Changing countryside sees growing number seek return of rural hukou
Two decades ago, many parents in the countryside of Zhejiang province were willing to spend 10,000 yuan each to buy their child an urban hukou, or permanent residential registration. As urban residents, they would be better educated and, afterwards, have access to better jobs.
Although Zhejiang was one of the richest provinces, 10,000 yuan was more than a year's income for a rural family.
But today, the situation has changed. A survey by Zhejiang authorities this year showed the number of farmers transferring their hukou to urban areas last year was 67 per cent lower than in 2004.
Bruce Huang, a college graduate who runs an online shop in Yiwu, Zhejiang, said it was much better to live in the village where he was born than to move to the city.
'In the village you have your acquaintances all around,' he said. 'More importantly, unlike those young men in the cities, most of whom have to pay for housing loans every month, here you can have a big four-storey house with a terrace.'
Thus began the battle of Huang and his peers to regain their rural hukou, which had been transferred to urban areas when they were admitted to university. One of the issues for them is that, with urban hukou, they would not be recognised as rural property owners and would not be compensated if their homes in the countryside were demolished for whatever reason.
Once a small county, Yiwu has recently developed into China's commodity distribution hub. Many villages have been rebuilt and absorbed into the city since the local government started a project to expand its urban area in 1999, Huang's birthplace, Shencun village, among them.
Before 2003, students from rural areas were required to transfer their hukou to the city of their university once they were admitted. Then the policy was changed, allowing rural students to decide whether to change their hukou before going to college. When that happened, Huang said, '90 per cent of the students [in Yiwu] chose to keep their rural hukou'.
Huang was one of those affected by the pre-2003 policy. Since May, he and about 100 other college graduates in the same situation have been writing to local government departments and holding demonstrations to demand their rural hukou back.
Although family household registration has been around in China since the Xia dynasty (21st-16th century BC), the government introduced the current hukou system in 1951 to regulate migration by tying people to their places of birth. After China opened up in 1979, farmers flooded to the cities, seeking benefits to which they had no access at home.
An individual's hukou today is still the key to various aspects of life. It determines not only how many children a family may have and which schools they may attend, but also property ownership. It's that last aspect that is bringing even bigger benefits for rural residents.
'I wouldn't bother if getting back my rural hukou can earn me 15,000 yuan [HK$17,260], which I can make by working for maybe one year,' Huang said. 'But it's actually a matter of 5 million yuan, which I can't possibly make in my lifetime.'
If his hukou were transferred back to Shencun, his family would be allotted an extra 90 square metres of land to build a new house if the existing one were demolished.
'Selling this 90 square metres of land means about 1 million yuan, as the average land price in Yiwu's suburbs is 13,000 yuan per square metre,' Huang said. 'And if I use this land to build a 41/2-storey house according to the government's arrangement and then sell it, it means 5 million yuan based on the current real estate price in Yiwu.'
According to local regulations, selling rural residential land is allowed among villagers. And although the sale of rural residences themselves was prohibited, some people dared to cross the line, Huang said. But even if the house could not be sold, a great sum of money could be made by renting it.
'It makes a big difference whether you are a farmer or an urban resident. The two most important things are housing and a son,' he said.
This is where the hukou system affects which clauses of family planning policy apply. While urban families may have only one child, rural families are allowed to have a second child if the first is a girl. Sexual discrimination is still common, especially in rural areas, as sons carry on the family name but daughters don't.
'People look down upon you if you have no son,' said a mother of a one-year-old girl, a leader of the protests who is also trying to get her rural hukou back so that she and her husband may try for a son. Rural people also enjoyed better pensions and shared profits from the village's collective income such as rent from a collectively owned building, she said.
Huang and his companions were not the first to want their rural registrations back. Last month, the Supervision Department found that about 200 public servants in Yiwu who were born in rural areas had secretly moved their hukou back to their villages. Early this year in the village of Mahu, in the Binjiang district of Hangzhou , 24 college graduates petitioned the district government to have their rural hukou reinstated.
But not all the villagers agree that the petitioners should get their rural hukou back. They see it as impinging on their own benefits because if more people share the pie, it means a smaller piece for each. 'The logic is clear. They did so because there's a benefit. They're trying to take advantage of a loophole,' said one opponent, a 50-something Mahu woman, who admitted she could not explain where the loophole was but felt the petitioners were unreasonable.
Yuan Chongfa, deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission's Research Centre for Small Towns and Cities, said that according to the Land Administration Law, when a rural resident became an urban resident, he lost the right to use any farmland or housing land in his home village.
'However, according to the Constitution, land is owned by either a rural collective or the state. And just because a farmer leaves his village and moves his hukou to another place doesn't mean he's no longer a part of the collective. In this sense, he still has the right to claim ownership,' Yuan said.
China, with probably the fastest urbanisation in human history, has witnessed a flourishing real estate sector and soaring property prices in recent years. 'A farmer's awareness of the value of land is awakened,' Yuan said. 'Instead of calculating the amount of crops they can grow on a piece of land, they begin to value it with a market vision, asking: 'In which way can I make it most lucrative?''
And Zhejiang was not alone, he said. Rich areas such as Guangdong, Beijing and fast-developing central provinces such as Henan were also seeing the same situation.
The battle of Huang and his companions has recently borne fruit. Some villages have posted notifications that they will register those whose hukou was transferred to urban areas because of admission to university.
'We're not pioneers,' Huang said. 'Four nearby cities - Taizhou, Xiaoshan, Dongyang and Lishui - have already allowed those who lost land because of college educations to move their hukou back to their villages.' He added a note of confidence that their efforts would not be in vain.
He Yunbin , a 29-year-old technician in Haining, Zhejiang, was one of the lucky children whose parents were rich enough to change his hukou from rural to urban 18 years ago.
Two years ago, his family's house in the village of Hejia was one of 30 torn down to make room for an industrial park. They were relocated to a nearby parcel of land to build new houses, and all family members except his father were made urban residents holding urban hukou.
'The compensation for the farmland lost and the change of hukou was 30,000 yuan per head,' He said, but because he was already an urban resident, he was not among the beneficiaries.
Though it was a much smaller sum compared with such places as Yiwu and Hangzhou, it was still a loss for him.
'At that time, it was beyond our imagination how the value of a rural hukou could change,' He said. 'Who could have foreseen that being a farmer may be a lot easier than living in the city today?'
Who could have foreseen that being a farmer may be a lot easier than living in the city today?
Young people are no longer seeking the once prized urban hukou, preferring instead to keep their rural status
Population: 51.2million (57.6% urban, 42.4% rural)
Per capital annual income of rural households: 9,257 yuan
Per capital annual income of urban households: 22,726 yuan
Per capital annual income of rural households: 3,948 yuan
Per capital annual income of urban households: 8,476 yuan