Migration and Exclusion in China:
the Hukou System
Gabriela Correa and René Núñez

The establishment of a household registration system began formally in 1958 as part of a set of centralized economic planning mechanisms (Chunping Han, 2009: 2). It is a program that was created by the Maoist government to control population movement, and is managed separately from the Ministry of Security and Police. The hukou system guarantees that all basic requirements are satisfied, as well as employment and mobility in the country, in the context of economic planning.

While the Maoist government used the household registration system to control employment, population mobility, the provision of local and national education, housing and health, it also maintained political control by reducing the chance for social protests. Legal reforms to the household registration system began in the 1980s with the acceptance of population transfers from rural to urban zones for those in search of employment.

During the decades of centralized planning from the Maoist government, the population had to obtain a mobility permit to move to a place other than where they were already registered, and this permit was subject to labor requirements in the destination cities, access to educational institutions and the judgment of military and government officials. In this context, economic reforms maintained control over the labor supply in the large coastal cities, which were the zones where reforms for economic openness began (Kam Wing Chan, 2010: 357).

At the beginning, the hukou system established two major classifications: socio-economic eligibility and type of residence (Kam Wing Chan and Buckingham, 2008: 587 and ss.). The first category divided the population into agricultural and non-agricultural, assigning the type of state benefits that each group would receive. This distinction slowly became less dependent on occupation over the years, particularly for non-agricultural activities in rural zones. Persons with the agricultural registration did not obtain many benefits, and as such, many in this group sought to change their classification to non-agricultural, although this process was limited by the local governments, the expansion of state enterprises and the increase in manufacturing activities in rural zones.

The second category, type of residence, divided the population into local and non-local. While the first division – agricultural and non-agricultural – established the type of benefits each person received, the residence classification determined the location where the benefits would be delivered, as the employment registry was also located there.

These two hukou categories resulted in four types of identities: urban-local, rural-local, urban-non-local and rural-non-local, with different access to public benefits and operations in urban and rural zones.

Throughout the 1990s, with structural reforms on various orders of China’s economy and society, there was also a series of hukou reforms, which sought to gradually eliminate the rural and urban classification and replace it with “local” or “non-local or external” (Kam Wing Chan and Buckingham, 2008: 587 and ss.).

The reforms, which can be grouped into three stages as will be demonstrated below, sought to eliminate the division between local and non-local, but only the local hukou population had guaranteed access to education, health and other government benefits. In other words, the migrants who had a non-local hukou (despite the fact that many of them became residents of the larger cities if they lived there for longer than ten years) were still excluded from governmental social security benefits, particularly those related to education, health, housing and retirement, which are under the jurisdiction of local governments, either provinces or municipalities.

In reality, there was not a large difference in terms of the improvement in well-being for migrants between the old and new regulations, and local administrations established varied methods to access services, depending on the budgetary capacity of the government, the changes in the type of registration and the validity of residency permits. In practice, some rural registrations changed to urban, others received permanent or temporary residency permits without changing their classification and others were maintained in cities under the rural designation, which formally put them in a position of illegal residency (Kam Wing Chan and Buckingham, 2008: 587 and ss.).

Starting in 2000, advances were made in the hukou system, as the migration permits for the rural population that could prove they had legal work in a city and a place to live were greatly increased. However, these reforms have been widely debated in academic halls, because by giving the local authorities the power to determine the quota of acceptable migrants, greater limits were added, with the reasoning that there was a lower capacity to provide public services to the additional population.

Another feature of the hukou system is that it is not based on the activity or condition of residency. There may be agricultural workers with urban hukou despite the fact that they work in rural zones, although there are also people with a rural hukou classification working in industrial labor. In any case, the hukou categories discriminate against the rural population, as the available benefits and public services are of lower quality and have lower coverage than for those of the urban population (Correa López, 2009: 163).