China scraps urban-rural distinction in 'hukou' household registration system

Analysts say change to 'hukou' system unlikely to have immediate effect on social benefits

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 July, 2014, 4:29am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 July, 2014, 9:32am

The decades-old distinction between urban and rural dwellers in the mainland's widely hated hukou, or household registration system, is to end, but observers doubt it will bring an immediate narrowing of the gap between city and countryside.

From now on, citizens will be classified simply as "residents" rather than as "agricultural" or "non-agricultural" workers.

But the social entitlements they receive will still be determined by where they are registered, and in rural areas these will remain far lower than in cities for years to come. Since its establishment in the 1950s, the system has kept farmers from enjoying the same social, economic and political rights as urban dwellers.

Around 100 million migrant workers are expected to have their hukou transferred to cities by 2020, according to an estimate by the Ministry of Public Security and National Bureau of Statistics.

However, while rural migrants will be encouraged to settle in smaller towns and cities, the biggest cities, where a local hukou guarantees the best social benefits, will impose more restrictions to curb population growth, a State Council document announcing the change said. Huang Ming, deputy public security minister, told a news conference yesterday: "Megacities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou have seen the number of migrants grow by 400,000 to 500,000 a year in the past decade. The pressure is too high."

Xu Xiaoqing, director of the rural economy research department at the State Council's Development Research Centre, said the move was just a start.

"The removal of the distinction in the hukou only makes a difference on paper. The real difference will be made when the gap in terms of social benefits is filled," he said. "There's still a long way to go before there is an equalised social security net among different regions. The fundamental solution is to unify social security [nationwide]."

For example, in Zhejiang , one of the areas where the rural-urban gap is considered the smallest, a retired government employee in a city can have a state pension of over 5,000 yuan (HK$6,300) a month, but a farmer often has less than 1,000 yuan.

Professor Kam Wing Chan of the University of Washington said the wide variations in the quality of locally administered social welfare and social services had made "the elimination of the rural and urban hukou classifications insignificant".

The Beijing News noted that President Xi Jinping , while governor of Fujian province 13 years ago, had urged the scrapping of the hukou system in his doctoral thesis.

Additional reporting by Kathy Gao