Known as the "household registration" system, hukou has denied certain basic rights to millions who have migrated from rural to urban areas. This may be set to change radically.
BEIJING — China is finally set to break down the divide between its rural and urban residents. A long-awaited reform of the pervasive national system of household registration is about to begin, following last week's government announcement that there would be no difference between agricultural and non-agricultural registrations.
The Chinese public is anxious for this fundamental reform, which is intended not only to abolish discrimination against the rural population as a de facto lower class but also to equalize access to social benefits between urban and rural residents.
The current household registration system was established over time after the communist takeover of China in 1949. Before 1958, Chinese people were allowed to move freely, giving way to a subsequent period when movement was severely controlled. The current system was implemented in 1978.
For a long time, the dual urban-rural hukou system was regarded as a cornerstone of social stability. That's because it both guaranteed an economic exchange between rural areas and cities and prevented the rural population from flooding cities and taking jobs from urbanites.
But since China opened up starting in the late 1970s, and the coastal and eastern regions developed, there has been a huge wave of migration toward Chinese cities. While the population movements have been good for China's overall economy and society, the fundamental problems of the household registration system also became increasingly obvious.
Hundreds of millions of rural migrants set out from home in search of urban jobs, yet the cities where they wound up living do not recognize them. They live and work in the cities but are not identified or recognized as urban residents. Even if they have lived and worked in a city for many years, they receive no public services because their domicile registrations remain in the area from which they originally came.
China's reform of the system is meant to help some 100 million rural migrants in settling in the towns and cities, and in guaranteeing that people who left agricultural work to find jobs in the urban areas will enjoy equal access to public services such as education, health care and retirement.
There will still be different settlement policies and principles in various cities — primarily to strictly control the population of megacities popping up — but the impending changes nonetheless represent unprecedented improvement.
Crucial to this reform is eliminating the restriction of movement. Not only will farmers be allowed to migrate to cities, but urbanites will be free to move to the countryside. There is a considerable development gap between urban and rural areas, which will also be mitigated with greater access to education, health care and other benefits.
In fact, the key to the reform's success is in separating household registration from all the social benefits attached to a particular official residence.
Consider equal rights to education as an example. Most cities have tied school enrollments, as well as high school and college entrance exams, with household registration, thus preventing the children of non-domiciled migrant workers from entering schools where they actually live.
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The recent relaxation of restrictions on migrant children from sitting for exams in most provinces has partly resolved unequal education access. But in densely populated cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, household registration is still the most important deciding factor in whether someone has access to local education resources.
Hopefully, with the registration reform and through further efforts, education access will finally become universal for all Chinese children.
Again, whether China achieves its reform goals depends on whether access to benefits is detached from household registration. When Chinese citizens are finally able to move about freely with household certificates or resident permits, the costs and barriers to mobility will fade. This will in turn enable the market to play a more important role in allocating resources, including manpower, in different cities.
We should look forward to the day when a Chinese city is no longer a gated metropolis, where those inside can't get out and outsiders try desperately to get in.