What the heck is a Hukou?

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+).
Tomorrow we’ll be looking at how the hukou system effects rural Chinese families.

19 responses to “What the heck is a Hukou?”

  1. Ander says:

    One country, two worlds.

  2. ge says:

    it’s like a national VISA or something. can’t understand how they make things harder than it already is.

  3. imikespock says:

    recommend book,’Factory girls’,by Leslie T. Chang!

  4. yaxue c. says:

    Hukou is the bridle the party/government (they are the same in China) puts on people to control them. It controls just about every aspect of your life: Where you can live and where you cannot; whether you are eligible for certain jobs or not; whether you are eligible for certain benefits or not; whether or not your children can go to certain schools, etc. This applies to the city people, the lucky ones. If you are born in the countryside and have a rural hukou, the situation is much worse. You are essentially the hostage, the slave (who is not in a fundamental sense?) of the government, and a city hukou can be the most wonderful freedom dream that can never come true. Today people are allowed to live elsewhere other than their place of hukou, but hukou is still a tool the government uses actively to control and deferrentiate people.

    In the old days, public security can descend on your door demanding 查户口! (Check hukou!) You would be scared to just hearing these three syllables, because you didn’t know what you did wrong and why they were here and what they could do to you查户口

  5. yaxue c. says:

    (Sorry, accidentally pressed ‘publish’ before finishing) If you were a person with a “political problem,” you could be subjected to the 查户口 harassment whenever you receive guests, in the eve of a big event, or for no particular reason at all.

    Today, for a large part of population, hukou doesn’t seem to be a big issue for them to conduct life. But for many, it is still a pain; for still others, it is the noose around your neck the government can tighten any time they want.

  6. […] Seeing Red in China Your guide to modern China Skip to content HomeAbout TomComplete ArchiveSuggested SitesChina Books to ReadThe Best China MoviesMap of China ← What the heck is a Hukou? […]

  7. Great post! Buying a house, and not necessarily through employment, is generally another way to change your hukou in most cities, but not every real estate co. has the right to give you a hukou in this manner, and the house has to be bought in one lump sum (you can’t take out a loan). Yaxue is right that most people get along fine in non-birth cities without a hukou, but it becomes a pain in the ass when you have kids (looking forward to your next post!) or need official paperwork (e.g. passports). And of course, hukou or the lack thereof can always be used against “undesirable elements.” Getting rid of the hukou system seems to be one of those talking points that comes up in every Liang Hui but never quite makes it into law, probably because there are too many vested interests involved.

  8. […] the past few days we’ve been looking at migrant workers, and issues surrounding the hukou system, including left behind children, and forgotten grandparents and […]

  9. […] the past few days we’ve been looking at migrant workers, and issues surrounding the hukou system, including left behind children, and forgotten grandparents and […]

  10. […] revolving around the hukou system. So I thought it was important to establish why it is that the hukou system won’t be changing anytime soon, despite the ongoing discussions of how to change […]

  11. Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….

  12. alvin PHEE says:


  13. hooey_ru says:

    Great post for people to see the real experience of living in a country like that. Russia and China seem to be some of the few remaining countries with this slavery-style hukou system which gives rise to police harassment, having to take low-paid jobs and so on.

  14. […] 在过去的几天我已经一再的指出了户口制度的主要问题。所以我想重要的是尽管现在关于改变如何更改这个制度的讨论热火朝天,为什么在短期内户口制度不可能发生改变,。 […]

  15. […] 在过去的几天我已经一再的指出了户口制度的主要问题。所以我想重要的是尽管现在关于改变如何更改这个制度的讨论热火朝天,为什么在短期内户口制度不可能发生改变,。 […]

  16. […] 在过去的几天我已经一再的指出了户口制度的主要问题。所以我想重要的是尽管现在关于改变如何更改这个制度的讨论热火朝天,为什么在短期内户口制度不可能发生改变,。 […]

  17. […] to impossible to become a part of a different village. Land ownership is hereditary (or based on hukou), so most of these outsiders were left running small businesses, and even after a few generations […]

  18. […] a class of “internal migrants” within Chinese cities. It is a modification of the historical hukou system, which has been part of the Chinese culture for thousands of years, and has important implications […]

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