Tea Leaf Nation

China Is Ending Its ‘Apartheid.’ Here’s Why No One Is Happy About It

China Is Ending Its ‘Apartheid.’ Here’s Why No One Is Happy About It

China’s longstanding system of hukou, or residential registration, has been much vilified; in April, The Economist even compared it to apartheid. However stretched the analogy, it’s clear the hukou system is inherently unequal. At birth, every Chinese citizen is assigned one of two essentially permanent categories — either rural or urban — based on their parentage. Originally implemented in the late 1950s to control internal migration and keep urban labor costs low, the binary hukou system has created enormous inequality among the approximately 250 million rural migrants who have flooded Chinese cities in search of work. Partly because of their hukou, most of China’s urban population enjoys superior access to healthcare, education, and retirement benefits. By contrast, migrant workers from the countryside may toil as menial laborers in large cities for decades without the ability to convert their status and gain access to these perks. Children of migrants are particularly vulnerable, since their parents, often working-class, may be unable to pay the extra fees required to send their children to urban schools. But after years of rumors and false starts, hukou is finally on the chopping block — just in time for many Chinese to decide they like the status quo.

On July 29, the State Council, China’s top policymaking body, announced that the hukou system’s days were officially numbered. According to the State Council’s outline, which will become the basis for changes to the law, small towns must begin to accept rural residents unconditionally, while medium-sized cities must accept newcomers after they work and live there for a certain period. The most coveted spots in China’s largest cities like Beijing and Shanghai will be meted out on a restrictive point system that favors educated or well-to-do migrants.

Despite the glaring need for systemic reform, however, both rural and urban hukou holders have met this monumental policy change with skepticism. Sweeping conclusions about the hukou system are difficult to make, as the benefits a hukou entails can vary between provinces, counties — and even villages. But it’s clear that urbanites generally aren’t eager to share their privileged access to education and welfare benefits with newcomers, while rural hukou holders generally enjoy more benefits back home than they once did and may thus be loath to lose their rural status. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, most rural dwellers were eager to switch; but in the decade that followed, authorities attached more land rights and welfare benefits to a rural hukou, while rural social security and healthcare also improved. Chinese media reported shortly after the turn of the millennium that many migrant workers were ambivalent about switching their status if given the chance, particularly because many regions give rural hukou holders use, though not outright ownership, of a plot of land at home, something urban hukou holders lack. In March 2003, state-owned China Youth Daily  quoted a peasant surnamed Wei saying, "If I lose my land and get stranded with one leg in the field and one leg on city streets, I’d be completely screwed."

China’s explosive economic growth plays a part in shifting the equation. Rural hukou in developed coastal regions have become more valuable as land prices have risen swiftly. In wealthy eastern Zhejiang province, the number of rural hukou holders switching to urban hukou totaled 189,000 in 2010, a 67 percent drop from more than 570,000 in 2004. In 2010, several well-publicized stories emerged about urban civil servants trying to claw back the rural hukou they had given up.  

The younger generation of rural hukou holders may be no less attached to rural status than their parents. According to an October 2011 article in China Youth Daily, more than 60 percent of university students with rural hukou in Lanzhou, a large city in western China, chose to keep their status, as did the majority of rural students in a forestry college in eastern Zhejiang province. Indeed, the article continued, university students in cities around the country had begun to reject the chance to switch to an urban hukou, and some who had already switched from rural to urban were putting in requests to have their original status restored. According to the article, rural students were concerned about job prospects in large cities and preferred to keep their rural hukou as a backup. 

For those in Chinese cyberspace, of whom roughly 27 percent live in rural areas, the rural hukou’s abolition is worrisome for many who see it as changing the rules of the game just when the game was becoming slightly fairer. "Do I want to give up my rural hukou?" One user on Weibo, China’s Twitter, asked. "No, because it means losing a sense of belonging and security. If I lose my job in the city, I’d be out on the street. Land is my lifeline." Another agreed, "As soon as the rural hukou is worth something, they take away the [urban-rural] distinction and, with that, the little land that we are entitled to." One user was convinced authorities do not "care about rural residents" but instead, "just want to get some land."

Abolishing the rural-urban divide also fails to satisfy urbanites. Regional differences in the quality of education, social security, and healthcare remain stark, and the winners are eager to keep their gains. Many of China’s most desirable schools, hospitals, housing, and retirement programs are currently concentrated in megalopolises like Beijing and Shanghai. Residents of those cities  jealously guard the privileges they see as birthrights for both themselves and their children. A Weibo user from Shanghai complained that the policy change would "bring about another wave of migrants," and believed that the government should make sure issues like traffic jams and crimes are resolved first before tackling hukou. Another user demanded to know: "Rural people can enjoy urban benefits and own rural land; how is that fair to urban citizens?"

On July 24, Premier Li Keqiang visited a construction site in eastern Shandong province and shook hands with a migrant worker, promising the worker that his children would "definitely become city folks," joining what consultancy McKinsey estimates are another 350 million Chinese to urbanize by 2030. It may not have occurred to Li that the worker might want something different.