Migrant workers ride on a motorized tricycle through a crossing in Beijing. Reuters/Jason Lee

China plans to ease residency restrictions for the 250 million-plus workers flowing into its urban areas. Will the changes be a burden or a boon?

China is currently home to the largest migration in human history, with hundreds of millions of people moving from rural areas into cities in search of a better life. That “better” life, however, has proven hard to grasp—especially when a lack of residency status in those cities means migrants can’t access public services like health care and education.

But the government’s latest move may finally provide some relief to the more than 250 million migrants across the country. Starting January 1, 2016, every city will be required to provide residency status and basic public services to anyone who’s lived, worked, or studied in that city for at least six months. Those who hold residency permits may eventually apply for hukou, or permanent residency, which would grant them access to the same services that local residents have. (The new regulation doesn’t apply to day laborers, however.)

The new policy is a compromise between migrants and permanent residents, who have pushed back in the past on sharing their city’s resources with “outsiders,” says Fei-Ling Wang, an expert on the history of China’s hukou system at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “Essentially, it’s a fairness issue,” he tells CityLab. “Those ‘outsiders’ are actually the wealth creators for cities. They work very hard and put in a lot of effort and they don't take much.” In that sense, he adds, they live much like undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

In some cities—especially the densely populated, more prosperous ones such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen—tougher conditions mean it will still be hard for migrants to obtain hukou. Some cities, for example, use rigorous point systems that evaluate applicants based on things like skill level, employment status, educational background, and criminal records.

But at the very least, some migrants can finally see local doctors rather than having to go to one back in their distant home town. And instead of living underground in storage facilities and bomb shelters, they may finally be allowed to own a home. It also means that in some cities, they can send their children to a public school in the city instead of leaving them behind in the countryside.

With China’s economy in a slump, the move is a plus for the government, too. The promise of better living conditions might attract rural migrants to smaller cities, which have been pushing out housing subsidies and tax waivers in attempt to grow their population. That will not only boost local economies, but it will also alleviate pressure on larger, overcrowded cities.

That’s the hope, anyway.

Although the new regulations make residency a requirement, it’s up to the local governments to decide what public services to provide. “We have to wait and see how this will be implemented,” Wang says, adding that while some cities have made serious efforts in the past, it’s still “empty talk” in others.

Wang expects some cities to create their own “city walls” by making the conditions of getting local residency more stringent. Once migrants are granted residency, he adds, the public services available to them may largely be watered down. “[Cities] don't want to grant them equal status just yet because that requires huge amount of resources,” he says. “Chinese official media will give you the impression that the hukou system is replaced, [and that] everybody now has equal treatment, which is not true.”

The main challenge is that this is a mandate without funding. Ideally, for example, the regulation would allow parents to send their children to a school in the city. But across the country, there are 61 million left-behind children. “You’re talking about suddenly a huge influx of children to local schools, and how many cities can sustain that?” asks Wang.

In a worst-case (but possible) scenario, the mandate will be suspended following pushback from current urban hukou-holders. That’s happened before just over the last decade or so.

Still, Wang calls it a step in the right direction. “I think people these days are probably more rights conscious, and so are the migrants. So this time maybe they will push through, as well.”

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