The ties that bind

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 September, 2009, 12:00am

Information-technology engineer Zhang Yong has lived in Beijing with his wife Wang Caiying for eight years. They met in the city, fell in love, and in 2004 bought a house in the northern suburbs.

The birth of their son two years ago gave the couple a reality check. They were told that the boy was not entitled to a Beijing hukou - residence registration - as neither of them had one. Instead, they would have to go back to Zhang's hometown in Liaoning to obtain a hukou for their son there.

'We will have to choose to buy a place in a Beijing primary school [which can cost thousands of yuan] or send him to a school in my hometown when he reaches school age in five years,' a worried Wang said.

The mainland has been the scene of some of the most ambitious social-development policies ever envisaged. Many of these policies were designed to manage and control the country's huge and ballooning population. The population of the People's Republic doubled from 500 million to almost a billion in just three decades.

It now stands at more than 1.3 billion after Beijing imposed strict population controls 30 years ago.

The demographic challenge brought by this astonishing growth aggravated shortages of resources faced by the country and hindered its social and economic development. Beijing responded with drastic measures.

Among these, the one-child policy and the hukou system are the most controversial. The hukou system, in a stroke, split the country into rural and urban areas, while the one-child policy slammed the brakes on a breeding frenzy. Apart from the mainland, only North Korea and the tiny African nation of Benin have residence restrictions similar to the hukou system. The one-child policy is unique globally.

But as the mainland has developed in recent decades, there are concerns that both policies may be doing more harm than good. The divide between urban and rural has grown into a chasm, while a generation of only children faces the prospect of supporting a rapidly ageing population.

The hukou system was introduced in 1958 when the central government issued the first set of resident registration regulations since the founding of the People's Republic. This put a lid on free migration flow, particularly from rural areas to cities.

Tsinghua University sociologist Professor Li Dun said the hukou system was put in place at a time when the country faced unprecedented isolation from much of the international community.

'First of all, China had nobody else to rely on in its embrace of industrialisation. Second, the country needed to develop a strong industrial base as part of its preparedness for war,' Li said. 'Under such circumstances, authorities had to deprive the rural population of certain benefits' to support the process of industrialisation in urban areas.

According to official statistics, the mainland's population in 1964 was 723 million, of which 81.6 per cent was registered under the rural hukou.

Under the two-tier hukou system, farmers, who were tied to their land, were forced to sell their surplus at fixed prices via the rural commune system.

At the same time, they were denied the kind of social welfare given to city dwellers, ranging from cradle-to-grave employment to basic daily food supplies.

By bundling the hukou status with certain benefits, the government in effect prevented rural-to-urban migration, which condemned the rural population to second-class status.

Not surprisingly, an urban hukou, particularly one in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, was so highly sought after that three million people in 17 provinces had bought one by the second half of 1994, handing the government a total of 25 billion yuan.

Cracks in the system appeared in the first years of reform and opening up in the late 1970s.

Rural land reform created a surplus of food, making rationing in the cities redundant, and it also created a surplus of rural labour.

Data from the National Bureau of Statistics shows that among the 225.4 million farmers-turned-workers, 62.3 per cent, or about 140.4 million farmers, had gone to a city away from their hometown to live and work as a migrant worker by the end of last year.

But while the hukou system has been unable to restrict the flow of migrant workers to urban areas, it continues to prevent migrant workers from accessing social welfare such as health care, free education and pensions.

The authorities argue that the outright abolition of the hukou system would lead to chaos in a country with such a large population, but many critics say the system has outlived its purpose and is hindering the country's attempts at modernisation, specifically urbanisation.

Cheng Hai , a public-interest lawyer in Beijing, said the hukou regulation was unconstitutional and a flagrant violation of human rights.

Cheng, who has launched several high-profile lawsuits to challenge the hukou system in the past two years, said it had not stopped people moving to cities and scrapping it would not lead to the feared chaos.

The size of the population is another daunting challenge for the mainland authorities.

Mao Zedong's famous motto 'the more people, the easier to get things done' led to a doubling of the mainland's population from 1949 to the end of the Cultural Revolution.

Renmin University Professor Zhai Zhenwu said the one-child policy, introduced in 1979, was a price the country had to pay for economic development.

The controversial family-planning measures have succeeded in bringing down the birth rate, with proponents saying the population would be 400 million higher than the 1.3 billion it is today without the policy.

But increasingly, it is proving a double-edged sword, with an ageing society becoming a looming economic problem.

The 2009 Green Book of Population and Labour showed that in 2000, people older than 65 years made up close to 7 per cent of the mainland population, an internationally accepted benchmark for an ageing society. That ratio was projected to rise to 9.6 per cent in 2015.

According to Zhai, the family-planning policy and the deep-rooted preference for boys in Chinese society have created the most alarming gender imbalance in the world: 120.06 males born to every 100 females, prompting warnings that up to 40 million men faced life without a wife.

Li described the family-planning policies as a barbaric mechanism that treated people as statistics.

He said the one-child policy had shattered the basic social structure and family values, with the only child becoming the family focus instead of grandparents.

He said high expectations and fierce competition among children forced parents to provide them with the best education, no matter whether they were rich or poor.

'And at school, kids are pitted against each other like wolves,' he said.

Li said China had never been the world's most populous country in terms of people per unit of land.

'In Mao's era, people were only regarded as a labour force with two hands, but afterwards they were nothing more than a mouth to feed,' he said. 'But people actually have a mouth and two hands, a fact family-planning authorities have failed to acknowledge.'


Apart from the mainland, the number of other countries with residence restrictions similar to the hukou system amount to: 2

Additional reporting by He Huifeng