This is one of the first questions a Chinese person is likely to ask anyone, even a foreigner. Except, if you are a 'Laowai' (pronounced 'l-ow why', meaning an ole outsider, literally), people here are likely to ask your your country of origin. In China, where you come from is of supreme importance because, among other things, it denotes your social status. How ironic, seeing as since the birth of modern China, there are not supposed to be social classes.
Let us delve now into one of China's enduring difficulties, the Hukou (pronounced 'who-co').
It is, essentially, a household registration system: a record containing family information such as births, deaths, physical addresses and relocations of families, marriages and divorces. It does not sound menacing or prejudicial when seen in that light but the effect of that booklet – a copy of which is kept at the local police office, can seriously limit one's chances of moving ahead in society. I point that out to prevent you from drawing comparisons to similar registries or censuses in the west.
Going back in time: this household registration system has been in place since around 2100BC (earliest record). Its purpose then, as now, was to calculate and levy taxes, select young men for military service and generally, was used as a tool of social control.
How can such a document be used to control society?
Just as in the west, whenever you relocate, you must register with the proper authorities: change your car's license plates and the address on your driver's license. If you live in Europe or Canada, you would register for benefits from social programs such as health insurance and utilities subsidies. And, no matter where you live, if you have children, you must register them for school.
What would happen if the bureau in question refused to register you?
Sounds impossible, but that very happening is what causes problems in China.
Let's say someone from the country wishes to move to Beijing. S/he would have to de-register his/her current household at the government office in the village. Upon relocating, s/he will then bring the household registration booket to the proper authority, who will then grant permission to live and work in that city.
S/he might never get that far. The criteria for being permitted to live and work in a Tier 1 city such as Beijing are stringent: one must be college educated and gainfully employed, with money in the bank and the ability to buy a 'house' (condo). If all of that cannot be proven, the country dweller will not be approved to de-register his rural household, let alone register a household in Beijing.
That was what I meant in the previous article, when I talked about migrant workers leaving their children behind. It is not just because their lives are so hard or because they would have no support network to help care for the children but, lacking a valid hukou, they would not be able to register their children in any school in any city.
This system inadvertently prejudices by insuring that only the best of citizens will ever populate major cities. Historically and today, the hukou system was used to control the movement of people between rural and the more economically and socially advantageous urban areas. Because urbanites receive more social privilege, such as: better healthcare, more and better job opportunities, and education for their children as well as more government subsidy – maybe an allocation for having a daughter instead of a son, or a pension for the elderly, naturally, a city hukou is much desired. However, you can see the potential danger of every able-bodied person fleeing the countryside: who would work the farms and grow the food? Thus, in that respect, the hukou system makes sense. The biggest shortcoming of it in this aspect is the resulting social, economic, and educational disadvantage everyone forced to stay in the country suffers.
Speaking of education...
What about all of those students who flood into the big cities for college? With proof of a valid and current college enrollment, they are permitted to temporarily 'move' their hukou to the city and district their college is in, with the stipulation that, after graduation, they 'move' back to their native village.
Not every student moves their hukou: the pull of 'home' is too strong. Should any official need arise – say, a lost identification card or obtaining a driver's license, most prefer to trek back to their home of record, if it is close enough. If not, a panicked phone call to the family can ensure a replacement (the person needing the ID need not be present to obtain one. That is another advantage of such a stringent registration system.)
NOTE: a lost ID cannot be replaced in any random government office. Only the home of record's office has the data needed to effectuate a replacement of such a valuable document. However, with the Chinese bureaucracy increasingly going digital, it is now possible, in certain locations, to obtain a replacement ID without going back to one's original domicile.
What about graduates who do not return to their home of record to live? They still have to 'move' their hukou upon graduation, but they can obtain a temporary residence certificate for another city, provided they can prove employment and a place to live. That sounds rather like a Catch-22 situation: you can't get a job or a place to live unless you are registered to that city, and you can't register unless you have a job and accommodations.
This is where the Guanxi (g'wan she) system comes into play. Many universities and companies help place graduates into apprenticeships with dorm housing. After a certain period of time – perhaps a year, the fledgling worker can legally 'move' his/her hukou to his place of work, of course first proving that s/he is gainfully and steadily employed. Once in possession of a city hukou, s/he can find a place to live – provided s/he makes enough money.
Another way around the post-graduation hukou dilemma is to live with a relative, and that relative can claim you on his/her hukou.
There has been hefty criticism of the hukou system, both from Chinese citizens and from other countries. Other Asian nations, such as Japan and Vietnam, also have such registration systems but they are not as discriminatory or restrictive as China's. Thus, under fire, the Chinese government has been implementing hukou reforms, but these reforms are admittedly small, and do not overly benefit rural citizens or migrant workers. Instead, we're seeing new laws made with regard to them.
· In Beijing, migrant workers are gaining rights such as medical insurance and minimum wage. But, so far, the greatest step toward leveling the disadvantage caused by the hukou system is that there is now a school exclusively for children of migrant workers in Beijing. Granted, it is a small step and the quality of education might be debatable, but it is a step in the right direction. Hopefully there will be such schools in Shanghai and other major cities soon.
· New stipends and subsidies for rural dwellers, especially the elderly. It is not much, and their quality/standard of life is still far below that of any urban dweller (save the migrant worker). Still, it is a step in the right direction to lessen the disparity between rural and city life.
· Better healthcare initiatives for rural citizens and incentives for qualified teachers to take posts in rural areas.
There is much more to be said about the hukou system; this is a nutshell version. I'll leave it to your imagination to ponder other facets of this most problematic social stumbling block. In my next article, I'd like to talk with you about another unintentional discriminator, the Gao Kao (pronounced g-ow cow), the national college entrance examination.
Questions? Comments? I'd be glad to hear from you.