Hungry, Homeless, and Hopeless: The Injustices of the China Hukou Registration System
Faculty Mentor: Celeste Beesley, Political Science
This study analyzes the destructive social and economic consequences of the Chinese hukou
registration system through quantitative analysis of the inequality gap between rural-urban
migrants and urbanites in Chinese cities between 1995-2002. By performing statistical tests on
individual-level survey data, this paper documents the economic gap between urban hukou
holders and non-urban hukou holders in 1995. It also shows that rural-urban migrant inequality
has not increased between 1995 and 2002, and that the costs of migrating to the cities under a
rural hukou were less in 2002 than previously. However, results also confirmed that the hukou
policy significantly restricted the social mobility and fundamental rights of Chinese rural-urban
When Mao Ze Dong and the Communists took control of China, they began sweeping policy
changes that fundamentally altered Chinese society1. These plans included assigning citizens to
various regions and occupational roles to bolster the national economy. After this mass
displacement, the government adopted a rigid, new development known as the hukou registration
policy of 1958, a policy designed to control the population flow. Specifically, the Communist
leadership sought to ensure the strength of the agricultural sector and prevent the rise of
shantytowns and black markets in city centers. According to this system, each child would be
issued a hukou in the region in which their mother was registered1. This hukou would be valid
for that region and would enable its carrier to register for public schooling, health benefits, and
the right to vote. It would also classify how many food rations each individual would receive.
The Chinese government further clarified that, without possession of the correct hukou, citizens
would not receive public goods or benefits outside of their original district. This presented
desperate rural citizens with a difficult dilemma. If a citizen wanted to migrate and pursue job
opportunities in the cities, he/she would decide to leave the safety of public healthcare and the
company of their families. Such decisions remain a major contributor to the widespread
separation of families in China2. Further, such migrants would subject themselves to poor living
conditions and opportunities for social, occupational and legal discrimination. The rising trend of
rural-urban migrants has been present throughout Chinese economic growth and has continued to
escalate in recent years. A 2014 report showed that, “54% of China’s population lives in the
cities and only 36% of those residents possess urban hukous” 3. Such records show that a
massive proportion of the Chinese population has been living in areas where they have no access
to rights and benefits.
This project seeks to test whether the welfare of the rural-urban migrants between 1995 and 2002
has improved and whether improvements in China’s economy have decreased the level of
inequality between those with and without hukou registration. Because of growth in Chinese
industries, the cities experienced an increased need for labor. This labor shortage enticed rural
citizens to flood the cities in search of higher wages, becoming the mass, cheap labor force that
manufactures a large percentage of international goods. The restrictions of the hukou system
created inequalities in the cities because rural-urban migrants could not establish permanent
urban residence, depriving them of rights and access to basic public goods. Such rights prevented
them from enrolling their children in school and securing safe, comfortable housing. This has
fostered social discrimination and created opportunities for exploitation in the work place4.
Labor rights activists have claimed that the hukou system “aggravates low pay, creates a lack of
formal channels for worker grievances and demands, and excludes migrant workers from
education, health care and social services in the cities”.5 Because rural-urban migrants are often
unable to obtain high-paying employment or education, they become heavily dependent on lowpaying
jobs and poor working conditions. Such difficulties keep them and their children in an
impoverished state with little possibility of upward mobility. Thus, the registration system makes
rural-urban migrants “lower class” citizens and leads to inequality.
This study uses data gathered by the Chinese Household Income Project in 1995 and 2002. This
data was acquired to measure the distribution of personal income in both rural and urban areas in
the Chinese nation. The project includes a broad array of demographic and economic variables
such as income, age, education level, gender, status, medical insurance and expenditures,
occupation, working hours, job history, etc. Replicating and extending prior research on whether
obtaining an urban hukou while young (prior to age 15) profoundly affects a Chinese citizens’
socio-economic status, this study contributes to existing literature because it compares the
inequality gap between rural-urban migrants and urbanites in both 1995 (the original year of the
study) and 2002, a period of dramatic economic growth.6 Regressions are used to check the
results for robustness.
The results of the study are very informative. The first tests reveal that, in spite of growing ruralurban
migrant trends, the disadvantages associated with obtaining an urban hukou later in life
(after the age of 15) are less in 2002 than they were in 1995. This means that, in 2002, the ruralurban
migrants are more-able to overcome the disadvantages of migrant status. This could be
attributed to rising labor demands and government willingness to slack on hukou policies to
boost the national economy. It could also be attributed to the increased availability of urban
hukous through new policies or black market traders. However, the results also show that those
millions of migrants who do not yet have an urban hukou are still significantly disadvantaged.
Thus, the hukou policy still causes institutional exclusion in Chinese society but is not as
disadvantageous to rural-urban migrants in 2002 as it was in 1995. Such confirmation shows that
the hukou policy is still a significant problem in Chinese society and should be addressed.
1 Chan, Kim Wang and Li Zhang. The Hukou System and Rural Urban Migration in China: Processes and Changes. The China
Quarterly, No. 160 (Dec. 1999), pp. 818-855.
2 Chan, Kam Wing 2009. The Chinese Hukou System at 50. Eurasian Geography and Economics, Vol 50, No. 2 pp: 197–221.
3 The Economist. (April 19, 2014). “The Rural Urban Divide: Ending Apartheid”. http://www.economiost.com/news/specialreport/
4 Farzana, Afridi and Li, Sherry Xin, ren, Yufei 2012. Social Identity and Inequality: The impact of China’s Hukou System.
Discussion Paper Series, Forschungsinstitut zur Zukunft der Arbiet, No. 6417.
5 Kam Wing Chan (2010) A China Paradox: Migrant Labor Shortage amidst Rural Labor Supply Abundance, Eurasian
Geography and Economics, 51:4, 513-530
6 Liu, Ziqiang. Institution and Inequality: the Hukou System in China. Journal of Comparative Economics 33