China’s migrant workers spurn cherished ‘hukou’

Ran Ping has no plans to apply for a much-coveted hukou in the eastern Chinese city of Jinjiang, even though the local government has made the once tightly controlled household registration permit readily available.

The city hukou offers migrant workers access to social benefits ranging from pensions to subsidised health insurance. But Mr Ran, a resident of the city for more than a decade, still maintains registration in his hometown of Qianjiang, an under-developed district of Chongqing municipality, in the west of the country.

Mr Ran’s reluctance is mirrored by millions of other rural residents who have moved to cities in search of jobs. Their unwillingness to sign up threatens Beijing’s goal of granting 100m rural workers city hukou over a six-year period that ends this December.

The national policy is aimed at driving local consumption and spurring economic growth, which has become even more important after coronavirus struck.

Jinjiang, in coastal Fujian province, is known for its vibrant shoemaking industry and large migrant population. It became one of the first cities in China to relax hukou control by reducing residence requirements from five years to one.

But Mr Ran, a 32-year-old construction worker, is sceptical of the benefits of a city hukou. “There is more to be lost than gained by getting a Jinjiang hukou,” he said.

To switch household registration, Mr Ran would have to give up his access to 13 hectares of forestry land in Qianjiang. Even if he made that sacrifice, his son would not be guaranteed a place in the public school near his rented apartment.

Underfunded public services have been cited by analysts as one of the main reasons why the city hukou’s appeal has waned.

“The essence of the hukou reform is to make sure migrant workers live comfortably in cities and their children attend good public schools,” said a Beijing-based policy adviser who declined to be named for fear of repercussions. “We have achieved neither of them.”

China’s 236m-strong migrant population has in recent years found it easier to acquire an urban hukou as local governments lowered the application barrier. Most cities have cut residence requirements and many have offered hukou to homebuyers without additional conditions.

Their efforts, however, are falling short. Analysis by the Financial Times of official data shows fewer than 8m migrant workers received urban hukou each year between 2014 and 2019. To achieve the government target of 100m by the end of 2020, 16.7m would have to register each year.

The picture is even worse in Jinjiang, where less than a 10th of the city’s migrant population has obtained a local hukou.

“A piece of hukou permit isn’t enough to make migrant workers excited,” said Lu Yilong, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing. “Their decision is based on a careful cost-benefit analysis.”

For most migrant workers in Jinjiang, it does not pay to trade their rural hukou for an urban one.

While the city’s local hukou holders have full access to health and pension benefits, migrants struggle to get into the education system. Most public schools in Jinjiang first enrol local children and students whose parents own homes in the neighbourhood.

That puts migrant families at a disadvantage as few of them can afford to buy a home in the city, let alone one near popular schools.

An official who wished to remain anonymous at Jinjiang Education Bureau said students living in rented apartments would be placed on a waiting list until all of their homeowner peers had a school place.

“We have to make sure those who contribute the most to the economy get into school first,” said the official.

The practice has discouraged many cash-strapped migrant parents from acquiring a Jinjiang hukou.

“What’s the point of having a city hukou and not being able to enjoy all the benefits it offers,” asked Mr Ran, the construction worker who does not own a house. He ended up sending his seven-year-old son to a village-backed school where more than two-thirds of students are renters.

Meanwhile, the popularity of the rural hukou, which is based on the ownership of farmland and homesteads, has risen sharply as China steps up the modernisation of its agricultural sector. Official data show the average rent for grain fields nationwide has quadrupled over the past decade, a boon for landowners.

Zhan Fei, a home decoration worker in Jinjiang, said he kept his hukou in the county of Badong, in central China’s Hubei province, in order to collect Rmb7,000-per-year rent from his 0.4 hectares of paddy fields. “There is a lot of potential in a rural hukou,” said Mr Zhan. “There is not much in a Jinjiang one.”

Editor’s note

The Financial Times is making coronavirus coverage free to read to help everyone stay informed. Find the latest here.

A lack of government spending is keeping Jinjiang’s hukou reform from achieving its intended purpose. Lin Jinguo, a director at Jinjiang Education Bureau, said in a report that the city’s public schools were not prepared for the influx of migrant children, who outnumber local pupils.

“The allocation of our education resources is lagging behind the pace of economic growth,” said Mr Lin.

Some migrant workers have had enough. Six months after giving birth to her second child in December, Li Xian, a 25-year-old assembly line worker, decided to leave Jinjiang for her hometown of Guiyang, capital of Guizhou province in the south-west.

“I want to get a Jinjiang hukou and the benefits that come with it,” said Ms Li, who made Rmb50,000 last year. “But I am not up to the government standard.”