Shanghai city made a monumental announcement in December 2021 that addressed a growing societal demand for reforming the hukou system. The new hukou policy, if widely implemented by Chinese cities, has the potential to transform social order in Chinese society. Youth from small cities and far away provinces will have a shot at getting a job or purchasing a property in big cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen.
Introduced in 1950, hukou is a household registry allowing Chinese citizens to access social benefits, education, purchasing property, financial services and other government services in the area they live.
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What is hukou
There isn’t a parallel to the hukou system in India, but the closest approximation would be the ability to identify a person based on the address on their Aadhar card. Hukou is far more complex.
A hukou determines where your kids can go to school, where you can own a home, city or regions where you can access healthcare, find permanent jobs and receive loans. A Shanghai city hukou is far more desirable than a village hukou in an area like Shaanxi province.
Historically, the hukou system and the danwei have formed the basis of social order allowing Beijing to control any labour strikes or protests by workers. Danwei is the name of a worker’s unit mainly associated with industrialised manufacturing — the backbone of China’s growth miracle.
Now, Shanghai has relaxed the requirement for hukou registration by letting graduates from world’s top 50 universities live and work in the city with no questions asked. The Times Higher Education and Shanghai Ranking’s Academic Ranking of World Universities will be used to determine the eligibility of the candidates.
Previously, new hukou was awarded based on a points system constituting a person’s educational background, work experience and contribution to social security.
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A sea of change is on the way as the Shanghai city government isn’t the only one to reform the hukou system. The change is being driven from the top.
In 2019, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) — Beijing’s macroeconomic policy agency — asked cities with a population below three million residents to get rid of the hukou restrictions. “Accelerate the urbanisation of agricultural workers living in cities,” says the subhead of the policy document. NDRC reiterated the 2019 policy statement on 17 March 2022.
Wuhan and Fuzhou are other megacities that have decided to reform the hukou system. On 7 June, Wuhan city announced that job seekers from elite universities can now get a hukou before they start searching for a job – even their family members can now settle in the city.
The hukou system has allowed the Beijing government to control labour mobility in the vast network of industrial production hubs across major cities.
As foreign travel and work opportunities have become difficult since the pandemic started, there is growing frustration among the youth.
The frustration the Chinese youth feel because of the Covid lockdowns and declining job prospects can be gauged from the “runology” movement. “Runology” is a social phenomenon about the identity of new Chinese youth who are running away from the present political problems.
A page on code hosting platform Github tells people “where to run, and how to run”, acting as a repository catered to telling people how to immigrate outside of China. The movement is a niche sub-culture in China, but the phenomenon captures the frustration the educated youth feel in Chinese society.
More recently, some Weibo users have mocked Shanghai’s decision to reform the hukou system by saying that “at least one can get a hukou to a prison”. A popular Weibo post by a user named “Internet communication room grandfather” carried a screenshot of prisoners in Shanghai learning various crafts while undergoing incarceration. The post insinuates that those receiving Shanghai hukou can at least learn new skills if Shanghai goes under lockdown the way the city did earlier this year. The post received 28,000 likes and 1094 comments.
Despite the desire to migrate seen in some quarters, the Chinese youth are returning to the mainland or deciding to stay put. According to an estimate by The Economist, 800,000 Chinese students returned home during the first nine months of 2020. The data is just an estimation as the figure for returning students is likely to be much higher.
The change in the hukou system is responding to the lack of jobs and growing frustration with Beijing’s zero-Covid policy. Even the foreign talent China has relied on to fill the skills gap continues to exit the megacities. Beijing isn’t depending on the return of foreign workers anymore, and instead, the strategy appears to be to boost growth at home through policy realignment.
The jobs crisis and flailing economic growth has Beijing worried. The Chinese cities now seem confident with the idea of permitting a demographic change within their territories.
The growing moment to change the hukou system has the potential to transform the social order in Chinese society, which will leave an impact on politics.
The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist, currently pursuing an MSc in international politics with focus on China from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)