Xinhua News Agency reported in late July on the government’s planned hukou reforms, which will begin by facilitating the urban settlement of roughly 100 million people who do not hold urban IDs and which will ultimately lead to the elimination of discrete registration systems for urban and rural residents.
The hukou (huji or ‘household register’) system is about 4000 years old. Early in its inception it became an instrument for tax collection and by the 7th century BCE administrators in present-day Shandong were levying different regions according to different standards. The present system serves to maintain census data and severely limit migration into urban areas, making it analogous to the North Korean hoju or former Soviet propiska systems and earning it criticism as China’s apartheid by BBC News, The Independent and South Africa’s The Star.
Citizens currently registered in rural areas must follow a tortuous bureaucratic path in order to qualify for non-agricultural work and unless they successfully do, they will not receive the same educational or medical benefits as their city-dwelling compatriots. Government officials have defended the system by citing the need for stability but some, like Tim Luard of BBC News (here), have suggested the restriction of urbanization preserves a rural population in order to furnish state enterprises with low-wage workers.
Jasper Becker, former Beijing bureau chief of Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, has written an engrossing account of the Great Chinese Famine entitled Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine in which he describes how local administrators, eager to impress, oversold the output of their districts. Corresponding taxes claimed the bulk of food production in many rural communes and, as a result, holding a rural hukou became a death sentence for millions even while urban residents dined well.
But officials remain wary of reforms that may trigger massive nationwide urbanization, leading to spikes in urban crime and stressing the limits of municipal resources and social services. So while the government works to improve the system, it does so with deliberate speed. Rural residents were given the right to work in urban centers years ago by purchasing temporary urban visas and Beijing has now announced plans to allow the movement of 100 million workers, roughly half the total number of illegal residents.
Major cities like Shanghai will retain tighter controls whereas urban districts with less than three million people will become easier for rural resident to move into, thus encouraging growth in mid-sized cities while protecting larger ones from overpopulation. The government’s stated long-term hope is the standardization of the nation’s system by 2020, allowing rural and urban residents to enjoy the same benefits and opportunities.