Hukou system

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Hukou system
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 戶口
Simplified Chinese 户口
Alternative Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 戶籍
Simplified Chinese 户籍
Tibetan name
Tibetan ཐེམཐོ

A hukou is a record in the system of household registration required by law in China and Taiwan. The system itself is more properly called "huji", and has origins in ancient China.

A household registration record officially identifies a person as a resident of an area and includes identifying information such as name, parents, spouse, and date of birth. A hukou can also refer to a family register in many contexts since the household registration record (simplified Chinese: 户口簿; traditional Chinese: 戶口簿; pinyin: hùkǒu bù) is issued per family, and usually includes the births, deaths, marriages, divorces, and moves, of all members in the family.

Because of its entrenchment of social strata, especially as between rural and urban residency status, the hukou system is often regarded as a caste system of China.[1][2][3] The system descends in part from ancient Chinese systems of household registration, which also influenced neighbouring countries. In present times, a similar household registration system exists within the public administration structures of Japan (koseki), Vietnam (Hộ khẩu), and North Korea (Hoju). In South Korea, the Hoju system was abolished on 1 January 2008. While unrelated in origin, propiska in the Soviet Union had a similar purpose.


The formal name for the system is "huji." Within the huji system, a "hukou" is the registered residency status of a particular individual in this system. "Hukou" is more commonly used in everyday conversation. "Hukou" has been adopted by English-language audiences to refer to both the huji system and an individual's hukou.


Family registers were in existence in China as early as the Xia Dynasty (c. 2100 BCE - 1600 BCE). In the centuries which followed, the family register developed into an organization of families and clans for purposes of taxation, conscription and social control.[citation needed]

According to the Examination of Hukou in Wenxian Tongkao published in 1317, there was a minister for population management during the Zhou Dynasty named Simin (Chinese: 司民), who was responsible for recording births, deaths, emigrations and immigrations. The Rites of Zhou notes that three copies of documents were kept in different places. The administrative divisions in Zhou Dynasty were a function of the distance to the state capital. The top division nearest the capital was named Dubi (Chinese: 都鄙), top division in more distant areas were named Xiang (Chinese: ) and Sui (Chinese: ). Families were organized under the Baojia system.[4][5]

Guan Zhong, Prime Minister of the Qi state 7th century BCE, imposed different taxation and conscription policies on different areas.[6] In addition, Guan Zhong also banned immigration, emigration, and separation of families without permission.[7] In the Book of Lord Shang, Shang Yang also described his policy restricting immigrations and emigrations.[8]

Xiao He, the first Chancellor of the Han Dynasty, added the chapter of Hu (Chinese: 户律, "Households Code") as one of the nine basic law codes of Han (Chinese: 九章律), and established the Hukou system as the basis of tax revenue and conscription.

Household registration in China[edit]

An individual household's register or hukou booklet; the local police station would hold a copy of these records in its central register

The Communist Party promoted a command economy when it came to power in 1949. In 1958, the Chinese government officially promulgated the family register system to control the movement of people between urban and rural areas. Individuals were broadly categorised as a "rural" or "urban" worker.[9] A worker seeking to move from the country to urban areas to take up non-agricultural work would have to apply through the relevant bureaucracies. The number of workers allowed to make such moves was tightly controlled. Migrant workers would require six passes to work in provinces other than their own.[10] People who worked outside their authorized domain or geographical area would not qualify for grain rations, employer-provided housing, or health care.[11] There were controls over education, employment, marriage and so on.[9]


With its large rural population of poor farm workers, hukou limited mass migration from the land to the cities to ensure some structural stability. The hukou system was an instrument of the command economy. By regulating labour, it ensured an adequate supply of low cost workers to the plethora of state owned businesses.[12] Like the internal passports of the Soviet Union, the hukou system allowed the state to provide preferential treatment to industrial workers and intelligentsia who would be more likely to protest and even revolt during periods of unrest.[citation needed]

For some time, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security continued to justify the hukou system on public order grounds, and also provided demographic data for government central planning.[13]

The Hukou system has been viewed by some scholars as instrumental to the political stability of China by better monitoring of "targeted persons", people who are politically dubious by the Party's standards. It is a type of institutional exclusion that helps to organize and manage the Chinese population, contributing to the Chinese economic growth but creating significant ethical problems.[14] This is still a significant function as of 2006.[15] Prior to the Chinese economic reform that began in the late 1970s, the system succeeded in limiting population growth in the cities.[16]


From around 1953 to 1976, police periodically rounded up those who were without valid residence permits, placed them in detention centres, and expelled them from cities.[17]

Administration regulations issued in 1982 known as "custody and repatriation" authorized police to detain people, and "repatriate" them to their permanent residency location.[citation needed]

Although an individual is technically required to live in the area designated on his/her permit, in practice the system has largely broken down[citation needed]. After the Chinese economic reforms, it became possible for some[who?] to unofficially migrate and get a job without a valid permit[citation needed]. Economic reforms also created pressures to encourage migration from the interior to the coast[citation needed]. It also provided incentives for officials not to enforce regulations on migration.

Technology has made it easier to enforce the Hukou system as now the police force has a national database of official Hukou registrations. This was made possible by computerisation in the 1990s, as well as greater co-operation between the different regional police authorities.[15]

During the Great Leap Forward's famine[edit]

During the mass famine of the Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1962, having an urban versus a rural hukou could mean the difference between life and death.[18] During this period, nearly all of the approximately 600 million rural hukou residents were collectivized into village communal farms, where their agricultural output - after state taxes - would be their only source of food. With institutionalized exaggeration of output figures by local Communist leaders and massive declines in production, state taxes during those years confiscated nearly all food in many rural communes, leading to mass starvation and the deaths of more than 30 million Chinese.[19]

The 100 million urban hukou residents, however, were fed by fixed food rations established by the central government, which declined to an average of 1500 calories per day at times but still allowed survival for almost all during the famine. An estimated 95% or higher of all deaths occurred among rural hukou holders. With the suppression of news internally, many city residents were not aware that mass deaths were occurring in the countryside at all, which was essential to preventing organized opposition to Mao's policies.[20]

Many of the starving peasants tried to flee to the cities to beg for food, but tight security at entry points and through regular inspections of resident documents on the streets led to the deportation and subsequent death of most.[citation needed] In fact, it was only when rural family members of higher military officers, who were often isolated from the countryside in cities or bases, began dying from starvation that higher Communist officials began seriously worrying about the stability of the state, and eventually forced Mao to end the program.[citation needed] This was the most extreme demonstration of how much impact a different hukou could have in China, but significant interference in all aspects of life only began declining in the 1980s and 1990s.[citation needed]

Major Functions[edit]

The hukou system serves four key functions in China, three of them are uniquely Chinese.[21]

First, the hukou system registers residents, collects and stores information about the populace, and provides personal identification and certifies relations and residence.

Second, the hukou system is the basis for resource allocation and subsidization for selected groups of the population (mainly the urban hukou holders who are a clear minority). This function has shaped much of Chinese economic development in the past half-century by politically affecting the movement of capital, goods, and human resources, heavily favoring the urban centers with investment and subsidies.

Third, the hukou system allows the government to control and regulate internal migration, especially rural-to-urban migration. China's urbanization, as a consequence, has been relatively small and slow compared to its economic development level. China's urban slums are also relatively small and less serious, compared to those in many other developing nations such as Brazil or India.

Fourth, the hukou system has a less well-known but very powerful role of social control involving the management of so-called targeted people (zhongdian renkou 重点人口).[citation needed] Based on hukou files, the police maintain a confidential list of the targeted people in each community (usually less than five percent of the community’s total population) to be specially monitored and controlled. Such a focused monitoring and control of selected segments of the population have made people and organisations with different political opinions difficult to survive and develop. Therefore, this function has contributed significantly and effectively to China’s political stability.

Effect on rural workers[edit]

The hukou system is closely associated with social issues regarding migration in China and excludes migrant workers, also known as farm workers or peasant workers, from city-wide social welfares in urban areas.[22] From around 1953 to 1976, the restriction of a citizen's rights by his domicile caused rural citizens to be separated into an underclass. Urban citizens enjoyed a range of social, economic and cultural benefits that China's rural citizens did not receive.[12] The ruling party did however make some concessions to rural workers to make life in rural areas more tolerable.[23]

During China’s transition from state socialism to market socialism (1978-2001), migrants, most of whom were women,[24] worked in newly created export-processing zones in city suburbs under sub-standard working conditions.[10][23] There were restrictions upon the mobility of migrant workers that forced them to live precarious lives in company dormitories or shanty towns where they were exposed to abusive treatment.[25]

The impact of the hukou system upon migrant laborers became onerous in the 1980s after hundreds of millions were ejected from state corporations and cooperatives.[10] Since the 1980s, an estimated 200 million Chinese live outside their officially registered areas and under far less eligibility to education and government services, living therefore in a condition similar in many ways to that of illegal immigrants.[12] The millions of peasants who have left their land remain trapped at the margins of the urban society. They are often blamed for rising crime and unemployment and under pressure from their citizens, the city governments have imposed discriminatory rules.[9] For example, the children of farm workers (Chinese: 农民工; pinyin: nóngmín gōng) are not allowed to enroll in the city schools, and even now must live with their grandparents or other relatives in order to attend school in their hometowns. They are commonly referred to as the home-staying children. There are around 130 million such home-staying children, living without their parents, as reported by Chinese researchers.[26]


Reformation of hukou has been controversial in the PRC. It is a system widely regarded as unfair by citizens of the PRC, but there is also fear that its liberalization would lead to massive movement of people into the cities, causing strain to city government services, damage to the rural economies, and increase in social unrest and crime. movement of labor for the benefit of the economy.[27]

Further relaxation of the system has happened since the 1990s. A provision was made to allow the rural resident to buy "temporary urban residency permits" so the resident could work legally within the cities. The fee for these permits decreased over time and has become reasonably affordable. The inheritance of hukou was changed to recognize succession through both paternal and maternal lines, improving the hukou for rural women.[28]

The hukou has been further weakened since 2001. In 2003, after protests over the death of Sun Zhigang alarmed the government, the laws of custody and repatriation were repealed.[28] By 2004, over 100 million rural citizens were working in cities, according to the estimate of the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture.

Kam Wing Chan (陳金永 Chén Jīnyǒng) and Buckingham's (2008) article, "Is China Abolishing the Hukou System?"[29] argues that previous reforms have not fundamentally changed the hukou system, but have only decentralized the powers of hukou to local governments. They conclude that the hukou system remains active and continues to contribute to China's rural and urban disparity.[30]

In March 2008, over 30 leading intellectuals wrote an open letter to the Government, asking for the "immediate abolition of the rural-urban dual hukou system." In 2008-09, web posted essays remarked the Hukou system as a "caste system" of China, and "China a great country of discrimination."[31] The system is currently only partially enforced, and it has been argued that the system will have to be further relaxed in order to increase availability of skilled workers to industries.[32]

In a speech given during the opening of the annual National People's Congress, on 6 March 2013, Premier Wen Jiabao called for speeding up reform of the Hukou system to advance urbanization "actively, yet prudently."[33]

On December 4, 2014 the Legal Affairs Office of the State Council released for public comment a draft residence permit regulation proposing to abolish the hukou system in small cities and towns, while retaining substantial restrictions in large metropolitan areas, and gradually easing restrictions in medium-sized cities.[34] The draft follows a recommendation of the third plenary of the Communist Party's 18th Party Congress, held in October 2013.

Scholars have argued that the hukou system works in tandem with cultural distinctions which perpetuate and evolve the structure of inequality, despite institutional reform.[35][36][37]

Household registration in Taiwan[edit]

When Taiwan was under Japanese rule from 1895 to 1945, the Japanese government maintained the same system of household registration (koseki) as they did in other parts of the Empire of Japan. This system of household registration, with minor changes, has been continued. Records concerning native Taiwanese are fairly complete. Records of mainlanders date back to the date they first applied for registration with the local household registration office, and are based on information provided by the applicant.

While all ROC nationals (including overseas Chinese with no connection to Taiwan) can apply for a ROC passport, proper household registration is required for obtaining a ROC ID Card, which is often used as proof of citizenship, such as in national elections, and an ID number is needed to open bank accounts. Unlike in mainland China, residency can be easily changed with the local authorities and household registration does not serve as a tool to limit a resident's movements within Taiwan.

Special administrative regions[edit]

Hukou is not employed in the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau, though identification cards are mandatory for residents there.[38]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Chinese Society: Change, Conflict and Resistance", by Elizabeth J. Perry, Mark Selden, page 90
  2. ^ "China's New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society", p. 86, by Daniel A. Bell
  3. ^ "Trust and Distrust: Sociocultural Perspectives", p. 63, by Ivana Marková, Alex Gillespie
  4. ^ Jason Young. China's Hukou System: Markets, Migrants and Institutional Change. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 30. 
  5. ^ Fan Zhang. China’s Urbanization and the World Economy. Edward Elgar Publishing. p. 29. 
  6. ^ Guanzi:国门内外,都鄙井田,山泽川隰
  7. ^ Guanzi:禁迁徙、止流民、圉分异
  8. ^ Guanzi: 禁迁徙、止流民、圉分异 chapter 2:使民无得擅徙
  9. ^ a b c Macleod, Calum. "China reviews `apartheid' for 900m peasants", The Independent, 10 June 2001.
  10. ^ a b c "Chinese apartheid: Migrant labourers, numbering in hundreds of millions, who have been ejected from state concerns and co-operatives since the 1980s as China instituted market capitalism, have to have six passes before they are allowed to work in provinces other than their own. In many cities, private schools for migrant labourers are routinely closed down to discourage migration." "From politics to health policies: why they're in trouble", The Star, 6 February 2007.
  11. ^ David Pines, Efraim Sadka, Itzhak Zilcha, Topics in Public Economics: Theoretical and Applied Analysis, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 334.
  12. ^ a b c Luard, Tim. "China rethinks peasant 'apartheid'", BBC News, 10 November 2005.
  13. ^ "The hukou system has been criticized in some quarters and has been called 'the equivalent of and apartheid system between rural and urban residents' (China Labor Bulletin, February 25, 2002)." Laquian, Aprodicio A. Beyond Metropolis: The Planning and Governance of Asia's Mega-Urban Regions, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005, pp. 320-321.
  14. ^ Wang, Fei-Ling (2005), Organization through Division and Exclusion: China's Hukou System, Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, pp. 1-31.
  15. ^ a b Yang, Dali (2007) Discontented Miracle: Growth Conflict and Institutional Adaptions in China, Singapore: World Scientific
  16. ^ "China Seeks to Give Migrants Perks of City Life". Wall Street Journal. 5 March 2013. 
  17. ^ Waddington, Jeremy. Globalization and Patterns of Labour Resistance, Routledge, 1999, p. 82.
  18. ^ Becker, Jasper. Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine. New York: Holt, 1998. 220-232.
  19. ^ Becker, Jasper. Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine. New York: Holt, 1998. 270.
  20. ^ Becker, Jasper. Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine. New York: Holt, 1998. 220.
  21. ^ Wang, Fei-Ling (2010), "Renovating the Great Floodgate: The Reform of China's Hukou System," in Martin King Whyte ed., One Country, Two Societies: Rural-Urban Inequality in Contemporary China, Harvard University Press, pp. 335-364.
  22. ^ Chan, Kam Wing; Li Zhang (1999). "The Hukou System and Rural-Urban Migration in China: Processes and Changes". The China Quarterly 160: 818–855. doi:10.1017/s0305741000001351. 
  23. ^ a b Whitehouse, David. "Chinese workers and peasants in three phases of accumulation", Paper delivered at the Colloquium on Economy, Society and Nature, sponsored by the Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, 2 March 2006. Retrieved 1 August 2007.
  24. ^ Griffiths, Michael. B. (2010) ‘Lamb Buddha’s Migrant Workers: Self-assertion on China’s Urban Fringe’. Journal of Current Chinese Affairs (China Aktuell), 39, 2, 3-37.
  25. ^ Chan, Anita. China's Workers Under Assault: The Exploitation of Labor in a Globalizing Economy, M.E. Sharpe, 2001, p. 9.
  26. ^ "从1000万到1.3亿:农村留守儿童到底有多少",
  27. ^ Yao, Shunli. "China's WTO Revolution", Project Syndicate, June, 2002.
  28. ^ a b Au Loong-yu, Nan Shan, Zhang Ping. Women Migrant Workers under the Chinese Social Apartheid, Committee for Asian Women, May 2007, p. 1.
  29. ^ Chan, Kam Wing and Will Buckingham. "Is China Abolishing the Hukou System?" (Archive). China Quarterly, 2008, pp. 582–606.
  30. ^ Ruling through differentiation in China : Chengdu's urban-rural integration policy. / Zeuthen, Jesper Willaing. Roskilde : Roskilde Universitet, 2010. 271 p.
  31. ^ "Chinese Society: Change, Conflict and Resistance", p. 90, by Elizabeth J. Perry, Mark Selden, 2010
  32. ^ "World economy: The rising power of the Chinese worker". The Economist. 2010-08-03. Retrieved 3 August 2010. 
  33. ^ Xu, Weiwei (6 March 2013). "China's Wen calls for hukou reform". Morning Whistle. Retrieved 28 March 2013. 
  34. ^ Zhou Tian (December 5, 2014). "State Council Releases Hukou Reform Proposal". Retrieved December 5, 2014. 
  35. ^ Guang, Lei (2003), Rural Taste, Urban Fashions: The Cultural Politics of Rural/Urban Difference in Contemporary China, in: Positions, 11, 3, 613–646.
  36. ^ Griffiths, Michael. B. and Zeuthen, Jesper. W. (2014) 'Bittersweet China: New Discourses of Hardship and Social Organization’, Journal of Current Chinese Affairs (China Aktuell), 43, 4, 143–174.
  37. ^ Griffiths, Michael. B., Flemming Christiansen, and Malcolm Chapman. (2010) 'Chinese Consumers: The Romantic Reappraisal’. Ethnography, Sept 2010, 11, 331-357.
  38. ^ "China Law Deskbook: A Legal Guide for Foreign-invested Enterprises, Volume 1", by James M. Zimmerman, p. 406, publisher = American Bar Association, year = 2010
  • Wang, Fei-Ling (2014), “The Hukou (Household Registration) System.” in Oxford Bibliography in Chinese Studies. Ed. Tim Wright. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Wang, Fei-Ling (2010), "Renovating the Great Floodgate: The Reform of China's Hukou System," in Martin King Whyte ed., One Country, Two Societies: Rural-Urban Inequality in Contemporary China, Harvard University Press, pp. 335–364.
  • Wang, Fei-Ling (2005), Organization through Division and Exclusion: China's Hukou System, Stanford CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Wong DFK, Chang, YL, He XS (2007). "Rural migrant workers in urban China: living a marginalised life". International Journal of Social Welfare 16: 32–40. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2397.2007.00475.x. 

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