China Announces New Changes on “Original Sin” of Residency Controls

Bloomberg’s Sharon Chen and Dandan Li provide an overview of recent changes to China’s hukou residency permit system, which for decades has tightly controlled citizens’ rights to settle and receive public services away from their registered home areas.

President Xi Jinping has made overhauling the hukou a key policy goal and even argued for abolishing it altogether in his doctoral thesis almost two decades ago. A policy statement issued on Dec. 25 by the State Council, China’s cabinet, included a pledge to eliminate the registration system in cities with fewer than 3 million residents and relax it in cities with populations of 3 million to 5 million. For larger cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, the household registration system will be simplified, it said, without giving details. These guidelines echo those published by the National Development and Reform Commission in April.

“This is by far the boldest and the most significant move to remove the institutional barrier responsible for maintaining the two classes of citizens within the same country, the most consequential original sin created during China’s socialist planned economy era,” wrote Wang Feng, a sociology professor at the University of California at Irvine who’s studied China’s urbanization for decades, in an exchange on WeChat, a Chinese messaging app. “Such a move will no doubt increase labor mobility, usher in new economic dynamism, and reduce a type of social inequality that has plagued China for over half of a century.”

[…] In theory the new policy would effectively remove barriers to receiving the hukou across much of China. Out of almost 300 prefecture-level cities, only 27 have populations exceeding 3 million, according to I-City Media, which analyzed data from the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development. The pace of change, however, will ultimately be dictated by authorities in individual municipalities, many of which either lack the resources to expand public services to support larger populations or aren’t inclined to make the necessary investments. “The central government has adopted loosening of the policy without providing financial support, so the local governments don’t have strong incentive to carry out the reform,” says Lu Jiehua, a sociology professor at Peking University and one of China’s leading demographers. [Source]

At Reuters this week, David Kirton reported on changes in two key regions:

China’s southern province of Guangdong will relax the household registration system that restrains internal migration in all its cities except the powerhouses of Guangzhou and Shenzhen, the provincial governor Ma Xingrui announced on Tuesday.

The move is part of the provincial government’s effort to “accelerate the promotion of new urbanization” and improve county-level economies, Ma said while delivering the province’s annual work report.

[…] Guangdong is China’s most populous province, with 113.5 million people in 2018, according to the provincial bureau of statistics. It has six cities with under 3 million people and three in the 3 to 5 million range.

[…] Shandong, China’s second-most populous province, will also follow suit in easing the household restrictions for smaller cities, according to local media reports of a provincial housing conference held in Jinan last week. [Source]

Fordham Law School’s Carl Minzner sounded a skeptical note about the latest changes on Twitter last month, and again last week:

Change has long been advocated on social justice grounds. The system’s critics include sociologist Yu Jianrong, whose own childhood was marked by punitive hukou cancelation, and young Marxist activist Yue Xin, who emphasized her Beijing hukou as an example of “the original sin of the structural injustices of this whole society.” At The Diplomat in November, China Channel’s Bonnie Girard described the inequalities produced and reinforced by a system which “determines one’s possibilities and probabilities in China over the course of an entire lifetime.”

As with unapproved immigration around the world, the issue is multilayered. Simply put, many of the cities in China to which provincial cousins migrate could not grow or maintain their development without the cheaper labor that internal illegal immigration brings. Shanghai’s nouveau riche are served by another class of people who have no legal right to live in their city, but whose service and labor form the foundation for development.

[…] But people like Mr. Zhang from Chongqing, who has been working as a driver in Shanghai for 20 years, can never enjoy the conditions needed for even a Shanghai resident card, much less a hukou.

[…] So Zhang’s family stays “home,” like tens of millions of other rural families in China. For two decades, Zhang’s wife and child have lived 1,500 kilometers away. He travels back to see them twice a year.

[…] The system, not surprisingly, underscores and exacerbates social class divisions.

A study made by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found that one-third of urban dwellers in Shanghai don’t want to live next door to a migrant from the country. That figure rises to two-thirds in some less cosmopolitan cities. [Source]

While the hukou system’s impact falls most widely and heavily on the poor “low-end population” like the tens of thousands evicted from Beijing in the winter of 2017, it also hits more privileged internal migrants, as The Economist’s Chaguan noted last month:

Two chinas collided on a summer night in Beijing this year when “Little Zhang”, a high-flying young businessman, was summoned for questioning by an elderly neighbour at his housing complex, and asked to prove that he is a legal resident of the city. In the new China where Mr Zhang spends most of his days—a swaggering country rushing to become a high-tech superpower—the 31-year-old is a model citizen. He recently secured a job with a prestigious technology company, buoyed by a master’s degree from a Western university and a stint with a foreign consultancy. In an older China, a bossy place which issues old men and women with red armbands and tasks them to sit outside apartment blocks, snooping on all who pass, he is an object of suspicion.

Despite Mr Zhang’s enviable job, he is legally an outsider in his new home of Haidian, a district in Beijing’s north-west where technology firms have sprung up near elite universities. Born in the neighbouring province of Hebei, Mr Zhang belongs to a tribe of white-collar migrants who call themselves, with mock-defiant pride, Beipiao, or Beijing drifters. […]

[…] Beijing’s trouble retaining talent raises a question that applies to China more generally: namely, are there limits to the flourishing of innovation and creativity in an autocratic, controlling one-party state? Speak to Beijing drifters, and it is not hard to conclude that the answer is yes. The limits of the current system are felt most sharply by the middle tiers of urban society, they say. The rich need not care about hukou because they can secure foreign passports for their children and send them to private international schools in Beijing or overseas. As for low-income migrant workers, they typically leave their children with grandparents back home in villages and townships. It is the aspirational middle that suffers, interviewees say. […] [Source]

Earlier this month, South China Morning Post’s Sidney Leng reported further fuel for caution toward potentially misleading official urban/rural distinctions:

About a third of China’s new urban residents actually lived rural lives, according to a recent study, suggesting Beijing’s claims about the success of its urbanisation programme have been significantly overstated.

The study, carried out by economists from Southwestern University of Finance and Economics in Chengdu and Nankai University in Tianjin, is based on demographic changes to 700,000 communities across the country between 2009 and 2017.

[…] In 2014, Beijing set a goal to “urbanise” 100 million people by 2020, however, the central government is moving towards that goal by simply reclassifying rural areas, meaning that millions of rural dwellers have become urban folk without ever leaving their homes, the researchers found.

The study adds fuel to the debate over the actual rate of urbanisation in China, which the government put at 60 per cent at the end of 2018, with a target of 75 per cent by 2035. [Source]


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