Migration and Exclusion in China:
the Hukou System
Gabriela Correa and René Núñez
THE HUKOU SYSTEM ( ...continuation )

The modifications to the family registration system can be divided into three stages. The first began in 1980, when responsibility for managing changes to the categories of those registered was transferred to local, provincial or municipal governments, which allowed workers with rural hukou to work in small cities or towns, and local governments tolerated some persons moving without permission. At almost the same time, new regulations were established that allowed permits to be acquired by giving up land rights and participating in earnings for collectively owned companies, which meant income for local governments and the chance to turn land into useful projects and infrastructure works (Kam Wing Chan and Buckingham, 2008: 591 and ss.).

The second stage, which began in 1990, was characterized by the open possibility to change the type of hukou registry. In the middle of the decade, large cities began to offer a “type blue” hukou, which could be obtained by complying with monetary payments, proving education or labor abilities for jobs with strict requirements, or the possession of property or tax payments.

Starting in 1995, some local governments designed a program to grant urban hukou to rural migrants that had urban employment and residency in certain cities for a number of years, while still controlling the type of activity allowed. For example, in Beijing, a list of activities that migrants could not participate in, such as public transport drivers and store salespeople. In Shanghai, formal employment requirements were established that had to be compatible with professional training, corresponding contributions to social security systems for seven years, a high-school education at minimum and required all tax payments to have been made on time (Kam Wing Chan and Buckingham, 2008: 593 and ss.).

The third and final stage of reforms to the hukou system began in 2010, when the central government consolidated its efforts to eliminate all legal barriers linked to hukou that impeded migratory flows, but without guaranteeing access to social services, which kept the provinces or municipalities responsible for these issues. The response from locales and provinces was varied, depending on their financial capacities, but there were no new transfers from the central government, which mean that local entities increased tax collection to have more revenue. For example, in Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei, migrants with at least two years of residence and employment in the city were allowed to buy residency permits in the category of “laborers.” The barriers went from being legal to administrative, mainly related to eligibility criteria and documentation.

With reforms to the hukou system, the population can now move freely about the territory, depending on their own resources and income to pay for services, such as education, health, housing and retirement. Residency in small towns and cities was opened to all those who had legal employment and a safe place to live. Limits on the number of applications to obtain permanent residency were also reduced or eliminated, although local tariffs for these processes were kept high.

Since 2011, the central government has made clear that formal measures to reform the hukou system are an important part of efforts to reduce inequality and improve living conditions for migrants. In February 2011, Wen Jiabao stated that “the government has continued to reflect on reforms to the hukou system to confront problems facing the rural population working in cities, which is estimated at 240 million people” (Chinese Government’s Official Web Portal, 2011: 1). As part of these efforts, the government later published a document to “promote the reforms in an active and sustained manner” (The Central People’s Government of The People’s Republic of China, 2012: 1).

The main content of this publication is to propose different solutions depending on the size of cities. For small cities that offer few public services to migrants with a stable job and who own or rent a local house, these people will be allowed to change their registration to urban, together with their wives and children. In medium-sized cities, migrants and their families will be considered urban residents if they can prove that they have worked in the locale for three years. Large cities will still have restrictions based on income and educational level in order to obtain local residence, with the goal of discouraging city expansion and marginal suburban settlements.

These guidelines seek to solve some of the problems, such as the improper appropriation of rural land by local governments when a registration is changed without fair compensation for the land and change in the size of housing, as has happened in Shaanxi and Chongqing. It will also solve conflicts related to accessing education, for example, by allowing children of migrant families with a high-school degree to take the college and university entrance exams in cities where they study and their parents work (Xiaodong, 2012: 25).