China’s intra urban divide: Migrant workers and the enduring legacy of the hukou system



The hukou (户口) residency-permit system continues to shape the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) socio-economic class structure and has a particular impact on the lives of rural migrant workers ('nongmingong' 农民工). The system has effectively redefined urban-rural and state-society relations, and has received widespread criticism domestically and internationally, being denounced as one of the most strictly enforced ‘apartheid’ social and economic structures in the modern world.

Whilst initially implemented in the early Mao era, partly as an instrument of state control over rural-to-urban migration, the reform period of urbanisation and industrialisation prompted relaxed hukou controls that today have created an estimated population of approximately 277 million rural-to-urban migrant workers.

Between 1990-2012, the number rural migrant workers in China’s cities increased from 25 million to over 250 million, the largest ever human movement in recorded history within such a short period. Although approximately 54% of the population now live in cities, a figure which continues to rise, only 36% of the population hold an urban hukou.

Today, an ‘invisible wall’ remains between non-local, agricultural hukou holders and local, urban hukou holders as they coexist in cities. The system has not only created a rural-urban divide, but also an intra-urban divide. Notwithstanding recent reforms, the economic, social and political discrimination faced by individuals with agricultural, non-local hukou status have ramifications for growing inequality and on the direction of the Chinese economy as a whole.

Rural workers living in cities constitute approximately 36% of China’s total workforce. Despite the growing size of this demographic, one unwavering function of hukou status remains that only urban hukou holders are provided with the services to live permanently and adequately in cities. Artist and political activist Ai Weiwei laments that as a result, cities like Beijing have become ‘two cities, one is of power and of money… the other city is one of desperation’.

Migrant workers in China’s major urban centres continue to face daily prejudice from authorities and urban hukou status residents, and are being denied basic rights in their adopted homes. They are largely excluded from the social safety net and essential services granted to urban hukou citizens, such as health care, access to schools, welfare and more. Rural migrants are not legally considered to be urban workers and the majority are engaged in jobs at the lower end of the wage distribution, routinely exposing them to very exploitative work conditions. Growing dissatisfaction among migrant populations has the possibility to ignite serious social unrest, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) remains vigilant in keeping an iron lid on any discontent.

As China’s economy transitions from export and manufacturing-driven growth to growth that’s led by domestic consumption, the CCP is recognising that maintaining hukou division is not conducive to building a prosperous and harmonious urban class. In the 13th five-year plan announced in 2015, China’s State Council pledged to gradually reform the hukou system, which The Diplomat’s John Marshall suggests is a tacit acknowledgment from the CCP that the system is now losing its useful purpose, and is counter-productive to socio-economic development.

The CCP has agreed to grant urban residence permits to 100 million permanent urban residents by 2020, which is still less than half of the nearly 274 million migrant workers China had by 2014. This stems from China’s urbanisation policy goal of having 60% of the population residing in cities by 2020, with 45% of the population on full urban hukou. While the reform aims to better integrate China’s migrant population in cities by removing the distinction between ‘agricultural’ and ‘non-agricultural’, the resident or place of origin hukou status will remain, rendering this group essentially bound to their ‘migrant’ status.

Further, these reforms are being focused on cities with less than five million people, with big cities to maintain tight controls, despite the fact that the majority of migrants are in bigger cities. What’s more, there’s significant resistance to reform. Although local governments are granted authority over implementing hukou reform, the World Bank notes they ‘are mostly unwilling to take on the additional public service burdens’. Simultaneously, those in the minority who already enjoy urban hukous are loath to share their privilege.

The creation of an urban migrant underclass and the resulting socio-economic structural imbalance is having immensely negative ramifications on the migrants themselves, the social fabric of China’s cities, and in turn, on the economy as a whole. Ultimately, the hukou system and the extent of its impact on migrant workers constitutes a complex barrier for China’s future economic and social development.

Clare O’Meara is the China Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

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