BY THE CHINA ACADEMY AND IVY ZHIYU WANG. Originally published by The China Academy.
Equality and justice persistently carry more weight than freedom in the Chinese society.
Hukou, or household registration, holds sway over every Chinese citizen. We hear stories of rural girls marrying elderly men in big cities for urban Hukou. We see fresh graduates settle for minimum wage jobs in order to attain coveted Hukous in megacities such as Shanghai and Beijing. The value people attach to a Hukou in Shanghai or Beijing can be comparable to that attached to American citizenship by many immigrants.
What is Hukou? What does it entail?
Hukou is China’s system of population registration. An individual’s hukou can be either urban or rural, and it determines where they have access to social services such as healthcare and education. The system was implemented in the 1950s to prevent rural population inflow to nearby urban centers, which struggled to provide enough jobs and social services at the early years of the PRC, especially during the immediate aftermath of WW2 and the Chinese Civil War. Strict enforcement of the Hukou system became harder to justify after 1978 when China’s reform and opening up policy brought significant economic growth.
On Tuesday, China’s eastern province of Zhejiang announced its decision to ease restrictions on household registrations in most areas except for the capital city of Hangzhou. For China’s richest province to loosen the country’s signature policy from the Mao era, everyone believes it herald a tremendous change for China’s hukou system. For many it didn’t come fast enough.
Professor Lu Ming from Shanghai Jiaotong University who advises Xi directly on issues of urbanization said in an interview:
“In the future, let’s not use the word migrant worker any more. Let’s call them new residents of the city”.
Lu has for years advocated for incorporating migrant workers into the city’s social security network.
One thing missed by most media outlets is that within China, people’s support for free movement of people has mainly been one-way：it only applies to rural to urban migration, but not the reverse. Experts and influencers have spent years talking about migrant worker’s integration into the city, but have hitherto remained silent on incentivizing urban residents to move to rural areas, especially if it entails purchasing land use rights from peasants (China does not permit the private ownership of land).
“Throughout history, China repeatedly saw rampant land annexations by the rich, and displacement of the peasants towards the end of dynasties. The ecosystem of China’s rural area will be destroyed if capital is allowed flowing uncurbed into the rural land market. We should not concede land, one of the most important factors of production, to the ultra-wealthy,” one person commented on Weibo.
Chinese government responded to the public opinion by issuing sets of policies securing peasants’ rights to rural land. For example, Chinese peasants are entitled to their land even when they opt for an urban hukou. According to China’s 2019 central document, local government cannot expropriate the land of a peasant who has obtained an urban hukou, nor should the access to urban hukou be contingent on one’s willingness to relinquish one’s land. On the other hand, urban residents are not allowed to purchase land use rights in rural areas, especially for building luxury properties. When news of over 1,000 ultra-luxurious villas being built on the Qinling Mountains in central China came out in 2018, a huge uproar erupted online and the real estate developer was pressured to demolish the villas immediately.
Why does the government respond so swiftly to public opinion on the issue of rural land ownership? One important factor at play here could be the collective fear of repeating the “dynastic cycle”, a word used to describe the rise and fall of dynasties in China. Many Chinese believe that to put an end to the “dynastic cycle”, the crux of the matter lies in the relationship between land and peasants. Peasants who were able to occupy a plot of land at the start of a dynasty were always found losing land to landlords as time passed. This upward transfer of wealth frequently caused famines, riots and eventually civil wars. Hence, when the Chinese Communist Party proposed collective ownership of rural land, it was embraced by most Chinese despite the foreign ethos behind this ideology. By protecting peasants from losing land, this policy showed potential in helping China break the “dynastic cycle” and that was exactly what occupied the minds of most average people, academic experts, and Chairman Mao himself.
Unsurprisingly, the New York Times is keen to describe the Hukou system as a ludicrous “caste-like barrier” set up by the government to reinforce its controls over the populace, and that Chinese people should feel like revolting against the system in pursuit of absolute freedom. Why then, are Chinese people disturbed by the freedom of urban to rural migration? One thing New York Times will never get is that equality and justice persistently carry more weight than freedom in the Chinese society. Any policy changes, including the current Hukou overhaul, will only gain legitimacy and popularity if it serves the purpose of promoting greater equity in the society. This could also be used to understand China’s other policy objectives such as common prosperity.
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