Hukuo (户口) in China

Earlier this semester, my classmates and I learned about Hukou (户口), a household registration system in China. In her article “Foreign Marriage, ‘Tradition,’ and the Politics of Border Crossing,” Constance D. Clark introduces and describes Hukou:

Hukou was a system of social control created by the Communist Party, which segregated the entire Chinese population into a two-tiered rural-urban ranking of privilege. Statuses of “agricultural” or “nonagricultural” meant that a person born into an agricultural family had no opportunity to convert to nonagricultural status and was therefore denied benefits allocated to those in the cities such as housing, medical insurance, food allotments, and pensions (Cohen 1994; Potter and Potter 1990). In many ways, the package of urban welfare came to be understood as socioeconomic rights that were the property of urbanites. (Clark 1999: Kindle Locations 1394-1398).

From my understanding, Hukou is a government instrument for manipulating and controlling the movement of people in China. The word Hukou is comprised of two separate characters: 户 and 口. Independently, 户 carries the meaning of family, and 口 carries the meaning of entrance or gate. So, the combination of the two characters is a fitting description of the structure. Without approved official documentation, a person cannot legally enter and establish a life in another province or town. This barrier has been and continues to be problematic for Chinese citizens, particularly those living in rural towns wishing to move and work in exciting and economically thriving cities. Moreover, the difficulty of transferring Hukuo registration has made the city the “preferred place to live and… a steadfast destination of desire for rural dwellers and exiled urbanites” (Chen 1999: Kindle Locations 133-134). Thus, the increasingly high population densities in Chinese cities, like Beijing and Shanghai, should be expected.

Before learning about Hukou, I took “the freedom of geographic mobility” for granted. In America, the government does not directly control the migration from countryside to city. In fact, the transition from small town to big city is a popular theme romanticized in novels and movies. During my childhood, my family moved every few years according to my father’s job and economic opportunities. Hukou would have restricted my father’s career and my family’s chance for economic prosperity. Chinese college students are facing this restriction of Hukou during their job hunts after graduation (Hoffman: Kindle Locations 757-758). If graduates do not get their Hukou registration transferred to an economic center, such as Shanghai, then they are forced to look for job opportunities in their hometown. This can be extremely disheartening for college graduates from small towns, since better, higher-paying jobs are located in larger cities.

The subject of Hukou surfaced during an interview with Ms. Li (李), a migrant farmer on Chongming Island. Recently, Ms. Li’s son returned to their hometown in Anhui Province to attend high school. When asked why he did not attend a high school on the island, she clarified that his registration was in their hometown. Therefore, he could only take his university placement exams in Anhui. Ms. Li hopes her son will find a job outside farming and recognizes the importance of an education for his future. Thus, staying on Chongming was not an option for her son. Additionally, Ms. Li mentioned her son’s desire to attend university in urban Shanghai instead of Chongming. As mentioned earlier, life in a larger city is economically and socially more attractive. Chongming Island is the least developed region of Shanghai. Ms. Li’s son is simply another illustration of the rural population’s longing for city life.

(Ms. Li is pictured above; population density map provided by china travel guide)