Chinese Groundhog Day

The joint sessions of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a.k.a. the lianghui (两会), are a key event in the annual Chinese political calendar. They are also a Chinese Groundhog’s day, in the Bill-Murray-movie rather than the six-more-weeks-of-winter sense. For someone interested in China’s urbanization, hukou reform is like a small furry animal that everyone expects to come out around this time of year and look around but never emerges.

When I started work on my book (then dissertation) about China’s management of urbanization and heard word in February and early March that serious reform was in the offing, I was excited by the prospects of observing how a changed policy would affect the growth of China’s cities. Yet in that year, as in every other that has come since, major reform at the national level is always left to the future. Long-range planning calls for the equalization of social services across the rural-urban divide and the end of discrimination against rural migrants in cities, but the prospects of implementation remain hazy.

Kam Wing Chan and Will Buckingham published an article in the China Quarterly entitled “Is China Abolishing the Hukou System?” (ungated version) in 2008. Their answer is no. Yet they demonstrate that both the domestic and foreign media constantly talk about the end of the system as either already having happened or just around the corner.

The most ironic piece we discovered–and perhaps the one most telling of the prognosis for the latest round of hukou reforms–was an announcement by Shenzhen, China’s largest and most famous city of migrants, that called for tightening of admission of migrants’ children to local public schools on the same day the New York Times’ eye-catching story on abolition of the hukou hit the streets.

Given the turnaround time for academic publishers, most of the research is about the 2005 version of ground hog day, but the story in the main is the same today. In 2010, 13 prominent Chinese newspapers jointly published an editorial calling for reform. That is was quickly removed from the websites of these newspapers speaks to the fate of actual reforms.

This isn’t to say that the policies aren’t changing around the edges. Tom Miller’s excellent new book, China’s Urban Billion, talks about serious reforms in experimental regions. Most intriguing are Chongqing and Chengdu where the trading of rural land credits (dipiao) has emerged, allowing even farmers far from growing cities to profit from China’s urbanization. Yet to this day, these remain experiments. The optimist sees that these are steps that must be taken before China exits this endless loop of discussing hukou reform without it ever emerging. A pessimist might see that the Party has a strong interest in keeping that particular animal–and the greater urban concentration that true reform would entail–far underground.

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