From 2016 to 2020, China has been carrying a five-year project of hukou reform, granting urban hukous to rural-to-urban migrants. The hukou system was initiated in 1958 to control the movement of the Chinese population. Each Chinese citizen is assigned either a rural or urban hukou, depending on their residency. It is noteworthy that Chinese citizens cannot hold both a rural and urban hukou simultaneously. This has caused major problems for the estimated 262 million rural workers in urban areas nationwide.
The five-year project has sought to convert rural hukous to urban ones to help rural Chinese to succeed in urban areas. As the project comes to an end, it is important to analyse whether hukou conversion – loosening the requirements to change a rural hukou to urban hukou – is conducive to rural Chinese citizens’ educational and social success, in order to understand if another similar five-year project is necessary.
The Loosening of Rural-to-Urban Hukous
Those in possession of a rural hukou can only gain access to state benefits designated for rural Chinese communities, including the provision of nine-year compulsory education, subsidised post-secondary education, and basic healthcare. When rural Chinese people migrate to urban spaces, they are ineligible for any benefits or opportunities allocated to urban Chinese communities. Existing studies revealed these rural hukou holding migrants often struggle in urban areas to access benefits. They also lack a familial guanxi in urban areas, a complex matrix of social connections and networks, characterised by the existence of mutual trust and ties between two or more people.
Since the 1980s, the Chinese Government has begun loosening the requirements necessary to obtain an urban hukou. Entering higher education, securing an urban job, and joining military forces are among the factors that enable the conversion. Rural citizens achieving one of these factors are given the opportunity to change their rural hukous into urban hukous, resulting in the entitlement to an urban identity and enjoyment of welfare designated for urban citizens.
However, even if rural Chinese youths successfully earn university degrees and covert their rural hukous into urban hukous, their lack of metropolitan guanxi leaves them more vulnerable in the job market. For those coming from villages, they often fail to accrue social capital in cities due to several reasons. For example, many are not accepted by urban social groups as they are perceived as second-class, rural-origin citizens despite their conversion of hukou status. These rural-origin citizens encounter more professional barriers, relative to their urban-origin counterparts. The Chinese Social Situation Analysis and Prediction (2014) estimated that 30.5% of university graduates with a rural hukou were unemployed two months after graduation, compared with only 17.6% of university graduates with an urban hukou. This results in intergenerational immobility because skilled jobs and jobs with better working conditions can hardly be accessed by rural cohorts.
Barriers Facing Rural Chinese Youth
China has entrenched spatial inequalities in education, as education resources are disproportionately distributed to urban populations. Studies revealed that prospective teachers were reluctant to work in rural schools due to inferior conditions and less competitive salaries. Consequently, rural schools were forced to hire permanent teachers with less impressive educational backgrounds, who often taught subjects which that were not their area of expertise. Regional disparities in socio-geographical capital, including teaching quality and facilities, are contributing factors to the underrepresentation of rural Chinese youths in higher education. The Chinese Government is less willing to invest in public services development, including education, in rural China due to poor financial return. In the majority of impoverished rural regions, existing literature argues that local governments impose surtaxes and a variety of fees for social welfare access, including the access to education. This prevents families facing significant financial difficulties from sending their children to school.
Additional findings suggested that there is a profound rural-urban disparity in university graduation rates and long-term salary returns. While higher educational qualifications and salaries do not necessarily indicate upward social mobility, the possession of sociogeographical capital, particularly an urban hukou, is positively related to better career prospects and increased chances of Party membership, two important determinants of social mobility. Elite urban Chinese parents often utilise their sociopolitical capital, including guanxi enjoyed within a political cluster, to help children gain admission to top-tier universities and find jobs after graduation. The possession of an urban hukou and of educational, professional, and political privileges play a crucial role in the creation and maintenance of upward mobility. These privileges suggest why a decision to loosen the requirements necessary to obtain an urban hukou may be an important facilitator of educational and social mobility.
The Chinese Government has invested heavily in education from 1.85% of GDP in 1996 to 4.26% of GDP in 2016. However, investment alone will be insufficient to improve education nationwide. Rural Chinese youths face significant disadvantages with regard to post-compulsory education admission and urban job attainment. In order to enhance spatial equalities in education nationwide and raise rural economic growth, the Chinese Government should continue to loosen the requirement for hukou conversion in the 2020s.