he huji household registration system (huji means “household registration”), introduced in its current form in 1958 under Mao, gives each Chinese resident a so-called hukou, a personal status based on place of residence or birth. There are two main categories of hukou: you either have a rural or urban hukou. And the cities are again hierarchically ranked by size and wealth level. Without obtaining an urban hukou, you cannot move legally from a poor rural area to a thriving metropolis. If you relocate without the required permit, you are not entitled to social services such as education, health care, and retirement in your new area of residence.
The huji aims to keep people literally and figuratively in their places, easing local governance. The system indeed brought some order to a hugely dynamic country. For example, it prevented the formation of massive slums around major cities, which is a significant problem in neighboring India. But by tying people from poorer parts of the countryside to their region, the system formalizes and exacerbates inequality between different groups of Chinese nationals (there are no ‘citizens’ properly understood in the Chinese political system).
Specifically, it pushes two to three hundred million (!) Chinese migrant workers into illegality. These migrant workers (nongmingong), who moved from the countryside to big cities for work without permission, are ‘illegalized’ domestically. Their hukou is invalid. But work they do. Illegalized, rural-to-urban migrant workers make up one-third of China’s labor force. These hardworking men and women, who make the affordable industrial export products you consume, are often worse off than illegal aliens in the U.S. or E.U. because they do not receive medical care or education for their children in the part of the country in which they live and work. The children, therefore, usually stay with their grandparents in the countryside and see their parents one week a year during Chinese New Year.
A friend of mine is a rural-to-urban migrant worker in Beijing. When I met him in 2015, he was a waiter at a cafe on the campus of Peking University. Later, he became a fast-paced pizza deliverer. We would cruise our electric scooters at night through Being’s turbulent traffic. He arrived at every get-together with a melon and nuts, and, as a Buddhist Daizu (an ethnicity related to the Thai), was more generous in style than is usual in the Leitkultur of the Han majority. In Beijing, he slept on a bunk bed in a room with five or six other men. He stoically judged that although he was already well into his thirties, he could not think about a girlfriend until he had his own living space. His parents run a bamboo farm in a Dai village in Yunnan, a southwestern province on the border with Myanmar, two thousand kilometers from Beijing. When I visited him and his family there in 2018 during New Year with an Australian friend, we were stuffed with pork and cheap baijiu, a vodka-like drink, from breakfast on. The family slaughtered two of their six pigs for the festivities. The feast was lavish, partly because the rest of the year is no celebration for China’s working class, with the huji restrictions ranking among their many burdens.
Two huji-related problems stand out: housing and family planning. In their article “Housing Policies for Rural Migrant Workers in China,” Wang Yeqiang and Xin Dong show that rural-to-urban migrant workers have difficulties finding proper housing near their workplaces. They observe “large discrepancies in levels of access to good quality accommodation between migrants from rural areas and the established urban population. These inequalities are exacerbated by inherited forms of residential registration that adversely affect rural migrants settling in towns and cities. The situation is further exacerbated by land use regulations that restrict the construction of collective dormitories for rural migrant workers.” In short, many migrant workers are unable to rent a room or studio apartment of their own.
As with my Dai friend in Beijing, the housing situation depresses many migrants’ romantic prospects and family planning. On East Asia Forum, Sun Wanning, Deputy Director of the UTS Australia-China Relations Institute, concludes the following about the effects of the huji/hukou system on romance. “The hukou system is a key factor influencing the intimate lives of rural migrants. It is also a contributing factor to rural migrants’ marriage problems. Most young rural migrants, uprooted from their village homes, have no permanent housing to their name, no secure employment or income and low social status. Given their low income, they cannot afford the time, money or energy to go on dates, let alone save enough money for an apartment, a car or wedding gifts, all of which are considered essential by their urban resident equivalents.”
Besides being a human reality, the huji also has global macroeconomic ramifications. Its restrictions, which create a mass of socially vulnerable, frequently underpaid laborers, skew the world market by making Chinese export products ‘artificially’ cheap, aggravating China’s trade imbalance with, for example, the U.S. The total sum of China’s exports has a much greater economic value than China’s imports. Industrial products mostly flow from China to foreign countries, while the money (the profit) moves in the opposite direction, to China’s party-linked industrialists, who then invest that money in, say, Canadian real estate, New York-listed stocks, or U.S. or European government bonds. This international surplus recycling mechanism largely leaves out Chinese workers, and the illegalized ones in particular. Receiving low salaries relative to output, they consequently lack purchasing power, which means that they cannot direct much money into the domestic consumption market. In this way, the international trade imbalance simultaneously skews China’s domestic economy; the latter is too dependent on exports and infrastructure investment, needing more consumption-driven and service-sector growth.
But change appears imminent. The Ministry of Public Security has announced plans to lower the threshold for obtaining an urban hukou. Beijing wants local governments to lift huji restrictions in cities under three million residents and relax restrictions for cities with three to five million. Eventually, all restrictions may be lifted, which would end the formalized exclusion of hundreds of millions from social services and opportunities.
The ongoing liberation benefits the living conditions of migrant workers, increasing numbers of whom can start families, put their children in urban schools, join in more typical urban consumption patterns, and negotiate salaries and work conditions from a position of increased social status and confidence. All this, I reckon, will render their salaries more proportionate to the international market value of their labor, lift their purchasing power, and boost China’s domestic consumption market. Meanwhile, Chinese exports will become more expensive, creating opportunities for industrial exporters in other countries (think Mexico, Turkey, Poland, or Hungary). The dismantling of huji restrictions is thus a bliss for humanity. Even American trade warriors concerned about the Sino-US trade balance (China sells far more to the U.S. than vice versa) have the same interests as underpaid Chinese migrant workers. The former often imagine China as a monolithic rival, but we are all on the same side here. Chinese households having more money to spend is a win-win-win for Chinese workers, China’s domestic economy, and the world economy, which could hopefully rebalance slightly.
But here is the tricky part. By dismantling the huji restrictions, the Chinese party-state is relinquishing a lever of social control while saddling itself with gargantuan urban planning challenges. It must set up social services for hundreds of millions of new (or newly recognized) urbanites, which takes enormous competence and courage.
Well, let us encourage those Chinese policymakers. I recommend President Novák and Ambassador Pesti (Hungary’s ambassador to China) send letters of praise to their Chinese interlocutors. In a previous piece published in Dutch, I gave the same recommendation to the king and ambassador of my native country of the Netherlands. Let us ordinary folks, meanwhile, pull out the liquor in homage to Chinese baijiu. World affairs are in such a bleak state overall, with the Russian invasion and the menacing atmosphere around Taiwan, that whenever something glorious occurs, we should go all out with the celebration.
The author is a Dutch sociologist and a visiting fellow at the Danube Institute
There is change in the air: trends have hastened the shift away from a Western-led global order. A sign of this is the recent BRICS summit, which decided to expand further, with Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates joining the organisation from January 2024.