- China’s Hukou System: Markets, Migrants, and Institutional Change by Jason Young
The hukou system in the People’s Republic China refers to the household registration system required by law to officially identify a person as a resident of a certain area. Even though other countries, such as Japan, Vietnam, and the Soviet Union, have or have had a similar system, perhaps no other system is as ancient in its historical roots, restrictive, elaborative, and has had as great an impact as the Chinese hukou system. The main characteristic of the hukou system is that in addition to recording the resident’s personal information, it also serves as a family registry because the hukou booklet (hukou ben) is distributed per family and records relationships among all family members (e.g., births, deaths, marriages, divorces, and moves of all family members). Moreover, the hukou system serves many important functions in the socialist political, economic, social, and legal arenas. Given the longstanding Confucian influence of filial piety and communitarianism, the hukou not only physically ties individuals to the family and the neighborhood, but to all other aspects of their lives as well. Although the hukou system, established within the state-planned economy that distributed resources primarily based on a rationing system, worked well, it conflicts with the market economy. Jason Young examines the transformation of the hukou system within the context of the Chinese economic reforms in the past thirty years or so, both at the local and national levels. Citing relevant official and legal documents and using a case-study approach, Young systematically reviews the hukou system, its evolution, and the underlying forces that helped to shape institutional changes in the system.
This over 200-page research monograph consists of an introduction, five chapters, and a conclusion. Young notes that compared to other East Asian countries/regions, such as Taiwan and Japan, “China’s rapid industrialisation and modernisation occurred in conjunction with rapid urbanisation, sustained economic development and eventual political liberalization” (pp. 2–3). China represents a very different development model with its “continued macro-management of economic development through the unorthodox policies of the hukou system” (p. 3). Young points out the increasing strains due to “non-compliance and the rise of free migration” (p. 3). Citing existing studies, Young states that without reforming the hukou system, a growing underclass of rural laborers [End Page 259] working and living in urban regions without permanent residency status will continue to grow, reaching an estimated 300–400 million by the year 2020.
Young observes two typical responses to the rise of non-hukou migration in China. The first response involves critiques of the hukou system from the perspective of citizenship, cultural identity, and the market economy. Non-hukou migrants are viewed within this perspective as victims of a system that marginalizes and discriminates against a group of powerless and underclass citizens. The second response refers to a pragmatic perspective that recognizes the new socioeconomic realities. Instead of advocating a complete abolition of the hukou system, it promotes an incremental change to the current hukou system and a managed migration policy. It is the “outside the plan” (p. 4) migration, as pointed out by Young, which poses a great challenge to the current Chinese political leadership. Young’s overall aim of the book is to “contribute to our knowledge of the relationship between the challenge of increasing outside the plan migration in China and the changes policymakers implement to accommodate these socioeconomic changes” (p. 5).
Chapter 1 briefly describes the post-Mao reforms and the dramatic changes in the political and economic conditions as a result of these reforms. The change in the hukou system is described as a forced reform to accommodate the new economic and migratory trends. Young puts forth the argument that the impetus for the hukou reform was a direct result of a policy shift from the planned economy to the market economy. The institutional reform of the hukou system is not only seen as a reactive response to the massive...