Peasants revolt

The hated hukou, and the huge consequences of its reform

Peasants revolt

Heard of the hukou? Regular readers of WiC certainly will have but we make no apologies for going back to it again as a key topic to look out for next year.

The hukou is China’s internal pasport system, a five-decade-old policy designed to limit access to government services to a person’s registered hometown. It is one of the most controversial legacies of the old central planning system, and is often blamed for fostering a two-tier society, favouring those born in cities.

The hukou system was first implemented in 1958, with the country in the grip of famine, when goods were being rationed. Preference was given to city folk from the start, presumably as a way of supporting the government’s industrial programme. The policy also helped to “reduce the mobility of people and maintain social order,” according to Xinhua.

“For more than 50 years, the word ‘peasant’ [has] not only [described] a job in China, but also determined one’s social status,” added Xinhua earlier this week. That class distinction (rural versus urban) remains one of the country’s most prominent features, and has become the subject of fierce debate in the press and academia.

Household registration, as it’s known in English, has had its critics since the 1950s, but it’s seen as particularly anachronistic in today’s post-reform China. That’s because many of the workers who operate the country’s industrial economy are migrants from the countryside. But in the city in which they work, they aren’t entitled to services like education for their children or affordable housing. “Migrant workers are a huge and special social grouping,” argues Chi Fulin, president of the China Institute for Reform and Development. “They have contributed enormously to China’s industrialisation and urbanisation over the past three decades, yet they do not share in the fruits of the nation’s development.”

The indications from Beijing are that this could soon change. At the National People’s Congress earlier this year, Premier Wen Jiabao said the government was determined to make steps towards ‘loosening requirements’ in the smaller cities and towns. And for the first time, hukou reform is a stated goal of the latest five-year plan.

That’s why the results of last month’s census (due out next April) are of critical importance. Researchers had the task of compiling a truer picture of the number of migrants and how they live. The survey data should play a major role in informing the ongoing debate.

Also key to the policy discussion are various reforms now under test. In Guangdong province a points system is being used for hukou applications – but it makes qualifying difficult for those without a university degree.

Chongqing took things a step further by offering residency to all who have ‘done business’ in urban areas for a certain period of time (3-5 years). But both new schemes come with a major drawback: aspirants have to give up their claim on village farmland held in their name.

It’s something many are reluctant to do – 80% of migrants don’t want to take that step according to a recent Chinese Academy of Social Sciences survey. “If I become an urban citizen and become unemployed, I will have no income and feel depressed,” one farmer told the news agency, “But if I have land, at least I can always make a living.”

Observers also worry the plans could be a backdoor approach to ‘urbanising’ arable land. The fear is of a new round of “enclosure movements in the countryside”, according to Xinhua. The proposals enacted in Chengdu, on the other hand, have been praised as the most comprehensive in the country. By 2012 rural residents will be able to get the same benefits as those with urban status, but without giving up their land. The Chengdu government’s hope is that the reforms will boost domestic consumption.

But there is still heavy resistance to change. The problem, as so often the case in China today, is who pays for the reforms? Giving migrant workers the same benefits as their city cousins could cost an additional $243 billion a year– much of which will have to come from cash-strapped provincial and city governments. The next challenge is getting their sign-off.

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