In the first issue of The China Dispatch, we looked at the story of an unmarried Beijing woman who was fighting to freeze her eggs amid China’s lagging birth rate and government campaigns to increase it. Here, we’ll explore how China’s system of residency permits, termed Hukou, affects access to education and the choices it pushes Chinese parents to make.
After years of strict top-down family planning, the Chinese Government began to back out of the bedrooms of the nation in 2016 with the end of the One-Child Policy. Now, they’ve reentered; but this time as a cheerleader for child rearing as parents choose offices over nurseries. Amid new government policies, having children has erupted as a topic of fierce and complex debate, in which your official registration or 户口 (hukou) may affect which side you’re on.
As is the case across the world, Chinese women’s participation in the labour force makes them less likely to have children and reduces the average number of children per family. With more women embarking on careers, China’s birth rate has begun to fall. In cities, towering costs, demanding jobs, and flatlining levels of energy have soured urbanities’ desires to start a family, according to recent surveys. The government is now concerned that the slowing birth rate will drag the economy with it, especially as the population ages. In response, the government now advocates for a Three-Child Policy and has announced a swathe of support schemes and incentives for young people to marry and have children.
A Short History of Hukou
Despite these new measures, a large group within Chinese society faces significant additional barriers to having children: internal migrants. China’s system of citizen registration, called Hukou, has led to citizens being treated differently depending on whether or not they have the right to live in a city. Currently, there are more than 200 million people living in cities across China lacking local Hukou status. Consequently, they face steep socio-economic barriers in accessing services. Not only does this affect their ability to purchase real estate and access medical treatment, but it also usually denies their children the ability to study without cost in public schools, something that has proven to further complicate parents’ decisions across social classes.
First implemented in 1958, the Hukou system has been reformed several times since. In its simplest form, it is a system of registration that entitles citizens to receive certain rights and privileges within a certain area. Originally, it was designed to calm the government’s fear of an exodus of agriculture workers from rural areas to cities, followed by food shortages from fields left unploughed. Cities, full of opportunity, allow their inhabitants greater social mobility, and those lucky enough to have urban Hukou status are the beneficiaries of privileges and services unknown to those outside, leading to institutionalized inequality.
Hukou in the classroom
All internal migrants are not made the same. Indeed, the make-up of internal migrants has considerably changed since Hukou was first implemented. Across China’s social strata, the lack of urban Hukou manifests in considerably different ways. In the past, Hukou was primarily an issue for agricultural workers trying to move to cities to work in China’s rapidly-developing industrial sector. Although this type of migration remains widespread, China’s demographics have greatly changed since the ‘50s; nowadays, the educated middle class is spreading across the country in search of coveted jobs in tech, finance and other expanding fields. Cities like Shenzhen, China’s tech capital, have rapidly sprouted up; however, people are arriving even faster, and the city now lacks enough desks for its aspiring pupils.
In the shadow of the glittering metropolises, disadvantaged labourer migrants face a number of unique challenges. In addition to being victims of exploitation and dangerous working conditions, the Hukou restrictions on property mean they often live in cramped and sometimes illegal conditions. A fire in one such illegal boarding house in Beijing made international headlines in 2017 after 19 people were killed. Likewise, their children often attend equally ‘illegal’ schools. While this does enable them to learn, without accreditation, their schools are unable to issue transcripts leaving students unable to prove their education. Without qualifications required to enter university, these children are locked into their current social class.
Money Buys Happiness
Wealthier migrants, on the other hand, have several options in dealing with Hukou-related roadblocks. Private and international schools are found across China, especially in the kinds of cities which draw these workers. While some of these schools can provide a better education than public ones, they carry steep costs, making them only accessible for the wealthy. It’s also common for children to remain in their hometown with their grandparents while their parents work elsewhere. Although in ‘Western’ countries, the golden years are a needed respite from years of raising children, multigenerational living is traditionally common throughout China. However, for some families, the Hukou system causes grandparents to replace parents rather than supplement them.
Wealthier migrants have a third option as well: moving abroad. With such strong restrictions against internal migration, for some, emigration poses no greater challenges. In some countries, wealthy migrants can ‘invest’ in the local economy to gain visas and residency rights quicker, which further facilitates this process. While moving abroad is less common, a ‘nuclear option’ for some, it nevertheless underscores the risk China runs of losing a key demographic, especially at a time when it wants to build its population.
Not Three, But One
Living outside of one’s Hukou comes with a steep cost, yet it can also promise new opportunities, wide horizons, and a better life. Parents will choose their careers over having children to avoid taking on more financial burdens. At a time when China is trying to encourage three children, many parents are just worrying about the first. Yi Fuxian of the University of Wisconsin-Madison was quoted in Reuters saying, “it is difficult for young couples to raise one child, let alone raise two children.” While the government has been working to facilitate raising children, it remains to be seen how and indeed if the Hukou system will be revisited to keep the population growing well into the future.