Zhang Yong has lived in Beijing with his wife Wang Caiying for eight years. The two met in the city, got married, and in 2004 bought a house in the northern suburbs.
All was well until the birth of their son two years ago. The parents were told that the boy was not entitled to a Beijing hukou – a registered permanent residence – because neither of them had one. Instead, the government official told the couple they would have to go back to Zhang’s hometown in rural Liaoning to obtain a hukou for their son there.
“We will have to choose to pay special fees in a Beijing primary school [which can cost thousands of yuan] or send him to a school in my hometown when he reaches school age in five years,” the worried mother told the South China Morning Post.
Hukou, or the household registration system, is one of China’s most complex and controversial social policies. It was put in place by Mao Zedong in the 1950s, and tied every individual to a locale, making sure that people lived and worked only where they were officially permitted.
Well, it certainly made sense at the time. For a government intent on running a command economy, tight controls over the flow of labour were important.
But over the past 30 years China has moved away from central planning, and workers have migrated towards the areas where labour is most needed. An estimated 200 million migrant workers have left the countryside to live and work in urban areas.
Under the hukou system, migrants from the countryside are denied the social welfare benefits available to residents with urban passes, including state-sponsored retirement pensions, housing subsidies and medical insurance nets. So migrants rarely bring their families with them when they seek work in the cities, says the Shanghai Daily.
Critics have long argued that the hukou policy is a form of discrimination, dividing the population in two – urban ‘haves’ and rural ‘have nots’. The government has talked about a major revamp but inequality persists.
The big hukou-related story to emerge this month again comes from Beijing, where the Beijing Daily reported that the country’s capital will only give the H1N1 flu vaccine to the city’s hukou-residents.
According to the paper, Beijing’s municipal health bureau announced that it would be the first city to roll out it’s H1N1 inoculation programme, to include all 12 million registered residents this week. But due to limited supplies of the vaccine, non-residents will not be able to qualify for the flu shots.
“The criteria for getting the vaccination should be risk, not hukou,” one netizen wrote on Mop.com, a popular internet site.
“Why only give the vaccine to Beijing residents? Is it because they are more superior?” another asked.
In truth, the hukou has persisted largely because government officials fear that a major relaxation would result in a flood of poor farmers to cities, straining resources like housing, transportation and healthcare.
Meanwhile, as a small victory for Beijing’s five million migrants, the capital’s health bureau promised that it will consider giving free H1N1 vaccinations to the five million residents without hukou. However, the municipal health bureau officials have yet to give a timetable on vaccinations for the capital’s migrants.
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