China 'hukou' system deemed outdated as way of controlling access to services

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 15, 2010

Wang Aijun is the editor of the Beijing News, one of China's most influential private daily newspapers. Yet here in the capital, Wang said, he often feels like a second-class citizen.

He pays Beijing taxes, but his teenage son is not allowed to attend a Beijing public high school. To install a telephone or an Internet line, he must pay in advance. He is charged more for a ticket to some city parks. He doesn't qualify for a subsidized apartment. He cannot enroll his family in the city's public health-insurance program.

The reason for the discrimination? Despite having lived and worked in Beijing for seven years, Wang still does not have that most sought-after of commodities: a Beijing "hukou."

One of China's oldest tools of population control, the hukou is essentially a household registration permit, akin to an internal passport. It contains all of a household's identifying information, such as parents' names, births, deaths, marriages, divorces, moves and colleges attended. Most important, it identifies the city, town or village to which a person belongs.

The hukou dates back at least 2,000 years, when the Han dynasty used it as a way to collect taxes and determine who served in the army. Mao Zedong's Communist regime revived it in 1958 to keep poor rural farmers from flooding into the cities. It remains a key tool for keeping track of people and monitoring those the government considers "troublemakers."

Critics say the hukou system perpetuates China's growing urban-rural divide. Migrant workers flock to the coastal cities to labor in factories and take other manual jobs, sometimes living many years in places such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Because they lack an "urban hukou," they are forever designated "temporary residents" -- unentitled to subsidized public housing, public education beyond elementary school, public medical insurance and government welfare payments.

People who live in a city such as Beijing but do not have a local hukou must travel to their home towns to get a marriage license, apply for a passport or take the national university entrance exam. Parents and students say the last requirement is particularly onerous, especially if a student has to take the exam in a province that uses different textbooks.

Some economists here say the hukou system is outdated and unsuited to a modern economy that requires the free movement of labor. Others call it "China's apartheid," saying it has created a two-tiered system of haves and have-nots in all the major cities.

"You have a large number of rural migrants who already earn most of their income in the cities, who have been in the cities a long time, but do not have hukou-related benefits," said Tao Ran, an economist at Renmin University. "This system is very bad; it's ridiculous."

Life without a hukou

White-collar professionals also find life more difficult if they happen to be born without the right hukou.

Wang, 42, moved to Beijing seven years ago from Zhengzhou, in Henan province, after he became editor of the Beijing News. The paper could not get him a Beijing hukou, but he took the job anyway. "I thought I should do something I was interested in," Wang said. "I also thought China's hukou system would be reformed in six or seven years."

He estimates that nearly a third of Beijing's 22 million-plus people do not have a Beijing hukou -- including, he said, most members of his newspaper staff. Some reports put the number of temporary residents in the capital at 8 million.

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