A brief history of China’s 'hukou' system - Part 1

A brief history of China’s 'hukou' system - Part 1

Alice He
March 14, 2014

The hukou system has been an indispensable tool in implementing Communist China’s political, social and economic objectives since 1949. By establishing an agricultural production unit and rapid urban industrialisation during the Great Leap Forward and regulating intra-provincial migration to China’s boom areas in recent years, hukou deprives one of the world’s largest populations of exercising freedom of movement. Unsurprisingly, it is a powerful tool in the hands of government.

Hukou is a system of population registration whereby individuals are identified as either rural or urban residents. The system was initiated by the Communist Party to control population movement, resulting in the division of Chinese society into two classes by a consistently widening gap. Those with urban registrations enjoy welfare benefits which are typically withheld from rural registration holders.

The origins of the hukou system lie in the Chinese baojia system of population registration which began in the 11th century. Its primary aims were law enforcement and civil control. Each bao consisted of ten jias, while each jia consisted of ten households. The bao and jia leaders were responsible for local order, taxation, security and civil projects. In more modern times, population registration was also used by the Kuomintang and Japanese occupied areas of China prior to Communist rule. Additionally, hukou was influenced by the Soviet passbook system.

Broadly speaking, the history of the hukou system can be conceptualised in three stages.

From the 1950s to the 1970s the Communist Party used hukou registration to implement agricultural collectivism in rural China while rapidly industrialising urban China. Farmers became part of a production unit, producing grain and other crops to be bought at low prices by the State, which would in turn ration it amongst urban workers. Urban dwellers also received government funded housing and other benefits such as education and healthcare. Peasants, on the other hand, were expected to produce enough extra food to feed themselves. Though drawn by the benefits of living in China’s urbanised areas, peasant migration was tightly controlled by the hukou system which restricted movement from rural to urban areas by limiting access to work, food and services to people’s place of registration. However, due to the massive labour demand in cities, administration was lax and many rural migrants managed to find work in large cities, ironically resulting in an increase in the urban population during these years. The Communist Party responded by initiating several ‘send-down’ campaigns whereby urban workers were laid off and sent to less dense locations in order to ‘develop’ China’s more rural areas. Among them is the rusticated youth generation who were sent down when schooling was suspended during the Cultural Revolution.

During the late 1970s to the mid 2000s, the privatisation of farming led to a surplus of rural labour while economic development increased in urban areas. By lifting restrictions on urban migration, rural peasants were able to move to larger cities and support China’s heavy manufacturing and export orientated economy, while remaining a low cost workforce as rural hukou holders were still barred from accessing urban welfare benefits. The social consequences were – and are – sometimes tragic. Some city-raised children are forced to attend secondary school in rural towns, away from their migrant parents as their hukou registration does not allow them to access public education in big cities (children’s hukou registrations emulate their mothers’). These children can become withdrawn and embittered, jeopardising their academic performance and hence their chances of attending university.

In the current period, China’s growth is slowing to a 20-year low. The Communist Party has recognised that the economy needs to be rebalanced by encouraging consumer activity. Yet the 260 million migrant workers in China’s urban centres present an obstacle to this objective. Migrant workers are earning an average monthly income of 2290 yuan (410 AUD) compared to the 3987 yuan (713 AUD) of their urban counterparts. In addition, they save a far higher percentage of their income due to the need for ‘rainy day funds’ to account for their deprivation of social services. Their saving rate is 50 per cent of income compared to 30 per cent for urban households. Furthermore, a 2011 survey revealed that only 0.7 per cent of migrants had purchased homes in their adopted cities compared to 60 to 80 per cent of permanent urban residents. This wealth inequality means that a substantial proportion of China’s population, namely a growing class of migrant workers, are prevented from playing a bigger role in the world’s second largest economy.

In my next article I will take a closer look at more of hukou’s undesirable social consequences as well as the need for reform.

Gao, James Z. Historical dictionary of modern China (1800-1949). Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2009

Cheng, Tiejun, and Mark Selden. “The Origins and Social Consequences of China’s Hukou System.” The China Quarterly. (1994): 644-668.