Yet Again, Hukou System Not Abolished

A broken record on hukou reform

The Chinese government has announced, and media have reported, another round of hukou reform.

Here’s the first paragraph from the China Daily story:

Chinese migrant workers living in cities will gradually have full access to schools and hospitals where they work, a significant move to improve social equality between rural and urban residents.

Triumph! The end of discrimination and urban-rural apartheid! Citizens will be free to choose where they wish to live and have access to social services regardless of where they were born! Let’s read all about it.

The last two paragraphs of that story:

The guideline also said the expansion of the country’s megacities including Beijing and Shanghai will be limited.

Initially, Huang said, the country will take effective measures, such as a point system based on applicants’ living and employment conditions, to scientifically control the flow of its population to the major cities.

Oh.

Apologies for sounding like a skipping CD (or is even that too dated a reference?), this reform is far from groundbreaking or comprehensive. Tania Branigan’s story in the Guardian is excellent–focusing on the limited nature of the reforms:

But experts warned that the changes to the hukou, or household registration system, fell short of hopes for more comprehensive reform and would have limited impact.

Large cities will have exemptions, rules regarding land aren’t addressed, and cities will have abilities to shape reforms based on their own situations. China’s management of urbanization is an under-appreciated aspect of the Chinese Communist Party’s success, as I write in my recently published book, Cities and Stability: Urbanization, Redistribution, and Regime Survival in China, which is why hukou reform is often discussed but rarely implemented.

When I heard word in February and early March 2006 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 has been 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?” in 2008. Their answer was 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.

In 2014 with a new more powerful center, it remains just around the corner.

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