Hukous: Being Illegal in One’s Own Country

What does a Beijing businesswoman born in China’s northeast Jinan Province have in common with Shanghai taxi drivers from rural Anhui, Henan, and Chongqing?

The answer is that they all spent time as “illegal immigrants” in their own country.

And only one of them has been able to somewhat solve that problem.

Illegal immigration, also known as undocumented immigration, plagues nations around the world which struggle to control and curtail migrants who cross sovereign borders without requisite paperwork, passports, and permissions.

In China, however, illegal and undocumented immigration finds a new meaning. The majority of the problem that municipal and provincial governments face comes from the unapproved migration of Chinese citizens from one place in China to other places on the Chinese mainland, although within the sovereign domestic borders of the nation itself.

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Established in the 1950s by the fledgling Communist Party government, which had come to power in 1949, the “hukou” system grants social welfare, health, and educational benefits to citizens based on where they are born. A hukou, therefore, is nearly like a passport. You can go live in other places, but you are not legally able to access any of the benefits of those places, from healthcare to schools.

The resulting “hukou” system has profound implications for every Chinese household. It is a system that determines one’s possibilities and probabilities in China over the course of an entire lifetime.

Being denied access to benefits is not the only risk that “illegal” migrants to the cities take. As has been seen in Beijing in recent years, those without legal registration in a city can be forcibly removed at a moment’s notice. Both business as well as residential establishments are vulnerable to immediate destruction, and migrants themselves to forcible deportation.

As with unapproved immigration around the world, the issue is multilayered. Simply put, many of the cities in China to which provincial cousins migrate could not grow or maintain their development without the cheaper labor that internal illegal immigration brings. Shanghai’s nouveau riche are served by another class of people who have no legal right to live in their city, but whose service and labor form the foundation for development.

But the system, often called “China’s apartheid,” can be beaten by those who are financially and educationally qualified.

Using a set of parameters very much like the point system used by Australia and other countries to assess immigration applicants from other nations, those who have obtained university degrees abroad, those who can show professional and technical achievement in various professions, and those who can invest enough money, can apply to change their hukou to Shanghai or Beijing.

Another partial workaround exists for those who wish to stay in a place in which they were not born and therefore not registered. Under certain conditions, they can get a resident card.

Those who start and operate a legal business in Beijing, for example, are eligible to apply for Beijing residency for themselves and their immediate family (usually restricted to a spouse and a child).

Thus the Beijing businesswoman can pay a social welfare tax, giving her family access to public health care in Beijing.

It also means that her child can go to public school for free from grades 1 through 9.

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The problem for that child, and that family, is that public high schools in Beijing won’t accept a Chinese resident card holder. Only hukou holders are eligible. Therefore, the family must plan years in advance for the ultimate educational needs of their child. Private high schools in Beijing, for example, can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000 a year. And placement is highly competitive.

But people like Mr. Zhang from Chongqing, who has been working as a driver in Shanghai for 20 years, can never enjoy the conditions needed for even a Shanghai resident card, much less a hukou.

Therefore, Zhang, like fellow drivers Feng from Anhui province and Liu from Henan province, are unable to access health, welfare, educational, or retirement benefits in the city in which they work and live.

So Zhang’s family stays “home,” like tens of millions of other rural families in China. For two decades, Zhang’s wife and child have lived 1,500 kilometers away. He travels back to see them twice a year.

Nonetheless, they say that the wage they make, at just over $1,000 a month, is worth the price, and the risk. They gripe that they work incessantly and have no chance of getting on Shanghai’s property ladder, now a market more expensive than London or New York. But, as Feng says, “I grew up hungry in Anhui Province. We were all hungry, all the time. At least we’re not now.”

The most egregious inequality in the Chinese hukou and residency system is in the construction industry.

The skilled and semi-skilled workers who have formed the core of China’s massive construction crews over the last three decades work not for private Chinese companies, but for the state-owned companies that dominate the Chinese building industry. With construction centering on urban areas, workers, toiling for the Chinese government, remain ineligible for the health and welfare benefits of the cities in which they labor, notwithstanding their contribution to the infrastructure for “legal” urban residents.

The system, not surprisingly, underscores and exacerbates social class divisions.

A study made by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found that one-third of urban dwellers in Shanghai don’t want to live next door to a migrant from the country. That figure rises to two-thirds in some less cosmopolitan cities.

Evident to anyone who has witnessed the changes in China over the last 30 years has been the shift in society from addressing any fellow Chinese as “comrade” — tongzhi — to open dislike and even disdain for those who come from the countryside by those who were born in the cities. Most urban residents have forgotten – and don’t like to be reminded – that their living conditions were not that long ago just as basic as those in rural areas today – sometimes even more so. As a result, full-fledged class divisions and all of the prejudices that go along with them have resurfaced in China, likely to a level never seen before.

The household registration system fuels these class divisions by legitimizing and sanctioning economic and therefore social discrimination against those who come from rural China to work in the cities.

The hukou system has its impact on all sectors of Chinese society. The largest impact, however, is on those who have been rural farmers. Therein lies the greatest irony of the hukou system and its inherent segregationist policies. For, unlike the Soviet Union, it was the rural farmers, not the city workers, who brought the Communist Party of China to power in the first place. Today, however, it seems that the Party still wants to keep them down on the farm or, failing that, disenfranchised in the city.

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