The past 40 years of China’s economic transformation has drastically changed the relationship between its rural and urban populations, and through this process, more than 277 million rural migrants have moved to the cities to find work. Migrants who do not lack access to social services like healthcare, housing and education because they hold a rural Hukou, and thus are not considered urban residents.
A system established in the 1950’s that records household registration by birthplace and determines where citizens may live, reforming the hukou system is a number one priority for China’s urbanization efforts. In The National Plan for New Urbanization (2014-2020), the goal of giving urban hukou to another 100 million rural residents by 2020 is laid out. The plan emphasizes that the top priority will be helping rural residents who have already migrated to the cities win the status of official legal residents, by converting their rural hukou into an urban one, allowing them to settle down with their families in the city.
In other words, urbanization in China will focus first on solving the hukou problem. Such reforms, it is hoped, will achieve the underlying goal of urbanization by increasing domestic consumption, something that Chinese leadership hopes to drive as they seek to rebalance the country’s economy. A significant part of this development plan is based on the assumption that urban residency is superior to a rural one, and China’s rural population want to settle down in the cities, converting their rural identification into an urban one and becoming fully-fledged urbanites.
But what are the motivations of China’s rural population? While there are many discussions around the need for reform, how rural migrants are responding to it is often overlooked. What is their preference regarding acquiring an urban hukou and settling down in urban areas?
Increased Value of Rural Hukou
Using data from the Floating Population Dynamic Monitoring Surveys 2010–2012, a study by Che and Fan highlights that more than 60% of the rural migrants in a nationwide survey indicated that they planned to stay at their adopted city for at least five years, but only half of the respondents wished to transfer to the destination city, even if there were no other conditions attached to that transfer, such as loss of rural contract land. Further examples are found in studies from Jiangsu Province where it was found that even if rural migrants had the opportunity to transfer their hukou to an urban one, only six out of 20,000 rural migrants wanted to. In Guangdong a city allocated 60 opportunities to gain local hukou to “outstanding migrant workers,” but none of the eligible migrants from Guangdong province were interested and only several migrants from other provinces took the offer, all due to reasons related to their children’s education.
These responses stem from the shift in attitudes towards the value of hukou. During the process of development over the last 30 years, from the perspective of rural migrants, the benefits tied to rural hukou have increased. Those benefits are related largely to land value, including farming and housing land, and compensation for the land requisition. Such land ownership benefits are available to rural hukou holders only, with China’s urban residents leasing land from the government. While the law varies regionally, when people transfer their rural hukou to a city one, they are usually required to return their contract land to the village. With the rate of expansion of Chinese cities, the rural land on the edges of some cities has led to increases in the value of that land. Given that rural land rights are tied to rural hukou, people are less willing to give it up, especially as once a rural hukou had been converted to an urban one, there is no way to switch it back.
Reasons for Lack of Interest in Urban Hukou
Aside from the loss of contract land, other factors high on the list for keeping rural hukou are less stress in the countryside and higher urban housing price, with the latter often forcing migrant workers in the cities to live in temporary makeshift housing.
Where urban hukou is being offered is also a key factor. While reforms have made rural-urban hukou conversion easier for settling in small to medium-sized cities, it is still very difficult to gain hukou in megacities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, due to population sizes. For some migrants, relocating to the 2nd and 3rd tier cities and giving up their rural hukou is less attractive than remaining in the countryside as the benefits do not outweigh the costs associated with increased living expenses.
At the same time, the value of urban hukou has declined in the eyes of many due to reduced state sponsorship of urban residents stemming from market reforms. In China, the employer is now increasingly taking over what the state used to be responsible for in terms of the social benefits it offers the urban dwelling population. As such, the tie between urban hukou and access to urban benefits is weakening.
Migration Patterns: Multilocality
Shifting attitudes towards hukou has profound implications for migration patterns in China. For some, the reforms have made it easier to settle in 2nd or 3rd tier cities in which they are already working. For others, the safest option is to keep their rural hukou status and engage in circular migration. Moving between the cities where they work and their rural hometown has come to dominate the way of life for migrants, even though it means splitting their families between both places.
Reasons for Obtaining Urban Hukou
Hukou Reform is not the Solution
As local governments continue to set their own criteria for obtaining urban hukou, there are vast regional differences existing under the hukou points system, making it particularly difficult to gain urban hukou status for the already overpopulated megacities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, top receiving provinces of migrant workers.
The figure below shows that the preference for larger cities among the rural migrants surveyed, highlighting the mismatch between hukou reforms and the preference for moving to provincial capitals and municipalities.
Places where Rural Migrants would like to Obtain Urban Hukou
While the reforms seek to accelerate the process of rural migration and urbanization, they have a minor impact on improving the welfare of rural migrant workers. Having urban hukou status is one thing, but what happens next? While in theory, urban hukou status gives rural residents the same rights and access to benefits as urban residents, the reality is that they are still discriminated against. How to integrate these people and provide affordable housing, social benefits, and education to an additional 100 million people in cities such as Shanghai where urban systems are already running at full capacity represents an increasingly urgent issue for China.
Rather than hukou status, reforms should focus on how the additional population will be integrated in a way that allows the cities to become a place of hope and opportunity for those that have settled there. Governments, business, and NGOs can all take the lead in building these platforms for integration, whether it be through projects that support the rural migrants they employ, building platforms for training, or raising the standards of schools for migrant children.
The biggest driving force for rural-urban hukou conversion is access to better education. This includes education for migrant children, but increasingly training and skills building opportunities for migrant workers themselves, particularly the younger generations who have ambitions to build a long-term career in the city.
On the other side, there are several projects focused on job creation in rural areas, removing the need for rural populations to migrate hundreds of miles from home to find work in the first place. For many, particularly the middle-aged and elderly, their roots are in the land, and finding ways to allow such people to earn a living in their home village also plays a vital role in China’s regional economic rebalancing. For example, The Rainbow of Hope project in rural Hunan teaches farmers how to grow organic vegetables and then helps them to sell directly to families in Shanghai. Shengshi Jinxiu (晟世锦绣) based in rural Guizhou has revived traditional weaving techniques by helping locals to sell their products in the cities. Both projects have drawn migrants back to their home villages where they can now make a living.
The biggest challenge to such projects is scale. While promising steps in the right direction are being taken, as well as measures to develop the efficiency of urban systems so that they can accommodate a population increase representing 70% of the total population by 2030, the question of if such projects can scale and keep pace will be the challenge going forward.
While many look to hukou reforms as the way forward, there is a much more complex underlying shift taking place in the attitudes of rural migrants towards hukou. China’s urbanization strategy needs to focus not only on accelerated rural to urban hukou conversion, but also on the wellbeing of migrants in the city and their integration, without neglecting the need for investment on rural job creation that will remove the need for rural migrants to travel hundreds of miles away from home to earn a living.
In navigating this delicate balance, the challenge going forward is to create a sense of security for migrants already living in the cities, so that they might see it as a place of stability. Until this happens, rural migrants are likely to continue to hold on to their rural hukou as a source of social security.
Access to urban benefits and the assurance of a long-term sustainable future in the cities will determine migration patterns and China’s urbanization trajectory more than hukou status alone.