Backgrounders August 8, 2023


by Trishala S


Under the hukou system, individuals are categorised as either rural or urban residents based on their place of origin and their family's registered hukou status. This classification has far-reaching implications for individuals' access to essential social benefits and opportunities. It acts as a gatekeeper, determining eligibility for various aspects of life, including employment, education, housing, healthcare, and even the right to move freely and reside in cities. The hukou system's impact, however, extends well beyond its role in determining access to resources. It exercises control over the patterns of migration between rural and urban areas, as well as within different regions of the country. By imposing institutional barriers, such as stringent requirements for residency permits and limitations on the transfer of hukou status, the system tightly regulates the flow of people and labour across different geographical areas.


The hukou system is a household registration system that has been in place in China since the mid-20th century. Derived from the Chinese term "hukou," which translates to "household registration" in English, this system holds significant importance in the country's social fabric and governance. It serves as a comprehensive mechanism for population control and social management. 

Under the hukou system, individuals are categorised as either rural or urban residents based on their place of origin and their family's registered hukou status. This classification has far-reaching implications for individuals' access to essential social benefits and opportunities. It acts as a gatekeeper, determining eligibility for various aspects of life, including employment, education, housing, healthcare, and even the right to move freely and reside in cities. The hukou system's impact, however, extends well beyond its role in determining access to resources. It exercises control over the patterns of migration between rural and urban areas, as well as within different regions of the country. By imposing institutional barriers, such as stringent requirements for residency permits and limitations on the transfer of hukou status, the system tightly regulates the flow of people and labour across different geographical areas. Travelling and relocating become intricately complicated endeavours due to the bureaucratic hurdles imposed by the hukou system. Moreover, migrants who have limited resources often face additional challenges as they must navigate the complexities of supporting family members who remain in their home provinces. 

The hukou system's control over migration and social benefits allocation intertwines, creating a complex web of interdependence and inequality. It perpetuates disparities between rural and urban areas, reinforcing the urban-rural divide. This divide manifests not only in terms of economic opportunities but also in social welfare, public services, and quality of life. In recent years, China has made efforts to reform the hukou system, aiming to gradually relax restrictions and promote urbanisation. Reforms have included allowing some migrants to obtain urban hukou status in smaller cities and expanding access to social benefits for rural residents. However, the system remains complex and deeply ingrained in China's social and administrative structure, and significant challenges persist in achieving meaningful reform and addressing the urban-rural divide.

Historical Development and Objectives of the Hukou System in China

i) The birth registration process and its role in population management   

The hukou system has its roots in the planned economy implemented by the Communist Party of China (CPC) in the 1950s. Initially introduced as a means to enable the government to monitor and regulate internal migration effectively and allocate resources more efficiently, it reflects the government's efforts to maintain social and economic stability by effectively managing population movements and distributing resources according to planned objectives. The formal establishment of a comprehensive administrative policy for urban and rural hukou registers was marked by the implementation of the "Regulations of the People's Republic of China on Hukou Registration." The regulations mandate that within 30 days after the birth of a newborn, household heads, relatives, or foster parents must initiate the process of birth registration by submitting an application. This process confirmed the child's citizenship, registered their permanent residence at the local household registration department, and ensured that every individual in China had an official record of their permanent residence. Hukou status in China is determined by parental inheritance, with a historical focus on maternal inheritance. If parents have conflicting hukou statuses, the mother's status was usually prioritised until 1998. This policy aimed to maintain rural communities, discourage urban migration, and limit access to urban welfare for children born to rural mothers and urban fathers. Since then, individuals have been granted the choice to inherit their hukou type and location from either their mother or father, and they are legally obligated to undergo personal identification registration with the hukou police authority from the moment of their birth.      

ii) The objectives of birth registration and population management

Firstly, the hukou system enables the government to monitor and regulate internal migration effectively. The hukou card serves as an identification document for Chinese citizens and contains important personal information such as the individual's name, gender, date of birth, and hukou registration details. It also includes a unique identification number. So, by recording an individual's birth registration and permanent residence, the government can track population movements, identify urban-rural disparities, and facilitate resource allocation based on urban or rural categorization accordingly.

Secondly, birth registration allows for the efficient distribution of resources based on urban or rural categorization. Within the hukou system, there are two basic types of household registration: Type 1 and Type 2. Type 1 registration primarily applies to individuals who depend on agricultural production for sustenance and income. Food allocation for Type 1 registrants is determined by local authorities rather than receiving a direct food quota from the government. In contrast, Type 2 registration guarantees formal employment, pension benefits, and a government-allocated food ration. Type 2 registrants also have access to additional benefits such as housing, healthcare, education, and maternity leave, controlled by the government through their work units. 

Factors Influencing Social Mobility and Urban Hukou Acquisition

Social mobility and access to resources within the hukou system are not solely determined by birth circumstances and geographic categorization. Other factors also come into play, shaping individuals' opportunities for upward social mobility and urban hukou acquisition. Education and membership in the CPC play significant roles in the acquisition of urban hukou status. Higher education, especially vocational and tertiary education, provides opportunities for obtaining urban hukou. Individuals with higher educational qualifications have a better chance of securing urban hukou, as education is seen as a key determinant of an individual's skills and potential contributions to urban industries and development. Furthermore, CPC membership and military experience in the People's Liberation Army (PLA) also contribute to increased chances of obtaining urban hukou by providing political and career advantages. CPC membership offers access to a network of opportunities, connections, and resources that can aid in social advancement. Similarly, military experience within the PLA can enhance an individual's chances of securing urban hukou, as it is often seen as a demonstration of loyalty, discipline, and valuable skills.

While informal migration without a change in hukou status has become somewhat easier, resulting in a significant population of urban migrants known as the "floating population," formal migration involving a change in hukou status remains challenging. The implementation and tightening of the hukou system were responses to demographic pressures during China's rapid socialist industrialization. The registration system, along with the commune system in rural areas and workplace units (danwei) in urban areas, aimed to restrict rural-to-urban migration and encourage the return of rural migrants to the countryside. The commune system bound peasants to the land and required permission from local governments for migration, while workplace organisations administered social services and controlled employment quotas in urban areas, making it difficult for rural migrants to find employment.

Cultural Identity and Family Dynamics

The hukou system has significant implications for cultural identity and family dynamics in China. Not only is it closely tied to an individual's place of origin, but it also has a direct impact on various aspects of cultural heritage, including language, customs, and traditions. Furthermore, the hukou system affects family dynamics, particularly in relation to inheritance and property rights. In China, property and land rights are often linked to hukou registration in a specific area. Rural hukou holders may have access to agricultural land or property in rural areas, while urban hukou holders may have greater opportunities for urban property ownership. This connection between hukou status and property rights impacts family dynamics, as decisions regarding land use, property transfer, and inheritance may be influenced by hukou considerations. Along with education, gender inequality is also a factor to consider in hukou mobility, as traditional practices in rural areas, such as patrilocal marriage (where women move to their husband's household after marriage) and favouring sons, disadvantage rural women in terms of educational and political opportunities. This gender inequality further perpetuates the rural-urban divide, as rural children, particularly girls, may face challenges in accessing higher education and acquiring the necessary credentials for urban hukou mobility. Rural children from privileged families have better prospects of becoming urban residents through state enterprise recruitment or family connections, especially if their parents are CPC members, as these factors provide access to opportunities and resources for urban advancement.

In mixed hukou families with an urban father and a rural mother, urban connections may facilitate hukou mobility. Children's hukou status typically follows that of their mothers, but the contrast between rural and urban hukou within mixed hukou families provides additional motivation and access to urban resources. The dingti policy in the 1980s also allowed children to change their hukou status from rural to urban if they took over their fathers' jobs in state work units. So, despite the rigid segmentation between urban and rural areas, a few formal and informal channels exist for rural residents, particularly men, to obtain urban hukou status. These channels include higher education, joining the CPC or the PLA, and using family connections.

Economic Reforms and Hukou System: Administrative Relaxation and Social Implications

The hukou system has also played a significant role in shaping China's population dynamics and resource allocation. However, in response to economic reforms over the past two decades, the system has undergone changes that have led to a relaxation of administrative control. This relaxation of administrative control within the hukou system has aimed to address socio-economic disparities and promote greater mobility and integration between rural and urban areas. 

The historical abolition of the commune system and the introduction of the "household responsibility system" marked a significant shift in China's agricultural sector. This new system allowed individual households to take responsibility for specific plots of land and enabled the sale of surplus grain in the open market. Consequently, peasants were no longer bound to the land and gained the freedom to seek employment in industrial and service sectors. Simultaneously, the rigid danwei-based rationing system began to erode, opening up opportunities for rural migrants in urban areas. As a result, the government permitted peasants to enter cities and establish small businesses, leading to the growth of the urban service sector and increased demand for cheap labour. These changes acted as push and pull factors, encouraging rural residents to migrate to cities, resulting in the presence of a significant rural migrant labour force in urban areas by the end of 1990.

Despite the gradual but relative ease of geographic mobility and changes in employment, the social implications of hukou status continue to persist. Even if their jobs are similar to those of urban workers, employees with rural hukou status are still regarded as peasant workers and do not enjoy the same labour rights and benefits as those with urban hukou. Rural residents often face limited job opportunities and lower wages in urban areas due to restrictions imposed by their rural hukou. This disparity in employment prospects and income levels creates a division between urban and rural populations, perpetuating social and economic inequalities. Studies have shown that individuals with rural hukou status earn lower wages compared to their urban counterparts, even when working in the same industries and occupations. The hukou system reinforces a system of dualistic development, where urban areas benefit from more favourable policies and resource allocation, while rural areas struggle with underdevelopment and lack of opportunities. This spatial division further perpetuates social and economic inequalities, leading to disparities in education, healthcare, and social welfare between urban and rural populations. 

It is important to address the impact of the hukou system on social and economic inequality to promote a more equitable society. Efforts have been made to address these inequalities, such as policies aiming to improve educational opportunities in rural areas and provide basic healthcare services to rural residents. Simultaneously, there have also been policies encouraging urban residents to move to rural areas, given that voluntary mobility in that direction is limited due to the advantages associated with urban hukou status. However, further reforms are needed to effectively address the deep-rooted disparities caused by the hukou system and promote equal opportunities for all citizens.


Recent reforms have sought to relax hukou restrictions by introducing measures that allow rural residents to access a wider range of urban services. The government has also implemented policies to promote rural-to-urban migration, which include the development of designated areas called "urban villages" where rural migrants can reside in urban areas while maintaining ties to their rural communities. Such initiatives provide opportunities for rural residents to seek better job prospects and living conditions in urban centres. However, the implementation of these reforms faces several challenges. 

One major obstacle is fiscal constraint, as providing services and infrastructure for a large influx of rural migrants requires significant financial resources. Local governments often struggle to meet these demands, resulting in inadequate provision of services and limited integration of rural migrants into urban society. Resistance from local authorities is another challenge to reform efforts. Some local governments are reluctant to relax hukou restrictions due to concerns over increased population pressures; the strain on public resources; and potential social instability. This resistance slows down the pace of reform efforts and hinders the effective implementation of policies aimed at reducing hukou-related inequalities. Moreover, concerns about the potential adverse effects of increased urbanisation on the environment, public infrastructure, and social harmony pose additional challenges. Balancing the need for rural-to-urban migration with sustainable urban development requires careful planning and resource allocation to ensure the overall well-being of both rural and urban populations. Addressing these challenges and finding sustainable solutions are crucial steps toward both creating a more equitable and inclusive society and strengthening more effective governance in China.

The hukou system in China is a multifaceted policy that has had wide-ranging effects, both intended and unintended. Initially implemented for population control and resource allocation, the system has resulted in pronounced social and economic disparities between rural and urban areas. Recognizing these inequalities, the Chinese government has actively engaged in ongoing reforms of the hukou system to rectify these issues and foster a more equitable distribution of resources and opportunities. While economic reforms have led to some relaxation of administrative control within the hukou system, the social implications of hukou status remain persistent. Rural hukou holders face disadvantages and limited access to labour rights and benefits compared to their urban counterparts, perpetuating social and economic inequalities. Efforts have been made to address these disparities, but further reforms are needed to promote equal opportunities and create a more equitable society. Overcoming fiscal constraints, resistance from local authorities, and balancing urban development with sustainable practices are critical challenges which must be addressed. By addressing these challenges and implementing sustainable solutions, China can strive towards a more inclusive and fair society for all its citizens.

Thumbnail image source: China Global Television Network (CGTN)
Content image source: Caixin Global


Trishala S is a third-year undergraduate student at FLAME University, pursuing a major in Sociology and a minor in Public Policy. With a keen interest in the socio-political landscape and policy realm, she is dedicated to unraveling their complexities, while also finding fascination in exploring the intersection of gender studies, activism and the legal aspects. In her leisure time, Trishala enjoys immersing herself in books and indulging in movies, finding inspiration in their charm. She did her FLAME Summer Internship Program (SIP) at ORCA.

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