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Society & Culture

China’s Hukou System: How an Engine of Development Has Become a Major Obstacle

Apr 24 , 2019
  • Martin King Whyte

    Professor of International Studies and Sociology Emeritus, Harvard University
In one of the great ironies of China’s communist revolution, Mao Zedong, a son of the soil and leader of a rural revolution, imposed on China’s peasants a system of subjugation that could be called "socialist serfdom." From the end of the 1950s until Mao’s death in 1976, the vast majority of villagers (more than 80% of the population) were bound to the soil like medieval serfs, forbidden to migrate to the cities as Chinese villagers had done for millennia. Despite the injustices of this caste system, it paradoxically benefited China enormously once market reforms were launched in 1978. However, now that China is attempting to rise into the ranks of rich countries, the legacy of this system is a major obstacle. At the heart of China’s caste system is that country’s unique household registration (hukou) system.
Chinese emperors had employed household registration for centuries to keep track of where citizens lived, but not to prevent them from migrating. After the revolution China followed the Soviet model and collectivized agriculture, in part to apply industrial management techniques to boost agricultural production, but also to guarantee sufficient grain and other crops to feed the cities (through mandatory crop procurements at state-set, low prices). China also issued increasingly rigid migration restrictions, culminating in strict national regulations in 1958. All Chinese had been sorted into either agricultural or non-agricultural registrations, based upon rural versus urban birthplaces, and henceforth no voluntary migration from a village to a town or city would be permitted. Minor exceptions enabled a very few villagers to get bureaucratic permission to move to cities and convert to a non-agricultural hukou.
Ironically, even though the USSR provided the original model, Soviet kolkhozniki did not become socialist serfs, with a steady out-flow of villagers attending Soviet universities and recruited by urban factories. But in China the migration restrictions were stricter, and the proportion of Chinese living in urban areas was effectively frozen for more than two decades
The hoped for bumper harvests never materialized, in either the USSR or in China, and both countries suffered from regime-induced mass famines (the USSR in 1931-32 and China in 1959-61). After recovery from its famine, China was able to feed a growing population, but just barely. Even urban residents had very meager diets at the time Mao died, with strict rationing, while the vast majority of rural residents were mired in abject poverty. But within China’s communes there were some positive trends. Health care improved dramatically, rural as well as urban Chinese lived longer, daughters as well as sons were getting at least primary schooling and often some middle schooling as well, and rural youths of both genders gained experience working with others under the supervision of non-family members.
When the reforms were launched after 1978, this division of the population into favored urbanites and deprived villagers was not repudiated. Instead, Deng Xiaoping and fellow reformers retained this caste structure but gradually loosened the migration restrictions. This enabled Chinese villagers to migrate into the cities, becoming a “floating population” estimated to number more than 260 million in recent years. The maintenance of this caste system was a master-stroke of the reformers, as urban migrants through their underpaid labors were central to China’s extraordinary growth over the first three decades of the reforms. Millions of migrants, mostly young and eager to leave their villages, were willing to engage in construction, hauling, export-oriented manufacturing, entertainment, household service, and other jobs urban youths looked down upon. Possessing in most cases lower middle schooling but no more, and willing to work long and hard hours for wages that barely budged upward for years, migrants generated immense profits for the firms that employed them. Still retaining their agricultural hukou status, and therefore not entitled to the same wages and benefits as urbanites, not to mention the same job security or access to housing, schooling for their children, and much else, migrants formed the lower segment of a dualistic urban labor force, with migrants and those with urban hukou for the most part not competing for jobs.
The CCP’s desire to maintain this dualistic structure can be seen in official barriers that made it very difficult for youths with rural hukou to obtain education beyond lower middle school (junior high school) graduation. Until recently migrants were barred from sending their children to urban public schools unless they paid high fees. Some sent their children to nearby migrant-run schools of uncertain quality, but many sent their children back to their villages of origin, to be supervised there by grandparents (the “left behind children,” estimated to number more than 60 million). After 2006, schools in large cities were supposed to start admitting migrant children without special fees, but generally they could only proceed to lower middle school graduation, the end of compulsory schooling. If they wanted to attend upper middle school, not to mention university, they would have to pass the exams for those levels back in the village (even if they had never lived there themselves). In rural areas, however, middle schools were few and far between, with students often having to attend as boarders, with the extra expenses that entails. The results of these discriminatory restrictions were predictable. Early in the reform period, enrollments in China’s upper middle schools dropped sharply, from 18 million in 1977 to 9.7 million in 1980 and then 6.3 million in 1983, overwhelmingly due to a surge in high school dropouts and school closures in rural areas.
Despite gradual recovery since, as late as 2005 the modal educational attainment of rural youths was lower middle schooling, while for urban youths it was increasingly college, with city students the predominant beneficiaries of China’s massive post-1998 university expansion.
The growing gap between educational opportunities for urban and rural youths, which served China well early in the reform period, now constitutes a serious obstacle to China progressing further and joining the ranks of rich countries. The days of relying on cheap migrant labor to fuel growth have passed, with migrant wages now on the increase and since 2010 a decline in the number of new entrants into the labor forceChina needs more highly educated people of all origins, not more cheap but modestly educated laborers from rural areas. Recent surveys indicate that in 2015, only 30% of the labor force had any high schooling, compared with 31% in Indonesia, 34% in Mexico, 36% in Turkey, 42% in Argentina, and 46% in Brazil, not to mention 76% in OECD countries. In a culture that famously values education, this deficit is alarming, and China’s leaders since 2005 have launched a major campaign to universalize upper middle schooling.  One analysis based upon 2015 micro-census data indicates that in 2005, 90% of urban youths had some high schooling, but only 43% of rural youths did. By 2015 the urban-rural gap in high schooling had declined substantially, to 97% for urban youths and 77% for rural youths. However, a large share of this increase, particularly for rural youths, has been achieved through expansion of vocational and educational training (VET) schools, rather than academic high schools. Other research indicates that VET schools often provide poor quality education and also have higher dropout rates than academic high schools, so rural youths are still being short-changed.
The CCP recognizes that it has to continue to make major efforts to upgrade the educational and skill levels of all of its citizens, and particularly to overcome the legacy of policies designed to keep rural youths educationally disadvantaged. But the pervasive impact of those policies, with their roots in a separation of Chinese citizens into high “quality” (suzhi) urbanites and lower quality rural residents for more than 60 years, indicates that this will be a long-term and difficult struggle. Will Xi Jinping or his successors find a way to finally end China’s pernicious caste system of unequal treatment and opportunities based upon the accident of where you were born?
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