Hukou Reform Still Lacks Meaningful Change

By: Amelia Leigner

Stepping Stones volunteers do incredible work across the greater Shanghai area to combat education inequality, however many are still unfamiliar with the roots of this inequality and recent changes Shanghai and other Chinese cities are experiencing regarding their migrant populations. We reached out to Professor Kam Wing Chan at University of Washington, who has written extensively about migration in China, as well as tapped into the knowledge and experience of our own migration expert, Senior Programme Manager Sebastien Carrier, to bring us up to date on current issues affecting migrants.

For over half a century, the hukou household registration system has mandated that Chinese citizens can only receive benefits such as health care, pensions and access to public schools in the place where their families are originally from. These stipulations attempt to mitigate urbanization and retain stability, as more and more people leave poor farming areas and move to cities in search of jobs and better quality of life. However, once migrants arrive in new urban destinations, their lack of urban hukou presents serious challenges that threaten their own well-being and that of their families. The hukou system has essentially created a “floating population” of more than 230 million people, deprived of most social welfare and services within their own country.

One of the largest obstacles migrant workers face is providing education for their children. Of the approximately 400,000 school-age migrant children living in Shanghai, about 30 percent are not able to attend public school and instead opt for one of the 162 migrant schools located within the city. These schools lack the same resources as Shanghai public schools, and are often overcrowded and inconveniently located. Stepping Stones currently provides programmes at 20 migrant schools across Shanghai, however there is still much more to be done to address the needs of students lacking Shanghai hukou.

After repeated calls to abolish the hukou system, the Chinese central government finally proposed several changes to the system in March of last year. A new urbanization plan pledges to grant approximately 100 million people new urban hukou by 2020, most of which will go to migrants. This will allow them to access their full rights as Chinese citizens in their place of residence. These efforts aim to decrease the percentage of migrants, or the “floating population,” within China’s total population by two percentage points, from the current 17 percent down to 15 percent. Other reforms released last July include an all-out opening of hukou restrictions in towns and small cities.

While the new proposals show the Chinese government recognizes that reform is needed to address the struggles of migrant workers and their families, Professor Chan feels these changes are not enough to help most migrants in a meaningful way. “Hukou reform is moving the right direction, but it is moving at a very slow pace,” he told Stepping Stones. His new report published in December 2014 by the Paulson Policy Memorandum lays out a schedule to completely abolish the hukou system in the next 15 years. However, the Chinese government shows no signs of considering any alternative to their current plans.

According to Professor Chan, recent changes not only lack significant impact, but could also create further problems for migrants living in large cities like Shanghai. Although hukou restrictions will be lifted in small cities, large cities will face even more stringent requirements for rural migrants to obtain urban hukou. “[The Chinese government] is really cracking down and making the situation even harder for migrants in big cities, especially for migrant children,” said Professor Chan. As Shanghai begins to more strictly control its migrant population, Professor Chan is unsure whether the conditions for migrant education will see much improvement in coming years.