Why China won’t abandon the hukou system

Over the past few days I’ve pointed out some of the major issues 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 it.

Surprisingly the hukou system is not something that was dreamed up by the communist party as a way to control the masses (which is how it sounds to most Americans I’ve talked with), it is actually a modified version of household registration that has been a part of China for thousands of years. The original system was also used to restrict the movement of people, and to remove “troublemakers”. The modern system in the 1950’s was used as a way to keep rural peasants out of the cities. This kept the population more spread out, which made it easier for the gov’t to maintain control.

There are a number of arguments made for why the system remains, despite China’s move away from a command economy, these are the most frequently cited.


It’s hard to talk with any party member about the hukou system without hearing them mention the fact that China does not have slums like India or the Philippines. This is an undeniable benefit of the system, but it is not quite as wonderful as they make it seem. Rural Chinese farmers, who can’t move to the city, often live in mud brick houses, that frequently lack proper sanitation; migrant workers in the cities live in crowded dormitories with their fellow workers, cut off from their families; and construction worker dormitories are flimsy, temporary buildings thrown up next to the current project. So while there are not “slums” there are millions of Chinese living in substandard housing.

Slums however also often include large numbers of unemployed people of working age, and children who are not attending school. This does not happen at nearly the same scale in China. Unemployed factory workers often return to their hometown, because there is zero benefit of them staying in the city, while they could earn a meager wage in their hometown. Children are also often left in the countryside with elderly parents, which means they attend school, but this of course has a different set of problems.

Benefits Businesses

Critics usually point to the fact that the hukou system brings massive advantages to the factory owners, while oppressing the migrant workers, which is true, but, they seem to forget that the national gov’t and many local gov’ts are the owners of thousands of factories throughout the country (remember, a major part of communism that the country kept was State Owned Enterprises). It is in their interest to keep workers wages low, while limiting their bargaining power, even though it is unfair.

This source of cheap labor has been a huge part of China’s economic success, and the hukou system helped to make sure hourly wages stayed low. If migrants had been allowed to flood the cities, slow economic periods would have led to unrest, and undermined the stability that has been another major factor in China’s rise.

In the eyes of a local gov’t official, migrant workers provide the cheap labor he needs to grow the GDP figures that will earn him a promotion. In my experience, businesses and gov’ts rarely work against their own vested interests for the benefit of the voiceless masses, regardless of the country.

Limits Local Gov’t Expenses

The third reason I think that the hukou system isn’t going anywhere, is that if local gov’ts had to actually provide urban benefits to migrant workers, the whole system would collapse. Consider that migrant workers earn only~2-3,000 rmb ($4-500) each month, but would require education, health care, police, and many other services, while providing a tiny tax base. Because of China’s tax structure, these gov’ts would not be able to provide even the modest level of services that they do today. By dividing the population in this way, it is possible to provide a higher level of service to the areas with the highest population densities, and keep the relatively powerful segment of the population happy (read my series on stability).

As Chairman Mao said during the great famine, “When there is not enough to eat people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” Rural residents are again the ones who are left to “starve” while urban residents eat their fill, unaware of the problems beyond their gates.

24 responses to “Why China won’t abandon the hukou system”

  1. runningintomyself says:

    Actually, Chengdu has announced a plan to abolish the Hukou system. It’s not clear when this will be fully implemented, but “According to the city’s plan, by the end of 2011, urban and rural unemployment benefits will be unified and a landless farmer will be considered unemployed, thereby giving him access to urban unemployment benefits.”

    Also, your monthly income for migrant workers is very high – “Migrant laborers in Chinese cities earn an average of 966 yuan (US$120) per month, much more than the average farmer, but still very low compared to urban residents… The per capita monthly income for half of the migrant laborers is less than 800 yuan (US$101), with 19.67 percent below 500 yuan (US$63), according to a latest survey conducted by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). ”

    Thanks for an enlightening article.

    • Tom says:

      I was basing my figures off of what I had been told by students. Also the article you linked for monthly wages is from 2006, so I hope it is no longer accurate.
      I’ve also heard of Chongqing offering all farmers urban hukous, but they required that they abandon any claims on their farm lands. So hopefully the Chengdu plan is better thought out, and offers a real choice.

  2. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    I had heard of the hukou system but had little real understanding of it. I remember one of my Chinese friends grumbling that China was the only country apart from North Korea which had hukous. Thank you for a very informative article Tom.

    • Tom says:

      North Korea is much more strict than China when it comes to internal migration, but from reading Barbara Demick’s book “Nothing to Envy” that sounds like it might be starting to break down a little.

  3. Yaxue C. says:

    Internal migration used to be very, very strict too, limited only to a handful situations: people who were assigned new jobs (usually the cadres) in another city; military officers’ families joining them (only after years in service); sprouses living in different cities and one joining the other (the bigger the city you were moving to, the harder); students going to college in another city. That was about it. For anyone in other than these few scenarios, which means most of the population, moving to somewhere else to live was not something you would ever contemplate.

    I suppose it’s much better relatively; but I bet it is still a daunting task to try to move your hukou.

    How I remember that little booklet! So simple a piece of paper, the size of 4×6, but controls so much of your life.

  4. […] 中国见红博客:为什么中国不抛弃户口制度?——因为它可以避免贫民窟、对企业压低成本有利,也降低了地方政府的成本 […]

  5. hcyip says:

    Nice blog you’ve got here about life in China.
    Back in university, I once asked a professor about why China had no slums like those found in cities in India, Brazil, Kenya etc and he referred to rural landownership and the hukou system. It’s got its good points and bad points which you covered. I don’t think China has the means to truly provide adequate social services to all its citizens so for now, the hukou is necessary, but hukou reform is definitely needed.

    Just as an aside, Taiwan, where I live for now, also has a hukou system so as you saidm it’s not something the Communists cooked up. Of course, it’s only administrative and it doesn’t limit or restrict you from going anywhere. It’s just whenever you move somewhere you’ve got to get a new one.

  6. 5_Mao says:

    Chinese city has no slums like those of India or South American, but I would ask what are the difference between an Indian urban slum and a poor Chinese village? Isolated, forced to connect with the land of state, no good education, no future development for kids? Let alone no or poor facility and sanitary situation. The most Chinese villages are rural SLUMS!

    • bill rich says:

      China has “distributed” and “hidden” slums instead of concentrated slums. Distributed and hidden slums don’t cause China to loose face. And it is hard for people from distributed slums to gather together in sufficient numbers to protest effectively. It is a win, win, win solution for the government.

  7. Sascha says:

    Hi there,

    I wrote that chengduliving hukou post linked above and the deal is, chengdu is a pilot program. The local gov wants to see what happens when rural and urban hukous are “unified” in a manner of speaking. It is very informative to read the actual chinese language study linked in that post. The hukou haas many benefits, but to that part of society which is actually holding China back. It must be teformed, if china is to move forward. So thats whats up with the pilot program. Congqing’s has failed because chongqing is a corrupt corrupt town; beijing has gone in fits and starts because of politics. Cities like chengdu are perfect labs for discerning china’s future.

    Great post tom

  8. […] 原文:Why China won’t abandon the hukou system 作者:Tom  @seeingredinchina发表:2011年9月8日本文由“译者”志愿者“MZ老道”翻译 […]

  9. bill rich says:

    Another reason I can think of is the hukou system separates city dwellers into at least three classes: permanent residences with hukou, temporary residences with permits, and illegal migrants/residences. And you need official permission to migrate from one class to the other. Each movement means additional opportunity for the palm to be greased. The more of non-permanent residences are created, the more palm greasing opportunities are created. And no government official would want to eliminate any palm greasing opportunity.

  10. […] 原文:Why China won’t abandon the hukou system 作者:Tom  @seeingredinchina发表:2011年9月8日本文由“译者”志愿者“MZ老道”翻译 […]

  11. […] 原文:Why China won’t abandon the hukou system 作者:Tom  @seeingredinchina发表:2011年9月8日本文由“译者”志愿者“MZ老道”翻译 […]

  12. Anonymous says:

    I am not sure if I quite get author’s point on Hukou’s linkage with low wage. Isn’t the wage level decided by the market? The wage is low because labor is abundant. Labor is abundant because much rural population is going into the cities. They go into the cities because the cities offer a much better (monetary) return on their labor. Even though migrant workers do not enjoy any benefits of the city like workers with city hukou, it is for them probably still better than at home on the farm. And this is why they are moving. In recent years, due to forever increasing cost of living in first-tier cities, many migrant workers are going then into second-tier or third-tier cities. As a result of shortage in migrant labor in first-tier cities, wage level increased. Which role does Hukou play in all this?

    • Tom says:

      because these aren’t legal residents, they lack a legal position to bargain with. Also there have been incidents where companies have shut down and simply refused to pay their migrant workers, knowing that for the most part, the police will not help them.

  13. passer-by says:

    “When there is not enough to eat people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.”
    Tell us where we can go to find the original version.

  14. 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….

  15. Anonymous says:

    Never base anything off of what you hear from your students.

  16. […] list of divides is the Hukou divide, seen by some as systemic discrimination and others as modified versions of household registrations that date back to […]

  17. ACE says:

    Thanks! It seems like Hukou is a form of subtle discrimination against the migrant workers… And it becomes a vicious cycle when the rural citizens cannot break away from poverty since they can’t move to the cities or have the means to emigrate…

  18. […] to “starve” while urban residents eat their fill, unaware of the problems beyond their gates. Why China won’t abandon the hukou system | Seeing Red in China Reply Tweet « Half of urban China's aged live […]

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