly those in coastal areas--those in rural areas have been left behind. Hukou has thus contributed to growing inequality in China as I suggested in an earlier post. A large pool of migrant workers estimated at between 100-200 million persons made up of those who have moved from rural to urban areas exists whose uncertain status has let unscrupulous employers take advantage of them by paying lower wages, exposing them to lower safety standards, and withholding job security. In addition, this "floating population" is unable to obtain state benefits such as health and education while outside their area of registration. That the official China Daily keeps publishing stories about the inequities of the hukou system suggests the government is keen on reforming it:

When Du Yumeng was born in December 2005, she was probably not aware that she had been classified into a different category from other babies - a category which includes people toting wheelbarrows of fresh fruit, selling steamed buns from a corner booth or peddling phone cards. They all share one thing in common - a rural 'hukou', or household registration.

Set up in 1958 in order to control mass urbanization, China's hukou system effectively divides the population in two - 'the haves' (urban households) and 'the have not's' (rural households).

Under the system, rural citizens have little access to social welfare in cities and are restricted from receiving public services such as education, medical care, housing and employment, regardless of how long they may have lived or worked in the city.

Even though Yumeng's parents had been working in Beijing for 10 years, she had to be born back in her father's hometown of Shuangfeng Village, Anhui Province. This was primarily due to her parents' lack of access to services in Beijing and the need for a birth permit from Shuangfeng, where the hukou is registered.

Aged 31, Yumeng's father, Du Shujian, receives a monthly income of 2,000 yuan ($250 dollars) as an interior construction worker. He has been deprived of urban medical and social welfare ever since he arrived in Beijing 10 years ago.

What's more, because of the restrictions of the hukou system, Du is prohibited from buying an affordable house in Beijing - you need a Beijing hukou for that.

"I have decorated so many apartments for Beijing citizens, but I don't know when I can have my own," Du said.

"And my daughter - I feel sorry for her as she had no choice but to have the same rural hukou as me, though she is too young now to know what it means for her..."

As China is struggling with the social effects of a widening rural-urban divide, there have been growing calls to reform the hukou system, owing to the fact that millions of farmers have illegally started moving to towns and cities in order to find work.

In a week-long poll conducted in March by website and the China Youth Daily social survey centre, 92 per cent of the 11,168 respondents said that the system was in need of reform.

More than 53 per cent said restrictive policies attached to the system, such as limits on access to education, healthcare, employment and social insurance should be eliminated. More than 38 per cent called for the system to be scrapped entirely.

"Hukou has played an important role as a basic data provider and for identification registration in certain historical periods, but it has become neither scientific nor rational given the irresistible trend of migration," Professor Duan Chengrong, director of the Research Center for Population and Development at the Renmin University of China, said.

At a national public security conference on March 29, officials from the Ministry of Public Security proposed a way to deal with the inequalities across Chinese society and bridge the divide.

The conference suggested eliminating the two-tiered household registration system and to allow freer migration between the cities and the countryside...

The International Organization for Migration, which opened a new liaison office in Beijing last month, is set to launch a US$3 million project in a bid to help Chinese government agencies and social organizations improve their mechanisms and services to protect the rights of migrant workers.

Twelve provincial areas, including Hebei, Liaoning, Shandong, Guangxi and Chongqing, have launched trial reforms to help bring an end to the differentiation between rural and urban residents.

Beijing, Shanghai and some cities in Guangdong Province have loosened some of the restrictions that previously hindered people from changing their hukou. Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province is also initiating trial reforms in its household registration system, and aims to have them fully implemented across the province by the end of the year.