Everything that’s Wrong with China’s Strict Household Registration System AKA Hukou

For many Chinese, moving to other parts of China to live and work is essential, despite the major drawbacks, but it’s getting easier…

0716_wTDWYou maybe didn’t know, but Dongguan is a sprawling city with over 6 million migrants coming from all over China that are often forced to leave kids behind with elderly family members in the remote countryside. Why? Movement in China is managed by a strict household registration system called “hukou,” which officially identifies a person as a resident of a specific area and aims to keep them there.

It’s not simply an ID, and you must apply for hukou when you are born, following the origin of either one of your parents. Later, by the time you are 16 years old, you will receive your own ID when presenting your personal hukou. No hukou, no ID. Of course, you can move elsewhere in China, no one’s stopping you, but don’t expect to later easily change your hukou. Away from your official area of residence means you miss out on free education, access to highly stable and well paid government jobs and a long list of social benefits.

In order to attend Dongguan’s best primary school, Guancheng Central Primary School, you need to have a hukou for Guancheng because that’s where the school is located. Details like this make Guancheng one of the most valuable and difficult areas to move. Hukou also explains why migrants coming to Dongguan for employment leave their children behind.

Young singles who leave home to go off and work, live and eventually marry in Dongguan cannot change their hukou. And when those migrant couples have kids, they must take on one of the parent’s hukou. As the children of migrants grow older and need to start attending school, parents must make a difficult decision: pay for private school, go home (where they are officially registered) or avoid schooling altogether.

In theory, any university accepts students from anywhere in the country, but they tend to first enroll local hukou holders with lower grades. This means non-local students will be need to score better if they want to go somewhere besides their nearby schools.

Don’t even think the hukou problem will go away after you finish school. All the easy, stable and handsomely paid government or state-owned company jobs will always prefer local hukou. You’d better either be an outstanding student or have strong connections.

As the children of migrants grow older and need to start going to school, parents must make a difficult decision: attend private school, go home (where they are officially registered) or avoid schooling altogether.

Your hukou is also the key precondition to receive many of a local government’s subsidy and benefits. For example, in order to support the city’s 1,815 growing enterprises, the Dongguan Human Resource Bureau announced last month that all talents working in these companies with at least a bachelor’s degree will get a 6,000–20,000 RMB subsidy per person. It sounds good, but if you don’t have a Dongguan hukou, you’ll receive nothing.

The powerful hukou also worked effectively to regulate the One Child Policy where only one child in cities and two in rural areas were allowed to gain a hukou. Any extra children born beyond that limit would also bring about a sometimes hefty fine. Still, in the long run, the inability to have a hukou would definitely be a lot more painful.

This system has an incredibly long history, dating back more than 2,000 years when China was first unified and ruled by Emperor Qin. It’s main purpose then was used to organize labor, taxation and military service. Before 1984, hukou was almost impossible to change, but as the country’s rapid urbanization proceeds, a few laws relaxing the process have been issued since the 1990s.

For example, rural migrants are now allowed to apply for temporary urban residency permits to legally enjoy some basic social welfare benefits. Dongguan has also started using a point system to help migrants convert their hukou in exchange for various types of investments in the local community, like owning property or performing volunteer work. A higher educational background or many years working in Dongguan can help, as well. Once an individual reaches 100 points, they may legally change their Hukou.

“It’s just easier for me to apply for all kinds of certificates,” explained fresh Dongguan resident, Mr. Zhu from Sichuan, who has now married a local woman and bought an apartment. “For example, when I want to go to Hong Kong or Macau, I can now apply for the passes in Dongguan instead of going all the way home.”