While international attention on Chinese human rights issues has justifiably been focused on the loosening of the one-child policy in October, another big reform has been getting much less publicity but is likely to be just as consequential.
Beginning next year, China is rolling out long-awaited reforms to its hukou or household registration system, which limits the ability of millions of migrants to access public services for themselves and their children.
The modern hukou system was introduced in the 1950s, but versions of it have existed since the Han dynasty 2,000 years ago. The system determines where people are allowed to settle based on a set of stringent guidelines, not unlike most countries’ visa rules for foreigners. Not surprisingly, people have moved throughout the country anyway, creating a massive group of migrants living without/outside of residency permits.
This has created a situation not that different from America’s ongoing problem with undocumented immigration. Hundreds of millions of people who have moved from the countryside to China’s cities in recent years have fueled the country’s economic boom—China became a majority urban country in 2011—but hukou has created a legal underclass with limited access to health care, education, and social benefits in the cities where they live. The problem affects unskilled laborers as well as white-collar professionals. It’s also led many parents to leave their children behind in rural areas. A 2014 survey estimated that 10 million rural children in China hadn’t seen their parents in more than a year.
According to the AP, the new reform will allow migrants to “apply for a residency permit if they have lived in the city they are applying in for a certain time and have a stable job, place to live or are studying”—a “pathway to citizenship” if you will. The permits will allow them to access basic health care and obtain nine years of compulsory education for their children and other services.
As China Digital Times notes, the reform comes at the same time that China’s government is pledging to register the millions of so-called black children who never received hukous because they were born in violation of the one-child policy. Between this population and the migrants, China has an estimated 13 million citizens living without this registration—1 percent of the population.
The reforms are being rolled out gradually according to “local conditions.” This probably means that big cities like Beijing, which are trying to control their population and are the most popular to migrants, will continue to have stringent conditions. Surveys also suggest that many migrants won’t even want an urban hukou. Rural residents are entitled to small allocations of agricultural land, which for many might outweigh the benefits they would receive as registered urban residents.
But the reforms are still steps in the right direction, which may have as big an impact on the country’s economy and society as the one-child to two-child switch.
President Xi Jinping’s so-called Chinese dream is an urban one—the government wants more citizens living in cities, transitioning from agriculture and manufacturing to service and technology-focused jobs. It’s hard to encourage citizens to dream big when laws are literally keeping them stuck in place.