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Outrage: ‘The cruel hukou system in China must stop’

The registration system victimises migrants from rural areas

The population of Shanghai Municipality is now 21 million. At least four million of these are migrant labourers who may now make up as much as 25 per cent of the workforce. They are part of China’s ‘floating population’, many of whom who have no legal rights to health or education and who have for the same reason - their illegal and informal status - much worse conditions in which to live and work than do the settled Shanghainese. And this problem is repeated in all Chinese cities.

Even though many of these migrants to the city are planned and welcomed, urbanisation also makes them prey to an unplanned and discriminatory social process. Encouraged, but not endorsed by the state, the migrants are victims of the hukou registration system, which determines a person’s status at birth - urban, rural (and semi-urban).

‘The cultural policy only exacerbates political and social divisions both inside villages and between the rural-urban divide’

The principle of the hukou is that those born in rural areas should belong to the rural areas, and therefore are denied access to benefits, education and healthcare in the cities in which so many of them actually reside. They have to send their children back ‘home’ to the countryside to be educated, which leads to discrimination in college entrance exams, for instance, where quotas for the best universities are much higher for legitimate urban residents. Migrant workers live, die or return unknown whence they came but they have no social standing. They are not recognised through their citizenship. They seem well described by Hannah Arendt’s term ‘bare lives’.

The term ‘floating population’ has a powerful descriptive character. But the problem of the characterisation is that it leaves those described with no attribute other than passive victimhood. They are indeed victims of a cruel discrimination but mercifully this is not the be all and end all of urban experience. The migrant population, or members within it, are social actors too and most find ways to survive and thrive.

Even though the hukou system is being relaxed somewhat, without dealing with the legal status of individuals within the city, without eradicating the egregious system altogether, the government relies on cultural policy to resolve the social tensions of migrant life. In model urban villages (in Guangdong, for example), the government romanticises and celebrates the cultural integrity of the migrants’ original life with measures to preserve particular buildings of traditional significance, ensuring that such rural ‘culture’ is not swallowed up by the onward march of Chinese urbanisation.

This may be of interest to some villagers, but ironically it does tend to identify the migrant population as the threat to cultural integrity. As such it misconceives the fluid social interaction of urbanism by fixing a rural phenomenon in aspic when an artefact or set of practices are subject to change in their relationship with the lived experience of some or all of the population.

‘The city is a place of strangers in a world of difference. In a city, the opportunities are defined not by a fixed relationship to nature and tradition, but by social possibilities’

Like the original policy of inferior status, the cultural policy only exacerbates political and social divisions both inside villages and between the rural-urban divide. At the same time the government loses authority and the trust of all the sections of the population even as it seeks to legitimise particular cultural traditions.

The nub of the problem is the inferior status of the migrant population. The primary stage of a solution is formal equality in terms of residence. This, indeed, establishes a requirement for housing, health care and education, which in turn requires resources: money and political will. It is a hugely contentious issue that is made simpler by pretending that it is a cultural issue.

The city is a place of strangers in a world of difference. In a city, the opportunities are defined not by a fixed relationship to nature and tradition, but by social possibilities. The nature of contemporary cosmopolitanism is asymmetrical just as the mantra of globalism and the idea of modernity before it are merely descriptive categories that elide the tensions of capitalist social relations.

In 1340, peasants moved readily through the city walls of Siena and in so doing ceased to be part of a homogeneous cultural community and became players in a fluid, and assuredly sometimes disconcerting, society. Poor Europeans arriving in New York or African Americans jumping trains to escape the Delta were well aware of the pain, uncertainty, as well as the opportunity and necessity of migration. They suffered for the creation of a new world, not a preservation of the old.

‘Technically the movement is easy, but socially the raw material for the city - the free movement of people - is denied’

But what about Shanghai? Nowadays, new people arrive on planes from Europe and the USA and on trains from Yunnan and Xinjiang, it is easier thanit has ever been. All these people are then constrained by political decisions about citizenship. Technically the movement is easy, but socially the raw material for the city - the free movement of people - is denied.

The argument for the free movement of people is one for the priority of the citizen over the city; for disorder over the plan and for political contest over cultural homogeneity. It seems so impractical. This is true but it may be less impractical in Shanghai than either London or Cairo. The economic dynamism, innovative capacity and human energy of that city may - just may - make it the prime emblem for Jefferson’s pursuit of happiness or the Florentine humanist Pico della Mirandola’s homo faber.

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