In contemporary China, the hukou system stands as a pillar of administrative control, initially designed to regulate population movement and resource distribution. However, its impact on social mobility, economic opportunities, and personal freedoms has sparked considerable debate and criticism.  Given its profound impact on social mobility and economic disparity, how has China tried to reform the hukou system to promote its economy and bring inclusivity that is needed in an evolving society?

Simply put, hukou is a Household Registration System that determines residency for citizens, influencing their employment opportunities and access to services based on their origin and registration status. Established in the mid-20th century,  the hukou system categorized individuals as rural or urban residents based on their origin and family registration. Initially designed to stabilize the socialist economy, it controlled population movement and allocated resources like education, healthcare, marriage, and employment opportunities. During the 1980s economic reforms, rural migrants were allowed to work in urban areas without changing their rural hukou, contributing to economic growth but exacerbating social disparities. Urban hukou holders enjoyed better access to services, while rural residents faced restrictions, fueling massive rural-to-urban migration and marginalization of rural migrants.

Reforms in the 1990s aimed to reduce disparities by allowing limited hukou conversion in smaller cities and expanding social benefits for rural residents. However, these efforts have struggled to bridge the urban-rural divide. In marriage, hukou status critically affects social mobility and partner selection. Since the Marriage Registration Regulations of October 1, 2003, marriage procedures have been standardized, but, marrying into an urban hukou family offered rural individuals better access to urban privileges, influencing marriage preferences and perpetuating social stratification.

Challenges and Calls for Reform

Urbanization policies in China aim to concentrate resources and drive economic growth in cities by attracting rural residents. Even with gradual reforms, the hukou system is still deeply rooted and difficult to change. The economic implications of the hukou system extend beyond social inequality as the system hinders labor mobility, preventing the efficient allocation of human resources. In an ideal scenario, workers should be able to move freely to where their skills are most needed, thus optimizing productivity and fostering economic growth. By limiting the ability of rural migrants to settle permanently in cities, the hukou system forces them to live in precarious conditions, often without access to essential services. If these individuals were granted urban residency and access to the same services as urban hukou holders, their economic output could significantly increase, benefiting the overall economy. 

\With rising dissatisfaction, there have been increasing calls for change to the hukou. And, in response to these calls for reform, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has implemented several policy adjustments over the years. These reforms have aimed to gradually relax restrictions on rural-to-urban migration, improve access to urban services for rural migrants, and promote urbanization in a more inclusive manner, but not altogether successfully. For example in 2024, China’s proposal for a significant policy shift to grant urban residency to 300 million migrant workers was made. This proposal, announced during the "two sessions'' by Premier Li Qiang, aims to bolster domestic demand amid economic challenges. By providing equal social benefits to migrants and integrating them more effectively into urban life, the initiative seeks to stimulate consumer spending crucial for economic recovery.

This national strategy has been complemented by local efforts in Shanghai, China's financial hub, which has pioneered several reforms aimed at attracting talent and integrating diverse populations through innovative hukou policies. In July 2022, Shanghai streamlined hukou acquisition for non-local graduates from top global universities, waiving social security requirements. Extending similar benefits to graduates of the top 100 universities after six months of social insurance contributions, Shanghai demonstrated proactive talent retention. Additionally, a December 2022 policy allowed swift hukou registration for newborns of couples from Anhui, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang provinces, reducing bureaucratic hurdles and saving time for parents in Shanghai and the Yangtze River Delta region.

However, these policy reforms fall short. Shanghai's demographic challenges threaten its economic and social stability. The total fertility rate among women with hukou in Shanghai was 0.7, significantly lower than the replacement rate. But, policymakers must acknowledge the gravity of this situation, and realize that attracting talent and boosting fertility rates are not enough. Shanghai needs a comprehensive overhaul of its social security system, education policies, and economic incentives to address the root causes of its demographic challenges.

While relaxing migration for employment is crucial for economic growth, addressing the hukou system's impact on marriage is equally vital. Shanghai has simplified marriage registration for international couples by opening five additional districts, including Huangpu and Xuhui, allowing residents from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and overseas Chinese to marry within their local district without visiting central locations like the Shanghai Marriage Registration Center. This move not only simplifies bureaucratic procedures but also fosters a more inclusive environment, potentially enhancing social cohesion and attracting skilled individuals from abroad. Moreover, Shanghai has streamlined hukou application processes for professionals with significant contributions to the city's development, including those in senior management positions or with patents.

Shanghai's targeted approach mirrors global best practices in talent management. It focuses on attracting and retaining skilled workers through streamlined residency pathways and support for innovation-driven industries. By simplifying residency requirements for high-skilled individuals, the city can strengthen its knowledge-based sectors and foster entrepreneurship. This strategy potentially initiates a cycle of innovation, attracting investments and promoting local technological advancements. However, the approach's effectiveness hinges on several factors, including implementation details, long-term talent retention, addressing disparities, and balancing local needs with new talent influx, to ensure equitable sharing of innovation benefits. And, in practice, China's reluctance to embrace immigration, despite its size and global influence, highlights the country's continued focus on internal migration management over attracting foreign talent.

Other major Chinese cities like Beijing and Guangzhou have specific criteria and pathways for acquiring a hukou, crucial as they determine access to essential services such as healthcare, education, and social welfare, defining the city's demographic composition and strength. Beijing typically grants hukou to those with significant professional achievements, high-level technical qualifications, or substantial contributions to the city's development. But, in May 2024, Beijing eased hukou restrictions to boost its sluggish property market. Families can now buy an additional home beyond the fifth ring road, which links the suburban areas of Beijing, and unmarried residents meeting social insurance criteria can acquire a second property. These measures reflect Beijing's strategy to revive its housing market amid economic challenges. While Beijing's reforms primarily target housing market dynamics, they also highlight the interconnected nature of hukou policies with economic objectives. By adjusting hukou regulations to incentivize property ownership and stimulate consumer spending, Beijing aims to mitigate economic downturns and sustain growth in key sectors.

 Beyond mega cities, other Chinese cities are implementing localized hukou reforms to manage population influx, boost urban competitiveness, and foster social integration. For example, Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning province, announced in May 2024 relaxed hukou requirements, allowing individuals renting properties or holding a Liaoning residence permit to apply for hukou. Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province has removed restrictions on new housing purchases, enabling non-locals to buy homes and apply for hukou, ensuring access to welfare and public services. Similarly, Nanchang has innovatively introduced hukou sponsorship by local residents to enhance population mobility and economic growth.

Contrary to claims that China's property market is on the cusp of recovery, the sector continues to struggle despite recent government measures. While the central bank has attempted to boost funding and ease mortgage rules, and local governments plan to purchase some apartments, these efforts have failed to impress investors. The lackluster response indicates that more decisive action may be needed to revitalize the property market, which has been faltering since 2021 and remains a significant drag on China's economy.

Challenges and Pathways for Comprehensive Reform

China has made progress in localizing hukou reforms, but comprehensive change faces formidable obstacles. These efforts must directly address entrenched socio-economic disparities and promote nationwide inclusive development. While it has undoubtedly played a role in fostering economic growth by controlling migration patterns and urbanization, its continued existence raises serious ethical and human rights concerns. From an ethical standpoint, the question arises whether the economic achievements facilitated by the hukou system justify the infringement on individuals' rights to equal treatment and opportunity. The system's role in China's economic growth should not overshadow its detrimental impact on human dignity and social justice.

Achieving fairness and inclusivity through hukou reform in China requires prioritizing universal access to social services regardless of residency status, streamlining hukou conversion processes to facilitate rural-urban mobility, rigorously evaluating reform impacts, dismantling barriers to social mobility based on hukou status, and implementing pilot programs to overcome bureaucratic challenges and local resistance. These steps are essential to create a more equitable society where all citizens have equal opportunities to contribute and thrive. The hukou system is crucial but frequently overlooked in Chinese society. Privileged individuals tend to sidestep its pervasive impact, leaving the disadvantaged majority struggling to voice their concerns. Comprehensive understanding of the system demands time and knowledge often inaccessible amidst daily life pressures. Consequently, despite its significance, public discourse on the hukou system remains insufficiently developed.

This is Part 1 of the series on Urban Integration: How China's Mega-Cities Are Handling the Migrant Influx, exploring the recent household, education and social service policies and its impact on migrant access to urban resources.

Thumbnail image source: Micah Sittig


Trishala S is a Junior Research Associate at the Organisation for Research on China and Asia (ORCA). Holding an undergraduate degree from FLAME University, she specialized in Sociology with a minor in Public Policy. Possessing a profound interest in the intricate dynamics of socio-political landscapes and policy realms, she seeks to dissect their complexities. Her pursuits extend to the exploration of the intersections between gender studies, culture, activism, and legal dimensions, reflecting a multifaceted engagement with pressing societal issues. She can be reached at

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