Article written by Miguel Elosua and Ai Chi-Han
The ratio of rural to urban population is an important indicator in evaluating the degree of urbanisation in a specific place. For more than two decades, Chinese cities have developed rapidly, increasing the ratio of urbanisation . The Chinese government implements an urban household registration system to control population flow. Under this system, which is known as the hukou [戶口] system, households are divided into “agricultural” and “non-agricultural”, based on the geographical location of the householder’s official residence and on his parents’ occupation. The transfer of household registration has traditionally been tightly restricted. As a result, people cannot transfer their household registration from an agricultural household to a non-agricultural household as they wish. The system has been justified by reasons such as the danger of losing arable land or the problem of overcrowded agglomerations in city suburbs.
However, during the last few decades of rapid economic growth, an increasing number of rural residents have moved to towns to work in manufacturing and services. These workers are commonly known as “migrant workers”. According to the National Bureau of Statistics of China’s “Survey Report of Migrant Workers” , there were more than 250 million migrant workers in 2011, accounting for nearly 20% of the total population of China.
Since migrant workers do not enjoy first-class citizen status, the question for many years has been whether rural laborers could obtain equal treatment as citizens. The landmark land reform passed by the Third Plenary Session of the 17th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in October 2008, aims to gradually suppress the hukou system. As a result, many provinces have already issued measures to put an end to the distinction. The reform emphasizes the role of county-level urban cities in the process of integration of rural and urban areas. To give an illustration of this key role, schools are being closed in some villages so as to force farmers to send their children to schools in nearby cities – and eventually move there as a result. Of particular interest is the case of Chongqing, one of China’s largest cities in terms of population, which established the first rural land trading centre in 2008. The idea behind this centre is to allow farmers to trade their contracted land in exchange for stock shares, which in turn will give them dividends on a yearly basis. This income should ideally be used to rent or buy a house within the city.
More recently, in February 2012, the State Council issued the “Notification to Propel the Household Registration System Reform”. The purpose of this reform is to facilitate transfers from agricultural to non-agricultural household registration by helping migrant workers who have acquired steady employment to attain a legitimate and lawful residence in the city and enjoy the benefits of medical and social insurances.
Within the context of these policies, the willingness – or not – of migrant workers to be registered as non-agricultural households has become the main issue for the household registration system reform in China. The exchange is not, however, all that simple anymore. Getting a non-rural hukou is no longer a zero-sum game. As the urban-rural economic gap continues to widen, Chinese rulers have shifted the focus of development to the inland, introducing a number of measures to reduce this gap. These measures include suppressing the millenary agricultural tax, traditionally known as the imperial tax or huang liang guo shui [皇粮国税], increasing incentives for agricultural products, as well as introducing a subsidized social security mechanism. In addition to this, farmers living in the city suburbs have entered into the expropriation game, and are increasingly reluctant to give up their rural hukou if there is a chance that their land might be absorbed by the city in the future. Finally, the world financial crisis has proved that owning land may well be a great advantage for laid-off migrant workers from coastal cities, who can always return home to work their land.
“Flowing without shifting registration” allows a migrant worker in the district of Huangshan to live with flexibility and freedom.
In the district of Huangshan, according to the “Bulletin Statistics of Economic and Social Development of the district of Huangshan”, the agricultural household population was 101,023 in 2011, whereas the non-agriculture household population was 26,868. This means that approximately 74% of the household population still holds a rural hukou. In addition, since one of the main entrances to the Huangshan Scenic Area is located within the district of Huangshan, a large proportion of residents work in the tourism industry, and the presence of migrant workers is obviously strongly felt.
In the course of the fieldwork carried out in this district, we randomly interviewed numerous local migrant workers on the pros and cons of having a rural hukou. Our conclusion was that the majority of them had little interest in giving up their agricultural household registration. The main reason given was that no special benefits were provided for citizens, and that losing farmer status would mean losing agricultural subsidies as well. Additionally, because no corresponding and supporting measures exist between the household registration system and the land system, applying for non agricultural household registration might result in the loss of their original farmland. In Huangshan, this is another obvious drawback, since workers frequently go back home, as the distance between the work place and the home town is usually quite short. In conclusion, migrant workers living in the Huangshan district seem to prefer working in town and simultaneously keeping their agricultural household registration. “Flowing without shifting registration” allows a migrant worker to live with flexibility and freedom.
Under the current household registration system in China, shifting from agricultural to non-agricultural household registration in small tourist towns such as Huangshan might be easy, but changing from non-agricultural to agricultural household registration is nearly impossible. The rural identity is an advantage, because migrant workers can work in town when they are young and return to the farmland when they grow old. In the case of Huangshan, the migrant workers’ reluctance to change their household registration seems contrary to the Chinese government’s attempts to open up non-agricultural household registrations with new regulations.
Although the ratio of rural to urban population may be an important indicator in determining the degree of urbanization in a specific place, the migrant workers’ reluctance to change their household registration shows that a number of reform strategies must be taken to increase urbanisation in some parts of China.
Ph.D. candidate of EHESS ( École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris) focusing on regional economic development in China and Taiwan.