4.12.2012 | Von:
Bettina Gransow

Background and Outline of the Issue: Urban-Rural Disparity and Registration System (hukou)

Of fundamental importance for an understanding of Chinese internal migration is, firstly, the disparity between city and country and, secondly, the rise and changing function of the Chinese system of household registration.

Chinesische Wanderarbeiter in TaiyuanChinese migrant labourers in Taiyuan. (© picture alliance / Photoshot)

Urban-Rural Disparity

With the transition to a market economy the income gap between urban and rural income widened from 2.2:1 in the 1980s to 3.6:1 at the start of the 21st century. But even in the Mao era there was an income gap between city and country. The background was a nationwide land reform in the early 1950s that led to a dual system of rural and urban households. Every household had to decide between two options: Rural households were entitled to a plot of land;[1] urban households were entitled to a job, subsidized housing, access to urban educational facilities and inclusion in a system of health care and pension provision. With the introduction of the planned economy (1953) it very quickly became clear that comprehensive provision for the urban population (which at this period constituted no more than 15% of the Chinese population) could only be achieved through a transfer of resources from the country to the cities and would be at the expense of the peasants. There were many instances of spontaneous[2] migration from the country to the city, although the authorities soon put a stop to this.

The Hukou System

Against this background, in 1958 a system of household registration was set up, which codified the distinction between urban and rural households. Since that time the hukou system has had essentially four functions[3]:

First, it acts as a residents’ registration system. That is nothing special in itself: China already had a registration system before the introduction of the hukou system and other countries have similar systems for the registration of residents.

Second, it forms the basis for the allocation of resources and subsidies to selected groups of the population, chiefly city dwellers. In this second function the hukou system, with its rationing of food and other daily necessities, was particularly important in the Mao era of the 1950s to 1970s and was an effective deterrent to migration. The abolition of rationing and the transition to a market economy in the 1990s partially deprived it of this function. However, since the urban-rural disparity still exists, and, if anything, has become greater, the hukou system has retained its function as an instrument for regulating access to public goods, entitlements, subsidies and other privileges, although this is now happening in an environment characterized by the entrepreneurial activity of cities in competition with each other.

Third, it is designed to regulate internal migration and avoid the emergence of slums in China’s big cities and megacities. The hukou system has undergone a change in its third function too. Whereas in the early days of the Chinese reform policy at the beginning of the 1980s the top priority was to put a stop to migration, since the 1990s the aim has been to direct migrants toward small and medium-sized towns and cities, so as to guard against the development of slums and prevent the ‘Latin Americanization’ of Chinese cities.

Forth, it functions as a system for the surveillance and social control of selected target groups (e.g. dissidents) that are believed to pose a threat to political stability. This function only applies to a relatively small number of population groups. With respect to internal migration, this fourth function was particularly important from 1995 to 2003, when migrants with no income, no home and no papers were picked up from the streets and taken to detention centers pending expulsion.[4]

Due to altered circumstances, the second and third functions (resource allocation and regulation of migration) have each undergone a change and are now in conflict with each other: Whereas on the one hand migrants are supposed to be directed toward smaller towns, these towns do not have the necessary resources to attract them. By contrast, the big cities, although rich in resources, are reluctant to assume the costs entailed by a large number of migrants, fearing that their own competitiveness would thereby be adversely affected. In 2001 and 2005 these deep-seated problems of resource distribution caused two rather more comprehensive attempts at fundamental reform or abolition of the hukou system to founder.[5] The cities show little inclination to share their assets and have recently come under increasing financial pressure owing to their mounting debt. In spite of the ongoing rhetoric about reform of the hukou system, apart from selected reform provinces and individual experiments like those in the cities of Zhengzhou (Henan) and Chengdu (Sichuan) (cf. section on Migration and Urbanization Policy), a solution to the problem is not yet in sight.

This text is part of the policy brief on "Internal Migration in China – Opportunity or Trap?".


During the Land Reform (1949-52) private ownership rights to land were allocated. The land was then collectivized in the early 1950s up to the mid-1950s. Already in 1958, when the household registration regulations were introduced, private land ownership had ceased to exist, thus giving rise only to collectivized and state-owned land.
In this context, spontaneous means that the initiative to migrate came from the rural population itself. The opposite would be forms of state-initiated migration, e.g. in the frame of political mass campaigns or development projects aimed at reducing poverty in the mountain regions etc.
Wang (2010), p. 339.
Cf. "Migration and Urbanization Policy: Priority of Economic Growth" note no. 3.
Wang (2010), p. 342ff.
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