In China, there's no freedom of movement, even between country and city

A man walks past a billboard in Beijing. Image: Getty.

In recent years, China has gained a global reputation for its juggernaut economy and breathtaking social change. Yet beneath this shining veneer, an outdated Maoist institution continues to define the life chances of Chinese citizens: it’s called “hukou”.

Hukou is a kind of passport system, which limits access to public services, based on the birthplace of the holder. It was first established in 1954 to immobilise China’s large rural population, as China’s Chairman Mao Zedong sought to contain any possible challenges to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) new autocratic regime. The result was a highly segregated society.

Having an urban hukou allowed citizens to enjoy privileged access to public services such as education, health, housing and pensions. Meanwhile, citizens with a rural hukou were more or less deprived of access to the country’s limited welfare system, and unable to move freely to China’s more affluent urban centres along the east coast.

Rush to the city

After Mao died in 1976, realities on the ground gradually began to change. Young Chinese people who had been sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution (from 1966 to 1976) were returning to the cities. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, China’s economy picked up steam, drawing millions of rural migrants into urban industrial clusters to become low-wage labourers.

Rural dwellers were attracted by the new job opportunities, which promised an escape from abject poverty in China’s countryside. But migrating from the countryside to the city came with its own challenges. While it provided a pathway for social upward mobility, rural migrants routinely experienced discrimination at the hands of Chinese city-dwellers. Rural migrants mostly carried out dirty, dangerous and demeaning jobs, which urbanites were not willing to do.

Walking away. Image: Renato @ Mainland China/Flickr/creative commons.

To make matters worse, the strict hukou system made it almost impossible for rural migrants to bring their families with them to the city. As a result, China’s countryside is now populated primarily by elderly people, women and children. In fact, it’s estimated that more than 61m children have been left behind in China’s villages, to be looked after by older siblings or grandparents. Many suffer from psychological problems caused by the long-term separation from their parents.

The CCP has been mindful of these challenges, and has introduced economic policies – such as Building a New Socialist Countryside – to improve infrastructure and economic development in rural China. But these investments have neither stemmed the flow of rural-urban migration, nor addressed the core issue of increasing social inequality.

The road to reform

In recent years, the CCP has announced piecemeal reforms to the hukou system, to try to allow some of the 236m migrants living away from home to acquire an urban hukou and gain extra entitlements. A number of municipalities have introduced an Australian-style, points-based system, which means applicants who meet certain criteria become eligible for urban hukou.

The government has encouraged cities to relax their criteria, but requirements for first-tier cities such as Beijing and Shanghai remain far more onerous than those for second and third-tier cities in other parts of China. What’s more, additional caps on rural migrants means that in practice, only a fraction of those who are eligible are actually granted urban hukou.

Hukou reforms are also complicated by the fact that land reform has made little progress in China. Rural Chinese are wary of giving up their rural hukou, which entitles them to a small plot of land. Such land use rights provide a limited safety net for rural Chinese – particularly those who do not enjoy the benefits of an urban pension.

Tough choice: rural hukou (left) and Beijing temporary residence permit (right). Image: Rolex Dela Pena/EPA.

In China, the distinction between citizens with rural or urban hukou is increasingly seen as arbitrary. In 2008, some Chinese citizens called on the CCP to abolish the system in its entirety. Signatories of Charter 08 – a progressive manifesto for the future of China – said that an alternative system should be established, which “gives every citizen the same constitutional rights and the same freedom to choose where to live”.

So far, the CCP has ignored calls to abolish the hukou system. Some authors of Charter 08 have even been imprisoned. Meaningful reform of the hukou system will require the party to be more open to bottom-up, civil society initiatives and policy advice, to level the playing field for both rural and urban Chinese citizens.The Conversation

Andreas Fulda is assistant professor in the School of Politics & International Relations/Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Nottingham.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


 

 
 
 
 

To boost the high street, cities should invest in offices

Offices in Northampton. Image: Getty.

Access to cheap borrowing has encouraged local authorities to proactively invest in commercial property. These assets can be a valuable tool for cities looking to improve the built environment they offer businesses and residents.

Councils are estimated to have spent £3.8bn on property between 2013 and 2017, funded through the government’s Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) at very low interest rates. Offices accounted for half of this investment, and roughly a third (£1.2bn) has been spent on retail properties. And local authorities were the biggest investor group for UK shopping centres in the first quarter of 2018.

Why are cities investing? There are two major motivations.

First, at a time when cuts are squeezing council revenue budgets, property investments can provide a long-term revenue stream to keep quality public services up and running. Second, ownership of buildings in areas marked for redevelopment allows councils to assemble land more easily and gives them more influence over the changes taking place, allowing them to make sure the space evolves to meet their objectives.

But how exactly can cities turn property ownership into successful place-making? How should they adapt the buildings they invest in to improve the performance of the economies?

Cities need workers

When developing the city’s property offer, the aim should be to get jobs back into the city centre while reducing the dominance of retail space. For councils who have invested in existing retail space and shopping centres, in particular, the temptation may be to try and retain their existing use, with new retail strategies designed to reduce vacancies.

But as the Centre for Cities’ recent Building Blocks report illustrates, the evidence points to this being a dead-end. Instead, cities may need to convert the properties they own so they house a more diverse group of businesses.

Many city centres already have a lot of retail – and this has not offered significant economic benefit. Almost half (43 per cent) of city centre space in the weakest city economies is taken up by shops, while retail only accounts for 18 per cent of space in strong city centre economies. And many of these shops lie empty: in weaker city centres vacancy rates of high-street services (retail, food and leisure) are on average 16 per cent, compared with 9 per cent in stronger city economies. In Newport, nearly a quarter of these premises are empty, as the map below shows.

The big issue in these city centres is the lack of office jobs – which are an important contributor to footfall for retailers. This means that, in order to improve the fortunes of the high street, policy will need to tackle the barriers that deter those businesses from moving to their city centres.

One of these barriers is the quality of office space. In a number of struggling city centres, the quality of office space on offer is poor. But the low returns available for private investors mean that some form of public sector involvement will be required.


Ownership of buildings gives cities the opportunity to reshape the type of commercial space on offer. Some of this will involve improving the existing office stock available, some will involve converting retail to office, and some of will require demolishing part of the space without replacing it, in the short term at least. Without ownership of the land and buildings on it, this task becomes very difficult to do but will be a fundamental part of turning the fortunes of a city centre around.

Cheap borrowing has provided a way not only for local authorities to generate an income stream through property investment. but also opens up the opportunity to have greater control over the development of their city centres. For those choosing to invest, the focus must be on using ownership to make the city centre a more attractive place for all businesses to invest, rather than hoping to revive retail alone.

Rebecca McDonald is an analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.