Yesterday we looked briefly at the life of a typical migrant worker, today we will be exploring the limits of the hukou system.
It is impossible to discuss the issue of migrant workers without understand what exactly a hukou (户口) is. At the most basic level, a hukou is a legal document that specifies which village/town/city you are a resident of. So when I use the term “migrant worker” I am meaning a person who works in a place outside of what their hukou specifies, and is coming from a less developed region to a more prosperous one to look for work.
What is a Hukou?
A hukou for one of China’s eastern cities can be an incredibly valuable thing, since your residency determines which schools you can attend (we’ll be looking at this soon). The location of your hukou also determines which social benefits you are entitled to as pensions, health care, and other services are often tied to your residency. These benefits are practically non-existent in the countryside. Recently they have also become important for purchasing apartments.
This creates a system of second class citizens that are legally below urban residents. As such migrant workers are often looked down upon by these urban residents, and are often blamed for a variety of social ills, like in Suzhou where they were blamed for 80% of local crime. Their questionable status makes them incredibly vulnerable when entering into work contracts, which means they earn lower wages, and are the most likely to be exploited by less than honest managers.
I know this because a number of my students reported that during their summer work experiences in Guangdong province they were often promised high salaries, but on pay day they discovered a number of “fees” had been subtracted from their wages. They felt they had been cheated, but knew there was no way to get back the money that had been taken. These kinds of practices have widened the divide between migrant workers and their local counterparts.
Where is home?
The location of your hukou is determined by the location of your parents residency status at the time of your birth. This means that if you are born in Beijing where your parents are working, but your parents hukou identifies them as residents of Liuzhou, Guangxi, then you will be given a Liuzhou hukou.
However it is possible to change your legal residency in a few ways (it is impossible to be very specific since each city has their own regulations):
- Marriage: This is perhaps the most straightforward method of changing one’s hukou status, but often the requirements are more even stringent than they would be for attaining citizenship in another country. In some cities it can require being married to a local for more than 5 years before your status can be changed.
- Education: Graduates of universities in large cities are allowed to compete for a limited number of hukous each year. To earn this kind of hukou you must find a civil service job, or find a company that can grant you a hukou (these companies have a limited number to distribute). This of course requires you to first enter one of China’s top universities, which as we saw earlier this week (here), largely excludes rural residents. Beijing only offered 10,000 of this type of hukou last year, which is tiny considering that its population is more than 22 million.
- Employment: Similar to the education option, there are also a limited number of hukous available through companies for highly skilled workers (this usually requires a master’s degree and means a high demand for your position). This also generally requires that the employee purchases an apartment of a specified value. My friend who wanted to move to Xiamen was told the apartment must be worth at least 2,000,000rmb (~$310,000), even though she was just a middle school teacher. She would also have had to stay in that school for 5+ years, which forced her to accept poor working conditions after she started the job (she has since quit and gone home).
- The Black Market: As I mentioned earlier, a hukou is a valuable commodity, and in China there are few things that aren’t for sale. It has become somewhat common for people to pay companies that have extra hukous to be “employed” there so that they can qualify to change their legal status. A Beijing hukou, for example, is worth somewhere between 120,000 and 180,000rmb (~$20,000+).