China's Hukou System

China's Hukou System

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China's Hukou system is a family registration program that serves as a domestic passport, regulating population distribution and rural-to-urban migration. It is a tool for social and geographic control that enforces an apartheid structure that denies farmers the same rights and benefits enjoyed by urban residents.

History of the Hukou System

The modern Hukou system was formalized as a permanent program in 1958. The system was created to ensure social, political, and economic stability. China's economy was largely agrarian during the early days of the People's Republic of China. In order to speed up industrialization, the government prioritized heavy industry by following the Soviet model. In order to finance this expansion, the state underpriced agricultural products, and overpriced industrial products to induce an unequal exchange between the two sectors, essentially paying peasants less than market price for their agricultural goods. In order to sustain this artificial imbalance, the government had to create a system which restricts the free flow of resources, especially labor, between industry and agriculture, and between city and countryside.

Individuals became categorized by the state as either rural or urban, and they were required to stay and work within their designated geographic areas. Traveling was permitted under controlled conditions, but residents assigned to a certain area will not be given access to jobs, public services, education, healthcare, and food in another area. A rural farmer who chooses to move to the city without a government-issued Hukou would essentially share the same status an illegal immigrant in the United States. Obtaining an official rural-to-urban Hukou change is extremely difficult. The Chinese government has tight quotas on conversions per year.

Effects of the Hukou System

The Hukou system has historically always benefited the urbanites. During the Great Famine of the mid-twentieth century, individuals with rural Hukous were collectivized into communal farms, where much of their agricultural output were taken in the form of a tax by the state and given to city dwellers. This led to massive starvation in the countryside, and the Great Leap Forward would not be abolished until the effects were felt in the cities.

After the Great Famine, rural residents continued to be marginalized, while urban citizens enjoyed a range of socio-economic benefits. Even today, a farmer's income is one-sixth that of the average urban dweller. Farmers have to pay three times more in taxes, but receive a lower standard of education, healthcare, and life. The Hukou system impedes upward mobility, creating essentially a caste system that governs Chinese society.

Since the capitalistic reforms of the late 1970's, an estimated 260 million rural dwellers have illegally moved to the cities, in an attempt to partake in the remarkable economic development taking place there. These migrants brave discrimination and possible arrest while living on the urban fringe in shantytowns, railway stations, and street corners. They are often blamed for rising crime and unemployment.


With China's rapid industrialization, the Hukou system needed to be reformed in order to adapt to the country's new economic reality. In 1984, the State Council conditionally opened the door of market towns to peasants. Country residents were allowed to get a new type of permit called, “self-supplied food grain” Hukou, provided that they satisfied a number of requirements. The primary requirements are that a migrant must be employed in enterprise, have their own accommodations in the new location, and be able to self-provide their own food grain. Holders are still not eligible for many state services and they cannot move to other urban areas ranked higher than that particular town.

In 1992, the PRC launched another form of permit called the "blue-stamp" Hukou. Unlike the "self-supplied food grain" Hukou, which is limited to certain business peasants, the "blue stamp" Hukou is open to a wider population and allowed migration into bigger cities. Some of these cities included the Special Economic Zones (SEZ), which were havens for foreign investments. Eligibility was primarily limited to those with familial relations with domestic and overseas investors.
The Hukou system experienced another form of liberation in 2001​ after China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO). Although WTO membership exposed China's agricultural sector to foreign competition, leading to job losses, it galvanized the labor-intensive sectors, particularly in textile and clothing, leading to an urban labor demand. The intensity of patrols and documentation inspections were relaxed.

In 2003, changes were also made to how illegal migrants are to be detained and processed. This was the result of a media and internet-frenzied case in which a college educated urbanite named, Sun Zhigang, was beaten to death after he was taken into custody for working in the megacity of Guangzhou without the proper Hukou ID.

Despite the reforms, the current Hukou system still remains fundamentally intact because of the continuing disparities between the state's agricultural and industrial sectors. Although the system is highly controversial and vilified, a complete abandonment of the Hukou is not practical, due to the complexity and interconnectedness of the modern Chinese economic society. Its removal could lead to a migration so massive that it could cripple city infrastructures and destroy the rural economy. For now, minor changes will continue to be made to the Hukou, as it coincides with China's shifting political climate.

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