China’s Hukou System Supresses Farmers

Chinese farmer with a traditional hoe. Notice he is not fat.

Chinese farmer with a traditional hoe. Notice he is not fat.

There are some government social systems that affect society so profoundly that without it we would be much worse off. In Canada, I would recommend our universal healthcare system. China’s hukou system is the mirror opposite, a tool to suppress and control the movements of China’s rural population.

___Every Chinese citizen has a location where they should legally live. This location is codified in law in a document called a “hukou”. A hukou, or residency permit states that you are allowed to legally live in a certain location, and will allow you to access certain social benefits of that location. For urban residents this allows them to access city employment, hospitals, get special disbursements from their work unit, allow their children to attend schools and get proper healthcare, have insurance, be able to legally have children, and many more. Certainly this works very well for city residents. The government also benefits because they can allocate government funding to a geographic location with some certainty of the number of people it will cover.

___Farmers also have a rural hukou, usually the location of where they are born. Unfortunately rural social services are much less than urban settings. Farmers are really on their own, unable to enjoy better schools and hospital care. Their work units are usually very poor and therefore cannot afford to give generous disbursements and benefits. In essence, China’s hukou system provides its farmers very little when compared to their city brethren.

How to Change your Hukou

___There are only 3 ways I know to change your hukou. The first is to go to university, get an education, then get employment in the city. Your employer will then change your hukou. China’s education system is notoriously difficult to enter and rise to the top universities. Chinese graduates comprise 0.01% of China’s population, so competition is fierce. There is also a distinct advantage to urban folk, because in the city they have access to better schools, live in a better environment that is conducive to studying. With the world’s recent financial crisis, more companies are scaling back recruitment from universities. Graduates are forced to find jobs in villages, and are not able to move their hukou to a better location.

The People's Liberation Army is the largest standing army in the world

The People's Liberation Army is the largest standing army in the world

___The second way is to join the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, who will move you to where you are needed, and therefor change your hukou. Hopefully you’ll work hard and eventually land up in a city. Unfortunately China in recent years has been scaling back recruitment for the army, and there’s also no guarantee you will land up in a city anyway.

___The third way is to join the Chinese Communist Party or CCP. This exclusive club is very difficult to enter. Other party members judge you for many years and watch your every move and word. They also research your family background, which usually gives urban dwellers an advantage. Again, there is no guarantee that the CCP will send you to work in a large city, but if you get in the likelihood is quite high.

___I cannot verify this fourth method, but it makes some sense. If a villager can somehow marry someone in a city, their hukou can be changed. Though not impossible, it is plausable.

China’s Growing Migrant Worker Population

___As China’s population increases, the number of people living in rural communities also increases. China’s farms have gotten to the point where more manual labour does not increase their crop yields and therefore income. Logically this means that to make a living, young people must leave their farming community in search of greener pastures. They there join the ranks of China’s migrant labour class, traveling to the cities in search of work. In the past 20 years there has been ample work opportunities in the southern coastal special economic zones or SEZ, in factories that made products for export. There is an estimated 130M migrant workers in China. Recently as many as 20M of these workers have been laid off from their factory jobs.

Chanty Shoes, China makes shoes for the USA, Canada, Japan, Russia

Chanty Shoes, China makes shoes for the USA, Canada, Japan, Russia

___What the hukou does for farmers and their children, is to tie them to the farm. Young people who cannot make a living on the farm and are forced to go to the city to find work still hold an rural hukou. In essence, they are illegally living in the city, thus exposing them to threats from police, work places, blackmail and worse. Company owners often cheat, not pay wages to or discriminate against migrant workers, who have little recourse.

Managers use a variety of tactics to prevent workers resigning. Internal migrants are typically owed back pay, meaning those who quit their job lose at least 2-3 months wages. Employers often purposefully withhold wages before the lunar new year to ensure workers come back to their jobs after the festive period — meaning millions of migrants are unable to buy train tickets home for the holidays. Managers often illegally force workers to pay a deposit to prevent them switching jobs. Because of their insecure status under the hukou system, internal migrants are not likely to complain.

One complaint to the police and they get a fine, and forced to take a one way trip back to their village. Housing is usually inferior. Work can be very dangerous, and with no additional health care. Workers who get hurt or killed cannot claim full compensation from their employer because they are migrant workers without an urban hukou. Young girls are more apt to be taken advantage of, preyed on because of their lack of hukou and therefore city social services. Children of migrant worker parents cannot get access to proper schooling.

A migrant worker returns home, Nanjing, Jiangsu province, Nov 2008

A migrant worker returns home, Nanjing, Jiangsu province, Nov 2008

Side Effects of the Hukou System

___A multitude of negative side effects have occurred because of this hukou system. Migrant workers are forced to leave their children in the village with their grandparents, maybe seeing their children only a couple of times a year. Husbands and wives are similarly separated and meet only a couple of times a year. In essence, the hukou system has made peaceful and happy family living impossible for China’s rural population.

___China’s migrant workers also live without worker’s rights and are taken advantage of by factory employers. While they are not indentured slaves, they can be forced to work 7 days a week, 14 hours a day, and may have to pay for room and board expenses back to their employer. In fact very little in the government will protect them from being taken advantage of by their employer. Many migrant workers get hurt in industrial accidents that result in amputation, injury and death. Workers who get hurt and cannot work are let go and face an uncertain future back on the farm. There are many more workers in line to replace the fallen.

Benefits of the Hukou System

___The hukou system allows China’s domestic and international factory owners to have an unlimited supply of inexpensive labour who lack the ability to protest unsafe work and living conditions. This allows China’s factories to offer the world less expensive products, while providing China with much needed foreign exchange. The world benefits from being offered very inexpensive but useful products from China.

___Migrant workers also benefit because are able to work, make a living, and provide for their families back on the farm. Income from migrant workers can more than double the income from farming, allowing the village and their families to prosper.

___Anyone who has purchased a product that is made in China has a near certainty that the product was made by a migrant worker. The world surely benefits from their fight for survival, but they pay a heavy social cost. China’s success has greatly benefited the urban worker at the expense of the rural worker, and this will not change for the foreseeable future. China’s hukou facilitates this system of migrant workers to the overall benefit of the People’s Republic of China.

the pros of the hukou (Beowulf) – because we never ever talk about them (the china discussion is general a blame and hate discussion without any depth)

I. the hukou system controls mass migration and therefore is helping to avoid the development of slums and its connected evils (crime rate, poverty etc.) in the big cities.

II. the hukou system forces the families of the worker to stay at their homeplace. This has two benefits:
Number one – migrant worker will return to their hometown and develop the rural area. Money, knowledge and experience which was earned at the east or south coast is coming this way to central China.

Number two – the rural country is also a insurance. The people with a country hukou have the right for farmland (the Chinese blogger we are talking about, wants to have the user right for farmland so that he can sell it later to a company for a high price). During world economic crisis, many migrant workers returned to their fields and could use them to get over this hard time. This is one of the reason, why the crisis did not have that disastrous effect on China, which many so called “experts” in the west predicted.

Other Resources

Addendum 2018 Aug 31 In China, a shifting labour market opens new doors for a mobile workforce

The lowering of hukou barriers, meanwhile, has itself been discriminatory, applying largely to educated white-collar workers while offering little for migrant labourers with the most to gain from social benefits in the cities where they have chosen to live. “They are not making things very easy for the regular migrant workers that don’t have a college degree,” said Kam Wing Chan, a scholar at the University of Washington and the author of Urbanization with Chinese Characteristics: The Hukou System and Migration.

“In some aspects, actually, thing have regressed,” he said. The number of migrant children in Beijing and Shanghai has dropped dramatically in recent years, he said, an indication of deteriorating conditions for that population, which is struggling to find suitable schooling in cities that largely bar public education to outsiders.

2019 Jul 25 China’s growth being held back by restrictive resident registration system, urbanisation expert says

3 thoughts on “China’s Hukou System Supresses Farmers

  1. David Ing

    We generally take country of birth for granted. You’ve made village or city of birth even more important, which is consistent with the idea of who’s your city.

    The most important factors in your life are probably the ones that individuals can’t control: (a) your parents, and (b) the place where your parents raise you.

  2. Pingback: Global Voices Online » China: Debating hukou reform

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *