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Internal Migration and the Hukou System


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One significant factor driving China’s urbanization is the large influx of migrant workers that come from the countryside with a Rural hukou. Hukou’s act as an internal passport and was initially implemented by Mao Zudong in 1954 to stop and influx of rural workers into the cities. The Hukou rather than the place of residence determines the level of welfare benefits someone is entitled to. It also has lead to a form of internal class racism from urban hukou holders and the Chinese State Govt leaving Rural Hukou residents as second class citizens with little or not rights and modes of support. The city-born children of migrants suffer the same discrimination, often being denied access to urban state-run schools and having to clear higher hurdles to get into university.

However times have changed asince Zedong implemented this law in 1954 and internal migration is one of the most important drivers in China’s fast paced urbanisation plans today seeing almost one third of the city dwelling population holding Rural Hukou’s. Figures from the 2010 census put temporary migrants – that is, those living more than one municipality away from their registered home for a period of more than six weeks – at almost 250 million, or nearly 19% of the overall population. This is expected to rise to approximately 30% (400 million) by 2025* . These figures may be lower than the actual total as many migrants are thought to have avoided inclusion in the census. Most migrants moved to the city either because of surplus labour problems in their hometowns, or in the hope of earning higher levels of income to support their families. This temporary urbanization has not exacerbated China’s urban unemployment as China’s economy has grown rapidly over the last several decades, and as migrant workers tend to take those jobs that urban residents are either unable or unwilling to do. Male migrants, for instance, dominate employment in sectors such as construction, while females work in cheap labour textile and other factories, where work is strenuous and often dull. Migrant employees are thought to send home an average of 50% of their income. More recently there have been reports of shortages of labour in some of the bigger cities, such as Shanghai, as opportunities open up closer to home for many migrants; the municipality of Chongqing recorded a higher number of returnees than those leaving in 2011 for the first time since the reform period began. Additionally, second generation migrant workers have begun to demand higher wages and better working conditions, reducing the benefit of employing them. Nevertheless, migrant workers remain a crucial aspect of China’s continued rapid development.


The overwhelming majority of migrant workers come from the poorer, western or interior provinces. 82% of these migrants head to just seven municipalities and provinces – Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Guangdong and Fujian. Approximately 64% of all migrants are males, aged between 16 and 30. Only 10% have been educated beyond middle school.

While tolerated by Beijing as a means of reducing rural unemployment, and as a way of providing cheap labour for urban factories and construction, migrants have not been given explicit permission by the government to be in the cities in which they work. There are many reports of discrimination against migrant workers both by their employers, who may seek to exploit the vulnerability of these workers through non- or late payment of wages, and by the state, which denies welfare benefits to those not resident in their registered municipalities. Without official residence papers, migrants have poor access to housing, health facilities, and education for their children. It is not uncommon for migrants to work long hours in poor safety conditions for little pay. It is estimated that the majority of the 700,000 annual, serious, work-related injuries, claiming 130,000 lives, are incurred by migrant workers.

China Migrant Workers

As migrant workers become a more permanent fixture of urban landscapes, there has been an effort to relax the hukou system in order to provide this population with greater rights. In 1997, for example, the State Council created a pilot scheme to allow certain migrant workers to transfer their registration to 450 selected towns and cities. To qualify, migrants needed to demonstrate a stable source of income, residence of over two years in the chosen city, employment in either secondary or tertiary industries, and that they own their own apartment. These requirements have made it close to impossible for the vast majority of migrants to qualify. In 2001, the State Council expanded the program to include all small towns and cities. Yet, as the value of the property was not specified, many city governments restricted large inflows of unskilled workers into their cities by requiring apartments to be of a value that often exceeded the means of the average migrant worker. This meant that, in effect, the government pilot scheme acted more as a means to attract talent and investment rather than a policy to promote the rights of those involved in internal migration throughout the country.

More recently there has been increasing pressure to reform the hukou system, with 12 newspapers publishing a joint editorial calling for it to be modified in March 2012. The Government does appear to be waking up to the disruptive potential of an urban underclass. Early in 2013 Li Keqiang, the prime minister, began calling for a “human-centred new style of urbanisation”. In November last year (2014) the party decided to speed up the pace of hukou reform. Officials have been calling for “equal rights” for all urban residents. A new word has entered the party lexicon: shiminhua, which means turning a migrant into an urbanite with all the perks of a city hukou-holder. The declared aim of urbanisation now is not just to move people into cities, but more importantly to make urbanites of them.

These reforms are a vital aspect to China’s continual growth however there are major challenges alongside these reform’s including massive resistance from the local government who do not wish to foot the bill and also the urban hukou holders due to concerns that their privileges and access to education and welfare will be stripped away to balance the large investment needed to balance the scales.

On top of this the rural hukou holders even through highly discriminated against are also resistant to relinquishing their rural hukou in exchange for an Urban one as the local governments simply reclaim this land and sell to developers and refuse to allow them to sell their land to make money and build a better life, properly severing ties with their Rural background.

To say there are some challenges ahead is an understatement.

*Economist special report on China April 2014

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