Friday, Mar 24, 2017, 12:16 PM CST – China

Politics

Hukou Reform

Points Of No Return

The Beijing municipal government has issued a draft regulation offering the chance to obtain permanent residence, or hukou, to the city’s vast number of migrants. Few, however, are likely to make the grade

Liu Ye’s daughter is six months away from graduation from her Beijing junior high school, but Liu is already anxious about her daughter’s secondary education. Although Liu has been living in Beijing for nearly 20 years, neither she nor her husband have a Beijing hukou, or permanent residence permit, so they have limited access to welfare and other benefits.

Without a hukou, Liu’s daughter cannot attend a senior high school in Beijing, and will thus face disproportionately fierce competition in the gaokao, China’s national college entrance examination, a grueling test she will have to take back in her hometown (gaokao standards are lower for Beijing students). In today’s China, access to education, healthcare, the right to home ownership and even driver’s licenses are restricted according to hukou status, particularly in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

On December 10, a draft regulation released by the Legal Affairs Office of the Beijing municipal government was opened to public feedback. If passed, this regulation would allow non-residents to claim a hukou through a points system. But one look at the proposed system’s scoring system soon dampened Liu’s hopes of permanent residency in China’s capital.

“It is impossible for me to get enough points [according to] the new hukou policy, and there are too many people who are much more competitive than me,” Liu told NewsChina.

Reform

Liu has lived in Beijing since she graduated from college in 1998. At that time, Beijing had an official population of 12 million, but 17 years later, the population has nearly doubled.

There are currently a few avenues to obtaining a Beijing hukou, including graduating from a local university (provided one obtains a local job almost immediately), identification as a “high-caliber talent,” passing the civil service examination (on the condition one does this in the capital), and returning from studying abroad. According to the latest draft regulation, applicants for a Beijing hukou should have a temporary residence permit, be aged under 45, have made social security contributions in Beijing for at least seven consecutive years and have no criminal convictions or recorded violations of family planning policies.

At least 15 big cities in China have introduced a points-based hukou policy incorporating requirements such as age, academic background, skillset, social insurance, length and status of residence, work history and personal credit score. In Guangzhou, over 6,000 people obtained a hukou through the points system from 2013 to 2014, and in Tianjin’s Binhai New Area, more than 1,000 people have acquired a hukou in the same way since 2014. However, with migrant populations in both cities numbering in the millions, such numbers are cold comfort to most of those seeking to settle permanently in one of China’s major metropolises.

The total points required for eligibility for a hukou in Shanghai, Qingdao and Guangzhou are 120, 100 and 60, respectively, reflecting each city’s relative desirability and economic status. Quotas shift depending on fluctuations in urban populations. So far, the new draft regulation has not specified how many points will be needed to obtain a hukou in Beijing.

After reading each requirement carefully, Liu was disappointed to find that the likelihood that she will accrue enough points is very slim. Although Liu fulfills the basic requirements to apply for a hukou, she is ineligible for “bonus points.” According to the new draft regulation, applicants who have paid more than 100,000 yuan (US$15,200) annually in income taxes for three consecutive years can obtain additional points. This would translate into over 8,333 yuan (US$1,270) in individual income tax paid per month, and thus only applies to those earning a monthly salary in excess of 40,000 yuan (US$6,080), a threshold few in China, including Liu, could ever hope to cross.

Wang Taiyuan, a professor at the People’s Public Security University of China, argues that it is necessary to raise the thresholds of the points-based hukou system to prevent a population explosion in Beijing. Wang has been studying China’s household registration system for more than 20 years and has frequently participated in the drafting of related social policies in the capital. He is also a member of the panel responsible for the latest draft regulation.

“The criteria for gaining a Beijing hukou by obtaining enough points is unfortunately high for many people, but this is a necessary evil and we have no other options,” Wang told NewsChina.

On December 10, during a lecture, Wang received a call informing him that the latest draft regulation would have to be revised. He told NewsChina that a number of experts read the regulation again, word by word, and changed it in several places. The final document was released at 5 PM that day.

“For the government, a promise, when made public, is a promise, and cannot be withdrawn,” he said. “Beijing is under the same population pressure felt all over the country, and the draft regulation has to be made to sustain the capital’s healthy development.”

Population

The draft regulation on hukou reform is actually a continuation of incremental policy adjustments regarding Beijing’s estimated eight-million-strong migrant population. A regulation applicable to non-residents in Beijing issued in 1995 stated that the purpose of the municipal household registration policy is to “control population growth.”

Three days prior to the release of the latest draft regulation, the Communist Party of China (CPC) Beijing Municipal Committee unveiled its 13th Five-year Plan (2016-2020), which pledged to cut the population in the capital’s six downtown districts by 15 percent, and cap total population at 23 million. From 2000 to 2014, 7.88 million people were added to Beijing’s total population, including 5.63 million migrants – or 70 percent of the total increase.

In July 2014, the State Council, China’s cabinet, issued a directive to further reform China’s household registration system in order to strictly control what experts frequently term a “population explosion” in the country’s major urban centers, and establish a points-based household registration system in all cities with a population above five million. According to official statistics, China is home to 22 such cities and, for many of them, overcrowding is exerting downward pressure on sustainable development.

During a Politburo meeting on June 30, 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that the goal of hukou reform is to “adjust measures to local conditions.” In other words, obtaining a hukou by accruing points looks set to become the country’s principal method for controlling urban population growth.

Zhang Yi, deputy director of the Institute of Sociology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), is pessimistic about the net impact of Beijing’s points-based hukou system. He told our reporter that considering Beijing’s large migrant population, the draft regulation will influence only a small number of people and “it is unlikely to achieve an obvious effect in controlling population growth.”

Zhang added that as Beijing has unveiled multiple measures to curb population growth in recent years, it has also witnessed its fastest-ever period of population growth. From 1994 to 2005, Beijing introduced a total of 15 regulations in areas including employment, residence and family planning to rein in the influx of migrants, yet the city’s migrant population expanded from 1.8 million to 3.6 million over the same period. Before that, population growth was concentrated in the local, registered population. In recent years, Beijing introduced further restrictions on non-local home buyers and added a license plate lottery for private vehicles, yet neither measure appeared to do anything to depress population growth.

In the latest draft regulation of the municipal points system, applicants who have been working and living in any of Beijing’s six downtown districts will have points deducted, while those who relocate to the suburbs can accumulate up to 12 bonus points. Wang said that the space within the city’s Fifth Ring Road, generally viewed as downtown Beijing, is 670 square kilometers, a mere 4 percent of the municipality’s total land area, but home to almost half of Beijing’s total population.

“Outstanding applicants who have made great contributions to Beijing will have ample opportunity to obtain a hukou,” Wang said. “The quota is likely to be 3,000 in the first year of enforcement, and in 10 or 30 years’ time, the number is likely to rise to 30,000.”

Challenges

Of the other measures adopted by the Beijing government to curb urban population growth, relocating lower-end manufacturing and industrial enterprises, dependent on the cheap labor of migrant workers, has proven the most effective. In 2014, Beijing mayor Wang Anshun announced in a speech that Beijing will strive to be a center of high-end technology, upgrade its industry and “handle what to give up and what to pursue properly.”

In the Blue Book of Urban Competitiveness released by CASS in March 2015, Beijing failed to make the top five list in overall competitiveness nationally, and was poorly ranked in terms of the quality of its labor force and its industrial advantages.

Seemingly in response to this, the latest draft regulation stipulates that hukou applicants working in the manufacturing industry, “specialized regional markets” and polluting industries will face a deduction of six points for each full year of service. Applicants who have pursued higher education and have high incomes and desirable skillsets, however, can earn additional credit.

“It is an obvious punitive measure, unfavorable to lower-end manual laborers,” said Kang Lan, an assistant researcher with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. She said that even if lower-end workers do not meet the high standards set by the government, they have been contributing to the city and also deserve citizenship status.

What worries Kang most is that the new draft regulation may, in her view, bring about serious social problems. She told our reporter that Shanghai used its education system to enforce strict population controls in 2014, forcing 50,000 migrant children to give up their schooling. The policy, she argued, did nothing to prevent migrant workers from coming to the city, but merely meant that their children were sent back to their hometowns, many of them becoming “left-behind children” with minimal adult supervision.

Hou Huili, an associate researcher with CASS’s Institute of Population and Labor Economics, is also worried that, against the backdrop of China’s rapid urbanization, tying hukou to a points-based system in Beijing will cause social fragmentation. “Obtaining a hukou through accruing points is nothing but a nationwide recruitment drive that will further widen the talent gap between developed and underdeveloped regions,” she said.

Hou added that in Shenzhen in 2013 alone, of those who obtained a hukou through the points system, nearly 125,000, 80 percent of the total, held bachelor degrees. This, she told our reporter, meant “a serious brain drain” from the areas these applicants were leaving.

In Beijing’s case, the new policies will primarily benefit high earners and freeze out migrant laborers, according to Yang Juhua, a professor of population studies at Renmin University of China. “The requirement for a migrant worker to pay social insurance for at least seven years is a very high threshold,” she told China Daily.

In a recent survey conducted by China Youth Daily of over 3,000 non-locals living and working in Beijing, 81.6 percent thought that the standards of the points-based hukou system are “too high,” and 59.1 percent of them felt that it was “unlikely” that they would obtain a hukou under the new policy.

Wang Taiyuan, meanwhile, argues that the draft regulation was not unveiled to “address the issue of social justice.” He told NewsChina that educational background is a decisive factor in obtaining a hukou, with the current system awarding 15 points to those with bachelor degrees and 39 points to those with doctorates.

“Experts involved in the drafting of the points system have racked their brains to take into account demands from all sides,” he said. “It is impossible to solve at a stroke all the problems in China’s decades-old household registration system.”

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