It is not easy to realize how strange it is when you live in an existing system, but when you have the chance to talk with people from other countries, you realize the huge difference.
I enjoyed my talk with my great friends tonight, and we talked about the Resident Permit (Hokou) system in China. To be honest, I didn’t feel it too strange before I explained it with my own mouth. After that, even I think it is not reasonable at all, and astonished to hear what came out of my own mouth. Let me explain it to you.
What is Hukou
Hukou is basically a resident permit given by the government of China. It is issued on family basis. Every family have a Hukou booklet that records information about the family members, including name, birth date, relationship with each other, marriage status (and with whom if married), address and your employer…
Everyone has a Hukou in China.
Hukou before 1980
Before 1980, Hukou is extremely important. People are required to stay at the small area they were born (where the Hukou is), and stay there until they die. They cannot move around. They can travel, but there is no access to job, public services, education, or even food in other places. It is just like visiting other places with a B-1 (business) type of visa – you can visit, but cannot work there (it is illegal), cannot go to school (not accepted), cannot go to hospital (without a hukou, you are not treated). For food, in those old days, you cannot buy food no matter how much money you have. You need to use Liangpiao (The currency for food) with money together to get food. Liangpiao is only issued by the government of the place your Hukou is registered. So basically, you can survive with the Liangpiao you get for some days, but not long (especially taken the consideration that Liangpiao issued by one province or city cannot be used in another province or city).
So basically, at that time, without Hukou, people cannot move. There are very few people move around in the country, but their status is practically the same as illegal immigrants in U.S.
To move Hukou from one place to other is very hard – just as hard as getting green card for U.S. It is even harder to move from rural area to city – basically, there are too types of Hukou, one is rural Hukou, and the other is city Hukou. To move from rural to rural is easier, but to move from rural to city is very hard – it takes years. Only in very few situations does the change happen: 1) You enter a university in city, or 2) You marriage someone in city. Both of the cases, you need to wait for a long period of time to get it. There is limited Hukou open every year, so you need to compete to get it.
Hukou after 1980
After the year of 1980, a lot of things change. In practice, Hukou is not enforced as strong as before. The starting point is that Liangpiao is not required to buy food – money along work. For work, there are still huge difference for people with a Hukou or without a Hukou (the same till today), but it is possible to move.
This made it possible for many immigrant workers to leave their land and go to cities to seek for labor-intensive work. Typical works are workers in texile factory, consitruction workers, and nannies. However, the education of their children is still a big problem. They cannot receive education as other children, so some places, they setup school only for people without Hukou (immigrant worker school). Personally, I feel it even bad than the old “black and white seperation” policy.
Today, Hukou does not play that important role as before, but there are still a lot of difference. Here are some examples:
1) Medical Insurance. For example, people living in Shanghai without Shanghai Hukou are not covered by social medical insurance. If the person get ill, he/she needs to pay for it by him/herself. This is not a big deal though, since more and more commercial insurance can help on this.
2) Job. Many job only opens to people with Shanghai Hukou. This is some type of discrimination, but some employers have to do that because there are still difference by the regulation.
3) Safety. Guangzhou is an extreme case. Four years ago, when I visited Guangzhou, my friends told me to bring my national ID card with me at any time. Police may stop anyone at any time on the street to check the ID card. If they find the address of the ID card is not in Guangzhou, and the person don’t have a temp resident permit, they have the right to detain the person and return him/her to their place of origin. This is the common practice in many cities. This regulation was abandoned as late as 2003, when a guy named Sun Zhigang was beaten to death during the detain period of time.
Hukou and Me
Hukou has a high impact for me. I didn’t go to kindergarten in my whole life, since at the time I moved to city at the age of 5, I didn’t get my Hukou yet. It took long time to get it, so the kindergarten refused to accept me. I stayed at home until I am 7 and got Hukou. If I didn’t got Hukou at that time, the risk was, I could not even go to primary school. This is a real story.
From my primary school to the end of my high school (1982 – 1995), my Hukou is at Luoyang. When I entered Shanghai Jiaotong University, my Hukou was transferred temporarily to SJTU for four years. When I graduated, it was a critical period of time that I have to find a local high-tech job, and I was qualified for the limited number of open Hukou positions. The standards are high – you have to be in certain major, with good record, and hired by compaines in certain area. It works exactly as how immigration works in Canada or U.S. Back to my story, I obtained the Shanghai Hukou. Then I transferred my Hukou from the university to a place in Shanghai (I even don’t know too clearly about what that place is). Only after I bought my own apartment three years later could I transfer my Hukou from that place to the address of my apartment. That is the long story. My current resident permit is at Shanghai, at my own apartment.
If I go to Beijing, I will have some trouble. According to the regulation, I need to obtain a temp resident permit in Beijing. The “temp resident permit” is a big step ahead from the original Hukou system, since at least, I can get something to proof I can legally stay in that city (v.s. previously there is no way to do that). However, it is still a very bad thing. People cannot help asking “Why I need to TEMPERARILY stay in my OWN country”?
Challenges it Brings
Although the current system is widely regarded as unfair and inhumane, I do see the challenge to remove this system. The benefits the government gives to people with different Hukou are so different, especially in city and village. I believe if it is abandoned, a short time chaos will happen – many people move from village to city, and from smaller city to larger cities. If it is not handled well, it will cause big problem. It is just the case like if all the borders in the world is opened and people can move freely from one country to the other over night, you can imagine what will happen.
How to solve this historical problem is a big challenge for this generation of people in China.
P.S. When we discussed about business, I said, in history, people in China don’t move as frequent as in U.S., so the demand for selling and buying houses are not that big. People asks: “Why? Why people don’t move”. I said “Well. It is a long story to tell.” You have seen the whole story here. Pretty long, isn’t it? :-)
P.S.2. I drove to my friend’s house in San Francisco tonight. It is 51 miles. It is hard to believe in China – to go to a place 82 km away for dinner and get back the same night? It is crazy.