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Can China solve its migrant puzzle?

1 February 2014
by Brian Keeley

Every home should have one

If crowds are not your thing, this is not a good time to be travelling in China. As the new Year of the Horse gallops in, hundreds of millions of people across the country have headed home to spend time with their families. It’s estimated that around 3.6 billion trips will be made on trains, planes, cars, ships and even motorbikes in the 40 days surrounding the annual Spring Festival.

The “Spring Festival rush,” or chunyun, is probably the world’s largest annual migration, and every year it generates some memorable moments. A few years back, one frustrated traveller stripped down to his underpants to protest against not being able to board his train. This year, a young teacher in Beijing has been earning environmental kudos for cycling the 2000 kilometres back to her hometown in Sichuan.

The annual rush on its current scale dates back to the 1980s, when workers from the countryside first began moving to the cities in large numbers. That movement helped drive China’s dramatic economic growth and, as we noted in the previous post, turned China from a country that was overwhelmingly rural to one where just over half the population is now urban.

But it also helped create a range of problems that, even today, are proving hard to resolve. Most notable, perhaps, is the uncertain status of the many rural migrants who have failed to secure an official residence permit, or hukou, for the cities in which they now live. Their number is not insubstantial: It’s estimated that around 260 million Chinese find themselves in this situation.

Systems of family registration go back thousands of years in China, but the modern hukou system dates from the 1950s. The system created a division between rural and urban residents and linked people’s place of registration with access to education, health-care insurance and social housing. Hukou reforms began in the 1980s and have continued since. However, their practical impact has been variable. As a result, the hukou system continues to affect the lives of many migrants who have moved to China’s booming cities.

Take education – an issue that attracted a lot of discussion when the OECD released its most recent PISA results in December, which showed Shanghai as the world’s top-performing education system. Some observers argued that the city’s performance was boosted by children from some poorer migrant families not being included in the assessment. This, they argued, was in large part because the children had to return to their families’ place of registration to complete their education.

In response, the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher argued that critics were ignoring major hukou reforms in Shanghai in recent years. Indeed, as Helen Gao wrote recently in The New York Times, “Shanghai has made remarkable progress in integrating migrants into its education system.” That’s true of many other Chinese cities, too. Nevertheless, as Ms Gao also pointed out, substantial problems remain.

According to a recent OECD paper on urbanisation in China, in the major cities of Shenzhen and Beijing, only 30% of migrant children attend state schools. There is evidence, too, to suggest that migrant children are underrepresented in elite schools. The hukou system also means that young people – not just migrants – with registrations outside Beijing and Shanghai face “severe” obstacles in winning places in those cities’ elite universities, which apply a lower acceptance mark for locally registered students.

These obstacles matter not just for the migrant and rural families, but also for China’s capacity to invest in people’s skills and education. Indeed, hukou reforms are seen as essential if China’s cities are to develop their role as engines of growth. “Land and hukou reform is the cornerstone for future economic growth and political-system reform,” according to Yuan Xucheng of the China Society of Economic Reform. So, if full hukou reform is so important, why hasn’t it happened yet?

For one thing, local governments in Chinese cities are reluctant to take on the cost of providing education and health care to migrants. According to some Chinese estimates, the cost of settling a single rural migrant in a city is about 100,000 RMB (about $16,500). “Behind household registration reform is money,” Ma Li, an official with the State Council, or cabinet, told Caixin.

Reform is also intimately tied up with the tricky issue of land reform. Migrants can gain much by getting an urban hukou but, by leaving their rural registration behind, they risk losing their rights to use residential and agricultural land in the countryside. Many appear unwilling to make that sacrifice.

Useful links

Policies for Inclusive Urbanisation in China (2013, OECD Economics Dept.)

OECD work on China

网站 (中文) (The OECD’s Chinese-language site)

OECD Insights: International Migration


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