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March 24, 2014 / Leo Hollis

100 million new citizens – how changes in the Hukou System changes Urban History

Last week on the 16th March, the Chinese government decided to change a long standing Hokuo system that has held back urbanisation. The system had a long history in China but had most recently revived in 1958 as a way to regulate the flow of immigration between the countryside and the city. In that year Chairman Mao had called for a ‘great leap forward’ as a way to stop the economic regression of the country, with the hope to transform China from an agrarian economy to an industrial giant in an instant.

In Mao’s dream private farms were to be collectivised and the country would benefit from the increase in productivity: this would then feed a policy of rapid urban industrialisation. Except things went desperately wrong. In the cities, steel works and industrial factories become the property of the state and there was rapid rise of production in the first year. However, there was not enough grain to feed the workers, as the collective farms failed to fulfill demand; Mao decided that it was the rural farmer that would suffer the most and the ensuing famine and deprivation was widespread. The Hukou system was enforced to keep the rural workers in the countryside although they could not survive there; only holders of the right papers were given food in the city. In the end, it is estimated that up to 45 million people died of hunger as a result of the policy.   

In recent years the Hukou system has been used to restrict movement from the countryside to the city to share in the economic boom of the new economy. The system has created a whole class of illegal workers, who have no rights or papers, ready to be exploited by the factories. It is estimated that today nearly 200 million workers live outside their legally registered territory and therefore can not expect any government services, health care or education. While they earn wages in the factories, they cannot gain resident status. Instead, they remain informal labour, threatened with expulsion. In addition to this illegal workforce there is an added 130 million ‘home staying children’ as they are called, the next generation of workers whose lives are already blighted by this inequal policy. 

This policy has sometimes had horrific effects. In March 2003, Sun Zhigang, a 27 year old graduate and a worker at the Daqi Garment Factory in Guangzhou, southern China, died suspiciously in the medical clinic attached to one of the city’s detention centres. Sun had arrived in the city three weeks earlier and on the morning that he went missed had left his flat to visit an internet cafe. At the door he was stopped by local authorities who asked to see his papers, including his temporary permit to work in the Hubei province and his ID card. He had not yet applied for residency, and his permit still indicated that he was a resident of his family home in Hubei. He had forgotten his ID but offered to call a friend to bring it to the shop.

After that, nothing was heard of him until a friend called his family to let them know that he had be found dead. The following day, Sun’s father and brother arrived from Wuhan to identify the body, where they were told that he had died of a brain heamorrhage and a heart attack.  At a later autopsy conducted by experts from Zhongshan University, anomolies started to pile up. The study reported that Sun had died from injuries and traumatc stress; it turned out that he had been beaten across the back until he died from the attack. The family took the controversy to the Southern Metropolitan Daily newspaper, but there was little reaction as the current SARS epidemic was monopolising the front pages. Instead, an internet campaign started, calling for justice for Sun. In the end, twelve employees of the detention centre were convicted for the crime.

There have been numerous calls to reform the system. Follwing the horrific death of Sun Zhigang, the process of C and R [custody and repatriation] was repealed, so the brutal treatment meted out on illegal workers was no longer possible. In 2005 there were news reports that the system was to be wholly abolished but there has been little more reform than devolving responsibility for regulation from the central authority to local governments. This allowed Beijing to blame the regional cities when things go wrong, but the cities are not keen to abolish a policy that would force them to provide services to an unknown new population. Instead, at any moment there are 40 million chinese people flowing between the cities and the countryside, unaccounted for, unprotected. Today, workers don’t fear being picked up by the authorities, they are just ignored.

When the recession hit the globalised markets in 2009, most of the headlines pointed to China’s resilience and the bold new future for the Chinese economy, but this hid the terrible impact that was felt amongst the migrant workers who were not part of the economic boom.  They would never become members of the Chinese middle class, sharing the spoils of the nation’s fortunes, because they had been born in the wrong place.

In 2010 the American journalist Leslie T Chang went to Ghangzhou and spoke to a group of factory girls who had come to the city, having paid a couple of recruiters who promised them jobs, and worked with borrowed ID cards, and new names. They all started work on the assembly lines but hoped to move quickly up the factory hierarchy, and never to return to the countryside. They slept in dormitories, sometimes 12 to a room. The rules were strict within the factory, no talking, 10 minute bathroom breaks, and numerous systems of fines and punishments. The risks are high but for many, worthwhile: one earns enough to send some home to the village, one can also work hard and get lucky and cross the class divide, get an education and become a member of the middle class. But for most, the threat of  discovery, unemployment and desperation remain.

According to Kam Wing Chan, professor of geography at the Univeristy of Washington, the Hukou system has made impossible the development of the Chinese middle class. Shenzen, with a population of 14 million, has only 3 million registered urban dwellers, It is this very fulidity and informality of the labout market that has allowed the economy to grow so quickly: ‘this system of official discrimination has enabled China to experience such economic growth – and what makes it unlikely that the second-class citizens will be able to become the sort of consumerist middle class outsiders are predicting.’ In the long term this means that China will remain a nation of home grown illegal immigrants, and can not develop the domestic market to comsume its own products and remain reliant on the western markets. Until last week, for 140 million (over twice the population of the UK), sharing the urban dream is impossible.

But last week the government declared that, by 2020, 100 million workers will become members of the city, with rights to work, live and call home. However, the rules come with some unexpected caveats. The 100 million can not move to the 16 big cities, but to the second tier metropolises with populations below 5 million. The aim is to have 60% of China’s population living in cities by the end of this decade. Much of this work  – 1 trillion yuan – will be spent on transforming shanty towns.

This will undoubtedly be the largest single movement of people into the city in urban history. The irony is, of course, that most of these 100 million have moved, loved and worked in the city for many years – they just have, like Sun, been part of the informal market. In exchange for recognition as citizens, they will also exchange one set of dangers for another; from the informal market to the formal market. This does not offer a seamless route to membership of the middle class, wealth and security. China may just find that as the export-driven economy cools that this initiative does not open up a domestic market as hoped. It is not just a case of ‘if you built it, they will come.’  




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