1. Governance
February 20, 2015updated 30 Jul 2021 1:28pm

China strictly controls urbanisation and limits migrant workers' rights – but all that could be changing

By Barbara Speed

If you live in China, and you fancy moving from the Chinese equivalent of rural Norfolk to the Chinese equivalent of London, chances are, you won’t be able to. Well, that’s not strictly true – you might be able to physically go there, but you’ll probably be without education, healthcare or housing rights. Your children wouldn’t be able to go school. Effectively, you would be an illegal migrant. 

This is because of the country’s complex system of “hukou”, or household registration. It has existed in some form since the Xia Dynasty (which began around 2100 BCE), but in 1958, the Communist party made the system far stricter and more official, in order to control peoples’ movement through the country and prevent mass urbanisation.

Under the party’s system, you need around six work passes to work in a province outside your own, and, based on your birthplace, you have a “rural” or “urban” hukou. Bar advances in the 80s that allow people to move temporarily to other places for work, that system is, roughly, the one still in use today – but there are signs it might be coming to an end. 

A Chinese household’s hukou documents. Image: Atlaslin via Wikimedia Commons.

In June 2013, the Chinese National Development and Reform Commission recommended that the government should “gradually tear down household registration obstacles” in order to allow migration from rural to urban areas. Earlier this month, the Ministry of Public Security began to do just that – it announced a trial of a new system whereby 62 cities and regions will allow those with enough “credit” (usually based on education and insurance payments) and a job in Beijing to move there and have rights similar to those of the city’s citizens. 

So why end the system? One simple explanation is that it doesn’t do the economy any favours. Any developed country worth its salt needs urbanisation, and economists are already predicting that China could face a labour shortage in the coming decades. Granted, China is urbanising (see the graph below) but the effects are artificially limited: workers from elsewhere can move to Chinese cities but, because of their hukou, are unable to bring their families or stay for long.

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As a result, they save their money for the move back to the countryside or their home city, rather than spending it in the city and putting down roots. The effect is that cities are populated by transient, rights-less migrants, not socially mobile urban citizens. 

China’s urbanisation to 2013. Source: World Bank. 

In fact, the evidence is that the central government has been keen to get rid of hukou for years, and have been gradually reforming parts of the system; it’s the cities who hold the regulatory reins and are unwilling to loosen their grip. Xi Jinping, the current Chinese president, actually wrote in his 2001 university thesis that the hukou system should be abolished.

Geoff Crothall, Communications Director at the China Labour Bulletin, tells me:

The key thing we have to remember is, as far as hukou reform is concerned, the central government can say what it likes, but it doesn’t have any real effect on the ground. It’s the city governments that dictate who has access to social services, to education, to medical benefits in their jurisdiction. And that’s because 99 per cent of education is paid for out of local government budgets.

The economic arguments seem to be the straw that is gradually breaking the cities’ back, however. Their industries need workers, and, as Rachel Murphy, Associate Professor of Chinese Sociology at the Univeristy of Oxford explains, cities are hoping to move into high-end manufacturing, which also requires a more stable, educated workforce: “For that you need workers with healthcare, housing, and so on.” 

Migrant workers receving health packages from volunteers in east China’s Shandong province. Image: Getty.

* * * 

Reforming the system is a good move economically, but it could also help tackle the problems of homelessness, education, and quality of life in China.  Both Murphy and Crothall say that the hukou system, with its codifying of status and hierarchy, leads to workplace discrimination and general social prejudice. Murphy says the rural/urban division in particular was “like a class system – rural people are seen as second class citizens”. 

Indeed, when Chinese website SOHU reported on the trial in Beijing, it did so in the language of civil rights: 

Martin Luther King’s speech [at the March on Washington] was stirring, and every Chinese has a dream too … that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’

(translation via Market Watch). 

Jenny Richardson*, who lived in China as an expat, gives two examples of people forced into half-lives as a result of the registration system: 

One day my husband noticed a six year old girl hanging around the factory where he worked, so he inquired as to who she was. It turned out that she lived with her father, the manager on site at the workers accommodation, because she was the product of an affair between her father and a local woman. His wife and one child (in line with the one child policy) lived and were registered in another city.

He couldn’t have this illegitimate daughter registered because it would result in huge fines for breaching the one-child policy. Basically, this child had no identity. She was the only child on site, living with the male workers in a dormitory. I don’t know what happened to her when her father went back to his family on weekends. 

Another sad story: one day, I came out of the vegetable market and saw a woman and her child begging on the street. She had rows of Chinese characters written in chalk on the pavement in front of her. I asked my driver if I should give her money and what her story was.

He read it and said that she and her husband and child had come illegally to our city to work. There was a fire at her house that killed her husband. Because they weren’t in their city of registration she didn’t have access to any services like housing or education and she didn’t even have the money to return to her place of origin. 


There’s still a way to go: even under the new policy, those living outside their original hukou area won’t be able to enroll their children in a local school, for example. But the signs are that the entire system will, eventually, be completely reformed, if the cities have the will to do it. And that seems like a pretty good thing. 


*name has been changed. 

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