Hukou System change in China! Urbanization of china!
AFTER months of bickering among officials, on March 16th the government revealed a long-awaited plan for managing what has been the world’s largest migration of rural residents into cities. The document admitted that much was going wrong: the spread of “urban disease” with worsening congestion and pollution and a rising risk of social tension. It called for a “new style” of urbanisation, focused on making cities fairer for migrants. This will require considerable government spending, and will meet tough resistance.
It is remarkable that a government so fond of planning has taken this long to produce a plan for urbanisation; in the past 35 years the population of urban China has grown by more than 500m people, far outstripping the pace of city expansion that was seen in the developed world during the early industrial era. Individual cities love to plan. Big ones, such as Shanghai, are fond of grandiose exhibitions showing off their dreams. But uncertainty over how to handle the influx of migrants has complicated efforts to produce a plan on a national scale. Chinese leaders wanted bigger cities, but worried about the cost of giving migrants full access to urban welfare and public services.
The new document reflects a shift in city-building strategy that has become evident since new leaders took over in China in 2012; it recognises that urban China risks being destabilised by the creation of a huge mass of what the Chinese media sometimes admit are “second-class citizens”. The plan calls for the “gradual elimination” of the chief cause of this: the hukou system of household registration that was introduced in the 1950s to prevent internal immigration and which, though much relaxed since then, remains a hidden barrier. Even migrants who have lived in cities for many years, or the urban-born children of such migrants, are given far less access to government-funded health care.
By 2020, according to the plan, 100m migrants are to obtain urban hukou. This is a cautious target. The government admits it would still leave 200m people—by then roughly two-thirds of migrants—without city-resident status. Some state-run newspapers say it would mean, on average, that 17m migrants a year would get urban hukou. That would be a step up, but in recent years the numbers have already been rising fast, albeit from a low base. The government said last year that between 2010 and 2012 an average of 8.4m a year had been granted urban status.
Crucially, the plan does not suggest when the hukou system might be scrapped altogether. And it still allows bigger cities, which migrants prefer, to continue using hukou barriers as a way of trying to limit population growth. In the 16 cities with more than 5m people, officials will be allowed to give hukou only to migrants who gain a certain number of points (in cities that have experimented with this, points are awarded on the basis of educational qualifications, property ownership and other factors that rule out most migrants). Even in the smallest cities only migrants with “legal and stable” work and accommodation—which many do not have—will be able to get urban hukou.
Local governments are likely to interpret this as strictly as they can. They are fearful of having to spend a lot more on public services such as health care, education and subsidised housing, which barely reach most non-urban hukou holders. The new plan gives few details of how beefing up these services will be paid for, an omission that suggests much bickering remains to be done. It sets a modest target for urbanisation of 60% in 2020, up from nearly 54% today. This would imply a slowing down of the growth rate; that is not a bad signal to send given how local governments have been using high urbanisation targets as a pretext to continue grabbing land from farmers and engaging in an orgy of often wasteful construction.
The plan also gives a nod to the aspirations of China’s new middle-class, some of whom are pressing for a greater say in how their cities are run. The “level of democratisation”, it says, should be increased in the drawing up of city plans. Officials, however, chose to keep the plan secret until after the closing of the annual session of the National People’s Congress, the country’s legislature. It would have been a pity to spoil it with debate, even by a rubber-stamp parliament from which migrants are all but excluded.