China strictly controls urbanisation and limits migrant workers' rights – but all that could be changing

Migrant construction workers leave a site in Beijing. Image: Getty.

If you live in China, and you fancy moving from the Chinese equivalent of rural Norfolk to the Chinese equivalent of London, chances are, you won't be able to. Well, that's not strictly true - you might be able to physically go there, but you'll probably be without education, healthcare or housing rights. Your children wouldn't be able to go school. Effectively, you would be an illegal migrant. 

This is because of the country's complex system of "hukou", or household registration. It has existed in some form since the Xia Dynasty (which began around 2100 BCE), but in 1958, the Communist party made the system far stricter and more official, in order to control peoples' movement through the country and prevent mass urbanisation.

Under the party's system, you need around six work passes to work in a province outside your own, and, based on your birthplace, you have a "rural" or "urban" hukou. Bar advances in the 80s that allow people to move temporarily to other places for work, that system is, roughly, the one still in use today - but there are signs it might be coming to an end. 

A Chinese household's hukou documents. Image: Atlaslin via Wikimedia Commons.

In June 2013, the Chinese National Development and Reform Commission recommended that the government should "gradually tear down household registration obstacles" in order to allow migration from rural to urban areas. Earlier this month, the Ministry of Public Security began to do just that - it announced a trial of a new system whereby 62 cities and regions will allow those with enough "credit" (usually based on education and insurance payments) and a job in Beijing to move there and have rights similar to those of the city's citizens. 

So why end the system? One simple explanation is that it doesn’t do the economy any favours. Any developed country worth its salt needs urbanisation, and economists are already predicting that China could face a labour shortage in the coming decades. Granted, China is urbanising (see the graph below) but the effects are artificially limited: workers from elsewhere can move to Chinese cities but, because of their hukou, are unable to bring their families or stay for long.

As a result, they save their money for the move back to the countryside or their home city, rather than spending it in the city and putting down roots. The effect is that cities are populated by transient, rights-less migrants, not socially mobile urban citizens. 

China's urbanisation to 2013. Source: World Bank. 

In fact, the evidence is that the central government has been keen to get rid of hukou for years, and have been gradually reforming parts of the system; it’s the cities who hold the regulatory reins and are unwilling to loosen their grip. Xi Jinping, the current Chinese president, actually wrote in his 2001 university thesis that the hukou system should be abolished.

Geoff Crothall, Communications Director at the China Labour Bulletin, tells me:

The key thing we have to remember is, as far as hukou reform is concerned, the central government can say what it likes, but it doesn't have any real effect on the ground. It's the city governments that dictate who has access to social services, to education, to medical benefits in their jurisdiction. And that's because 99 per cent of education is paid for out of local government budgets.

The economic arguments seem to be the straw that is gradually breaking the cities' back, however. Their industries need workers, and, as Rachel Murphy, Associate Professor of Chinese Sociology at the Univeristy of Oxford explains, cities are hoping to move into high-end manufacturing, which also requires a more stable, educated workforce: "For that you need workers with healthcare, housing, and so on." 

Migrant workers receving health packages from volunteers in east China's Shandong province. Image: Getty.

* * * 

Reforming the system is a good move economically, but it could also help tackle the problems of homelessness, education, and quality of life in China.  Both Murphy and Crothall say that the hukou system, with its codifying of status and hierarchy, leads to workplace discrimination and general social prejudice. Murphy says the rural/urban division in particular was "like a class system - rural people are seen as second class citizens". 

Indeed, when Chinese website SOHU reported on the trial in Beijing, it did so in the language of civil rights: 

Martin Luther King’s speech [at the March on Washington] was stirring, and every Chinese has a dream too ... that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’

(translation via Market Watch). 

Jenny Richardson*, who lived in China as an expat, gives two examples of people forced into half-lives as a result of the registration system: 

One day my husband noticed a six year old girl hanging around the factory where he worked, so he inquired as to who she was. It turned out that she lived with her father, the manager on site at the workers accommodation, because she was the product of an affair between her father and a local woman. His wife and one child (in line with the one child policy) lived and were registered in another city.

He couldn't have this illegitimate daughter registered because it would result in huge fines for breaching the one-child policy. Basically, this child had no identity. She was the only child on site, living with the male workers in a dormitory. I don't know what happened to her when her father went back to his family on weekends. 

Another sad story: one day, I came out of the vegetable market and saw a woman and her child begging on the street. She had rows of Chinese characters written in chalk on the pavement in front of her. I asked my driver if I should give her money and what her story was.

He read it and said that she and her husband and child had come illegally to our city to work. There was a fire at her house that killed her husband. Because they weren't in their city of registration she didn't have access to any services like housing or education and she didn't even have the money to return to her place of origin. 


There's still a way to go: even under the new policy, those living outside their original hukou area won't be able to enroll their children in a local school, for example. But the signs are that the entire system will, eventually, be completely reformed, if the cities have the will to do it. And that seems like a pretty good thing. 


*name has been changed. 


The Adam Smith Institute thinks size doesn’t matter when housing young professionals. It’s wrong

A microhome, of sorts. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Adam Smith Institute has just published ‘Size Doesn’t Matter’, a report by Vera Kichanova, which argues that eliminating minimum space requirements for flats would help to solve the London housing crisis. The creation of so-called ‘micro-housing’ would allow those young professionals who value location over size to live inside the most economically-active areas of London, the report argues argues.

But the report’s premises are often mistaken – and its solutions sketchy and questionable.

To its credit, it does currently diagnose the roots of the housing crisis: London’s growing population isn’t matched by a growing housing stock. Kichanova is self-evidently right in stating that “those who manage to find accomodation [sic] in the UK capital have to compromise significantly on their living standards”, and that planning restrictions and the misnamed Green Belt are contributing to this growing crisis.

But the problems start on page 6, when Kichanova states that “the land in central, more densely populated areas, is also used in a highly inefficient way”, justifying this reasoning through an assertion that half of Londoners live in buildings up to two floors high. In doing so, she incorrectly equates high-rise with density: Kichanova, formerly a Libertarian Party councillor in Moscow, an extraordinarily spread-out city with more than its fair share of tall buildings, should know better.

Worse, the original source for this assertion refers to London as a whole: that means it includes the low-rise areas of outer London, rather than just the very centrally located Central Activities Zone (CAZ) – the City, West End, South Bank and so forth – with which the ASI report is concerned. A leisurely bike ride from Knightsbridge to Aldgate would reveal that single or two-storey buildings are almost completely absent from those parts of London that make up the CAZ.

Kichanova also argues that a young professional would find it difficult to rent a flat in the CAZ. This is correct, as the CAZ covers extremely upmarket areas like Mayfair, Westminster, and Kensington Gardens (!), as well as slightly more affordable parts of north London, such as King’s Cross.

Yet the report leaps from that quite uncontroversial assertion to stating that living outside the CAZ means a commute of an hour or more per day. This is a strawman: it’s perfectly possible to keep your commuting time down, even living far outside of the CAZ. I live in Archway and cycle to Bloomsbury in about twenty minutes; if you lived within walking distance of Seven Sisters and worked in Victoria, you would spend much less than an hour a day on the Tube.

Kichanova supports her case by apparently misstating research by some Swiss economists, according to whom a person with an hour commute to work has to earn 40 per cent more money to be as satisfied as someone who walks. An hour commute to work means two hours travelling per day – by any measure a different ballpark, which as a London commuter would mean living virtually out in the Home Counties.

Having misidentified the issue, the ASI’s solution is to allow the construction of so-called micro-homes, which in the UK refers to homes with less than the nationally-mandated minimum 37m2 of floor space. Anticipating criticism, the report disparages “emotionally charged epithets like ‘rabbit holes’ and ‘shoeboxes,” in the very same paragraph which describes commuting as “spending two hours a day in a packed train with barely enough air to breath”.

The report suggests browsing Dezeen’s examples of designer micro-flats in order to rid oneself of the preconception that tiny flats need mean horrible rabbit hutches. It uses weasel words – “it largely depends on design whether a flat looks like a decent place to live in” – to escape the obvious criticism that, nice-looking or not, tiny flats are few people’s ideal of decent living. An essay in the New York Times by a dweller of a micro-flat describes the tyranny of the humble laundry basket, which looms much larger than life because of its relative enormity in the author’s tiny flat; the smell of onion which lingers for weeks after cooking a single dish.

Labour London Assembly member Tom Copley has described being “appalled” after viewing a much-publicised scheme by development company U+I. In Hong Kong, already accustomed to some of the smallest micro-flats in the world, living spaces are shrinking further, leading Alice Wu to plead in an opinion column last year for the Hong Kong government to “regulate flat sizes for the sake of our mental health”.

Amusingly, the Dezeen page the ASI report urges a look at includes several examples directly contradicting its own argument. One micro-flat is 35 m2, barely under minimum space standards as they stand; another is named the Shoe Box, a title described by Dezeen as “apt”. So much for eliminating emotionally-charged epithets.

The ASI report readily admits that micro-housing is suitable only for a narrow segment of Londoners; it states that micro-housing will not become a mass phenomenon. But quite how the knock-on effects of a change in planning rules allowing for smaller flats will be managed, the report never makes clear. It is perfectly foreseeable that, rather than a niche phenomenon confined to Zone 1, these glorified student halls would become common for early-career professionals, as they have in Hong Kong, even well outside the CAZ.

There will always be a market for cheap flats, and many underpaid professionals would leap at the chance to save money on their rent, even if that doesn’t actually mean living more centrally. The reasoning implicit to the report is that young professionals would be willing to pay similar rents to normal-sized flats in Zones 2-4 in order to live in a smaller flat in Zone 1.

But the danger is that developers’ response is simply to build smaller flats outside Zone 1, with rent levels which are lower per flat but higher per square metre than under existing rules. As any private renter in London knows, it’s hardly uncommon for landlords to bend the rules in order to squeeze as much profit as possible out of their renters.

The ASI should be commended for correctly diagnosing the issues facing young professionals in London, even if the solution of living in a room not much bigger than a bed is no solution. A race to the bottom is not a desirable outcome. But to its credit, I did learn something from the report: I never knew the S in ASI stood for “Slum”.