• Hamsini Hariharan

Everyone wants a Beijing Hukou

This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on December 30, 2019 and can be accessed here.


Last week, Xinhua news agency reported that China was relaxing hukou norms for all cities with populations below three million. This cycle of news reporting the reform of the hukou systems pops up once in a while. It’s important because the hukou or the household registration is one of the most important documents in China. Western media often labels the hukou as an “internal passport” but that misses nuance that is needed when discussing this topic that influences every aspect of a Chinese person’s life.

The history of the hukou system goes back to the fifth century. The modern Chinese hukou, modelled on the Soviet propiska system, arose in the late 1950s and divided people essentially into urban or rural, agricultural or non-agricultural. It was also to danwei (or work units that provide employment), schooling, hospitals and every possible social service. So, moving to Beijing or Shanghai without a hukou would mean that you were ineligible for jobs, education or healthcare. People did migrate and this internal migration has risen after the liberalisation of the Chinese economy but mobility between hukous continues to remain difficult. This gave rise to the “floating population” — people who live in cities for years or just specific seasons just to work. They work harder, earn lesser and stay at the bottom of the social ladder.

While China’s double-digit growth has improved lives all across the country, it has also exacerbated inequality. The hukous of the mega cities like BeijingShanghaiGuangzhou, and Shenzhen are coveted because their public services surpass those anywhere else in China. Cities over time have tried to attract talented migrated by relaxing some rules but these policies are few and far in between. The number of migrants is officially estimated to be 288 million – that’s more than the population of Indonesia.

Over the last thirty years, China has been trying to deal with the problem. In 2014, its New National Urbanization Plan decreed that 100 million migrant workers and other permanent urban residents should get city/urban hukous by 2020. In April this year, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) said it aimed to increase China’s urbanization rate by at least one percentage point by 2020. The latest announcement from last week echoes the statement, but also does not provide specifics about the relaxation of residency norms in cities with populations between 3 and 5 million. But the relaxation of the hukou by smaller cities will do little to solve internal migration because the problem lies in rural-urban disparities. The government is currently focusing on making space for rural labour in urban areas though there is evidence that it needs to improve public services in rural areas.

In the Indian Constitution, Articles 19 1(d) and (e) provide all citizens the right to move through the country freely and to reside and settle in any part of the country. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Indian nation is based on migration and mobility. This is not to say that India is doing any better in the rural-urban divide (it’s not). But it goes to prove that curtailing freedoms of movement will only do more harm than good. And the current Indian government would do well to remember it.

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