Rural hukou now a prize for graduates
For many university graduates on the mainland, such as Zhou Jiaozhi, getting a rural hukou - or residency status - is now something to aspire to rather than flee from.
It's a reversal almost unimaginable a few years ago, when acceptance into a university and the granting of a hukou in a large city was a major step toward success.
But with unemployment running well above the official figure of 12.6 per cent for recent university graduates, life back on the farm is looking a lot more attractive. That's especially true since the government allots housing and agricultural land to rural residents - and prices there are rising.
So Zhou, like other country students who were required to relocate their residency permits to their universities' cities, is trying to get his rural hukou back. But he and others are being blocked by murky regulations and village politics.
'I graduate from university, I don't have a job and I also might lose all of my land,' said Zhou, summarising his predicament.
'For the 6 million university graduates every year, the key issue is finding a job,' said Dang Guoying, who researches rural development at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. 'For those who want their rural identity again, the issue is rising land prices. They want land.'
Residency permits are usually divided into urban and rural, each with various social benefits. Urban citizens have access to a city's education, pension, health care, housing and job benefits. Rural residents are allotted government-owned land for housing and agriculture.
Dang said students should not be deprived of their land if they go to university. 'For rural kids, it's not easy for them to get into university, and even harder to find a job. If you take away their land, isn't it too much?'
But Shi Tianjian, an associate professor of political science at Duke University in the US with an emphasis on Chinese politics, has a different view.
Shi said that land was so scarce these days that it was reasonable for students to give some up in return for acquiring urban-citizen benefits.
'What these students really want is not to plant crops,' Shi said. 'They want it both ways, the job and the land. This is not fair.'
The mainland's arable land decreased 4.6 per cent to about 1.22 billion hectares from 2001 to 2008, according to the Chinese land and resources bureau.
If Zhou could find a job in the city, he would earn much more than he would working on a farm.
University graduates earn an average of 2,756 yuan (HK$3,155) a month, according to MyCOS, a Beijing research company. Zhou said that for the less than four mu of farmland (about 0.27 hectares) where his family plants corn, they make a profit of less than 2,000 yuan a year.
Since Zhou decided he wanted to relocate back to his village, he has had to overcome hurdles, and until now his application has been denied.
Zhou grew up in Datun village in Hebei province . In 2006, he was admitted to the Hebei Institute of Physical Education in Shijiazhuang , the capital of Hebei, and studied golf-course management.
Upon enrolling he followed the rules and relocated his permit to his university's city.
'I was not clear about the policies at that time,' said Zhou. 'Everyone said that it was better to get an urban hukou.'
Upon graduation, Zhou went to Beijing in search of a job but the prospects were dim. Because he couldn't find a job in the city, Zhou's hukou was sent back to Nian Ziyu, a town that his village was subordinate to.
But that is still an urban hukou and Zhou said he felt it made more sense to have his permit moved back to his village and become a rural resident again.
Zhou's main worry is that he will not be able to inherit land that his parents are entitled to, as he lost his rural status. But for now, his family's land has not decreased.
Since 1978, with some variations from village to village, each individual was allotted agricultural land for a contracted period of time, or until they relocated or died.
In 2002, due to the shortage of arable land, the government dictated that a family's land would not increase or decrease based on the number of people in a household within the contract period.
It took a long time for the policy to trickle down into villages and some still did not strictly follow it, said Peng Jian, the director of the Beijing Huahuan Law Firm.
Zhou said his village began implementing the law right before he left for university. So Zhou's family land, including housing and agricultural land, did not decrease as a result of his relocating.
But Zhou is still worried. Without his rural identity he does not have the right to inherit his parent's land for housing purposes. He can use the agricultural land if his parents die, but only within the contracted time. He would also miss out on subsidies for farmers and any form of compensation if the government took land away from the village.
Another complication was that with the exception of Jiangsu province , most villages still allotted compensation money by dividing it equally among residents in the village, Peng said. The reason is because the land belongs to the village, legally speaking.
Even though the land and resource bureau issued a notice last month encouraging villages to give compensation directly to the families whose land was taken away, Peng said this new notice contradicted what the law required and might take a long time to take effect around the country.
That means if Zhou's family's land is taken away, very likely the village will divide the money equally among all villagers, rather than giving the money to Zhou's family based on how much land they had. Zhou would not receive any compensation.
Peng said if this happened, Zhou's family might be given some new land in compensation, but very often the regulation stirred conflict. The newly allotted land tended to be less favourable, and people often felt they were not compensated enough for their loss, he said.
The most confusing issue is whether Zhou could inherit his family's house. By law Zhou is entitled to inherit the house even without a rural status, as it is private property. But he is not eligible to inherit the land that the house stands on.
This loophole in the country's legal system is causing a lot of confusion, according to Zhu Xiaoding, a lawyer at Beijing Cailiang Law Firm.
'When it comes to reality, it often depends on what the village committee says,' Zhu said. 'Every village has their own way of handling matters.'
Zhou's village head, Tao Qinghai, said that people had never successfully relocated their residency permits.
Asked whether university students could relocate their permits, he said that it was decided on a case-by-case basis.
'It depends on who you are and what your situation is,' Tao said.
When asked why a student's hukou application would be denied if he or she wanted to return, he hung up the phone.
Peng said that according to law, Zhou should be allowed to relocate. But he added that in practice, it largely depended on the decision of the village committee, and often because of conflicts of interest, the village committee refused to accept the students back.
'Think of village land like a listed company. The villagers are shareholders; if someone leaves, the other shares get larger,' Peng said. 'Of course they don't want people coming back.'
It was very hard to calculate how many graduates were facing the same problem, as there were no official data, Zhu said. But he said that he had run into many cases of this kind.
The proportion of urban to rural university students is 82.3 to 17.7, according to Xinhua. That means about 1.08 million students originally from rural regions graduate every year, and a large number of them might run into the same problem.
In 2007, seven students from two different villages in Shandong sued their villages for refusing to grant them land compensation because they relocated their hukou upon entering university, according to the Procuratorial Daily, the official paper of China's top prosecutions office. But their cases were not accepted by the District People's Court of Jinan .
To make matters worse, mainland courts rarely accept cases that involve the clarification of whether a person has rural status, according to Zhu.
In June, a graduate wrote to the Zhejiang province Department of Public Security, requesting his rural identity back. The department replied that according to law, urban citizens are prohibited from becoming rural residents, according to the Zhejiang government's webpage.
Peng said that such a law did exist but it was issued to prevent urban people from grabbing rural land.
He said such cases should be differentiated from students who originally belonged to the villages.
According to the law, the students should have been permitted to become villagers again, Peng said.
The fact that policies in this sector are so vague and that village committees enjoy so much power offers a window for corruption, according to Shi.
'I can give you the land and I can also not, so who decides?' Shi said. 'If the village committee decides, then people start giving presents.'
Wang Xiaoying, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said laws were seldom regulated for a specific group of people so it was unlikely any new law would change the situation.
Zhou said he had basically given up fighting for a rural identity.
'All I can do now is listen to fate.'
Away from home
The proportion of urban to rural university students is 82.3 to 17.7
The number of students graduating each year that were originally from rural areas, in millions, is: 1.08