choosing a hukou

February 13th, 2009

Here’s an interesting story: A family in Shunyi is upset because their township family planning office won’t let them register their child with an agricultural hukou (户口, residence registration). They want their child to have an agricultural registration because that will allow him to benefit from more favourable policies.


Village baby has difficulty getting village residence registration


Villager from Liqiao Township, Shunyi District not satisfied; local family planning bureau says non-agricultural registration encouraged, not forced


When a villager in Liqiao Township, Shunyi District was processing his child’s residence registration, he was notified by the township Family Planning Office that he could only enter a non-agricultural residence registration. Villager Mr Sun believes an agricultural residence registration can enjoy more favourable policies, and this rule is unreasonable. A worker at the local family planning department says that at present they encourage but do not force new borns to take a non-agricultural residence registration, and besides, “before plenty of people in this kind of situation entered a non-agricultural residence registration.”




Child refused agricultural residence registration


Villager Mr Sun of Liqiao Township, Shunyi District called this newspaper’s hotline saying that he and his wife both had Beijing agricultural residence registrations, and wanted their child to enter an agricultural residence registration. When they went to the township Family Planning Office to undertake the procedures last week, a worker informed them that according to the rules the child’s residence registration could only be entered as non-agricultural, otherwise it would not be processed.


“From earlier enquiries, taking an agricultural or non-agricultural residence registration were all ok.” Mr Sun believes that since both parents have agricultural residence registrations, any child they have should be able to enter an agricultural residence registration. Agricultural residence registrations can enjoy many policies benefiting rural areas, and the township’s rule is unreasonable.


Family Planning Office


Parents can freely choose their child’s residence registration


A worker from the Shunyi District Population and Family Planning Commission explained that in order to speed urbanisation, the district set a policy to encourage the registration of new borns as non-agricultural. According to Mr Sun’s situation, he can freely choose to register his child as “agricultural” or “non-agricultural”.


A worker from the Liqiao Township Family Planning Office said they were already aware of Mr Sun’s situation. The township had in fact put out a document advocating the registration of new borns as “non-agricultural”, but this was not a compulsory requirement. There was no need for Mr Sun to worry, non-agricultural residence registrations enjoy favourable policies and will not receive any less than agricultural residence permits.


“If he moves, what will he do about the earlier one?” This worker said that before many people in this kind of situation have all already entered a non-agricultural residence registration. If Mr Sun takes an agricultural residence registration, it could cause many problems. At present the Family Planning Office is talking things over with Mr Sun, “We’re doing all we can to think of a way to solve this for him.”


A worker from the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau Population Management Office said that as both parents had Beijing agricultural residence registrations, they can freely choose an “agricultural” or “non-agricultural” residence permit for the child.

■ 说法

■ Opinion


Villager: Many advantages to agricultural residence permit

顺义区李桥镇村民孙先生认为,农业户口比非农业户口得到的好处要多。如果孩子入了非农业户口,村里分配宅基地和耕地时将不再有份;现有 的房屋和土地,孩子继承时会面临问题;自家房屋或土地拆迁,孩子拿到的补偿费用会减少。村集体收益分成、各级政府给予农村的各项补贴和优惠政策等,非农业 户口也都不能享受。

Liqiao Township, Shunyi District villager Mr Sun believes that an agricultural residence registration will bring many more benefits than a non-agricultural one. If the child enters a non-agricultural residence registration. If the child takes a non-agricultural residence registration, then when the village is alloting land for housing or cultivation, he won’t be alloted any. With the current house and land, when the child inherits it, he’ll run into problems. If his own family’s house or land are demolished or moved, the child will get less compensation. When the village’s collective profits are distributed or with subsidies and favourable policies from every level of government, those with non-agricultural residence registrations will get nothing.

First up, it seems fairly clear to me that there’s been some serious miscommunication between Mr Sun and his township Family Planning Office, quite possibly compounded by an overzealous local official.

But what a curious attitude! Sure, Mr Sun raises some real issues with housing, land and inheritance, and sure, we’re going to see more and more subsidies and other favourable policies extended to rural areas and farmers, but the countryside is slowly emptying out, has been for years. Rural schools are seeing their students disappear into townships, county towns and cities with better educational opportunities. Young rural people, regardless of whether they’re registered as “agricultural” or “non-agricultural”, are flooding into urban areas.

And in my experience, admittedly limited to two clans (Ma’s and Ba’s) mostly in Yanqing (but with still one or two of Ma’s clan staying in the ancestral village in Huailai), I cannot think of any rural parent I’ve met who wants their child to till the soil. Nor can I think of any rural child who wants to farm. lzh, her brother (her generation was born at a time when rural families in Beijing were legally allowed two children) and all her cousins are either studying or working in at least the county town, if not Beijing or other cities, in fields decidedly non-agricultural- fields as diverse as taxi driving, medicine, construction, translation and editing, casual labour… But nothing agricultural.

In fact, I sent lzh the link to this story, and her response was similar to mine (taken off MSN):


So funny


Before everybody grabbed non-agricultural residence registrations


Now it’s the opposite

Indeed, her parents made sure to get non-agricultural residence registrations for her and her brother.

And yet Mr Sun wants his child to be able to till the land. Most curious indeed.

Has anybody else out there familiar with rural China come across this kind of attitude? Or does your experience match mine?

Update: He’s still being refused an agricultural residence registration– and the plot thickens. Apparently all villages in the district are required to have 100% of rural newborns register as non-agricultural. But nobody’s being forced to take a non-agricultural residence registration. No, I don’t get it either, and nor does Mr Sun.

12 Responses to “choosing a hukou”

  1. China Journal : Best of the China Blogs: February 13 Says:

    […] birth, most parents would prefer to avoid the stigma that comes with a rural classification. But one pair of parents in a Beijing suburb sees greater benefits flowing to rural residents, and tried to have their child […]

  2. light487 Says:

    Hrmm.. I can see what you are saying in that it makes sense for the family to want more than farming for their child but if everyone leaves farming then there will be noone left to grow food or natural resources and will make China even more dependant on imports from other countries.

    In Australia there are many people who “toil the soil” and the economy is much more stable for it. These natural resources can even be exported to other countries and make money from that.

    Also there is the case of inheritance that has been brought up. This concept is not unique to Chinese farmers and is a solid tradition in many farming communities worldwide so I can understand the parents’ concern when it comes to the child inheriting the land and then because of their non-ag designation, their house and land would be maybe treated differently in local political and financial planning, not to mention farmers’ rights etc.

    Sure its great to push for urbanisation for lots of people but not everyone does choose urban and are content with rural. It may not seem as exciting and shiny as living urban lifestyles but it still counts.

  3. wangbo Says:

    Light 487, good points, all, but you have to remember there are fundamentally different social, economic and technological factors involved here. Farming in China is still very much the old-fashioned, low-tech, labour intensive peasant style, in which a village’s land is parcelled out to each family in small lots, not the large-scale, high-tech, low labour intensity of Aussie or Kiwi style farming.

    Take my parents in law as an example: They have a small plot of apple trees up at the base of the mountains, a patch where they grow veges and grapes closer in to the village, and another small plot where they grow corn down on the other side of the highway. The other villagers, most of whom are farmers, have a similar sort of set-up. In addition to their fruit and crops, my father in law has a small herd of sheep- about 50 head- kinda small scale compared to what we’re used to in Aus and NZ, eh? They’re kept in the courtyard in the mornings and taken out to graze in the afternoons- during which time Ba has to be very careful they don’t eat the neighbours crops. See, there’s just no space for an Aussie or Kiwi style farmer to leave the sheep out to graze one paddock, then move them on to the next at the appropriate time. Sure, you could do that in Inner Mongolia, but if you travel through rural northern China, you’ll see this scene fairly often, old man with a few sheep grazing around the edges of the fields and among the roadside trees.

    If China had a largely urbanised industry- and service-based economy a la Aus and NZ, then sure, it would make a lot of sense for Mr Sun to make sure his child’s inheritance was secured. But as it is, farming in China means intense labour the old-fashioned, unmechanised way for very little financial return and basically zero security.

    The last paragraph of your comment suggests you think I’m some big city-slicker sneering at country life. I’m not. I actually prefer life out in my in laws’ village- but then again, I don’t have to work the land up there. Many people do prefer rural life, and good on them, but let’s not kid ourselves- rural China is a hard, hard life.

  4. light487 Says:

    Ahh.. yes, I see what you mean. I wasn’t aware of the conditions of rural farming in China. I knew it wouldn’t have been the same as Australia/NZ of course but wasn’t aware of the extent of it. Thanks for clarifying that.

    I didn’t intend the last paragraph to come across in that way, it was more of a conclusion paragraph to what I was saying.. it’s the journalist in my blood that makes me tie up my posts with a quick summary. :)

  5. wangbo Says:

    Journalists in your blood? Sounds uncomfortable…. Nah, it occured to me that maybe I’d sent out the wrong signals re rural life. Good thing about comments is they make you rethink what you first wrote and clarify what you may have fluffed.

  6. Ji Village News Says:

    That’s pretty interesting.

    Oh, the days when I longed to be a 非农业. Dad was a 公办教师, but Mom was not. Before I was 10, there was one wave of 给民办教师转正. Part of the process requires a physical. My mom had high blood pressure, and some people said drinking some vinegar or eating celery could lower blood pressure temporarily before the physical. Not sure if it was true or not, but Mom didn’t do it. I fumed a bit, internally. We finally achieve non-agricultural status around 1984.

  7. wangbo Says:

    I was hoping you could shed some light on the subject. Now the system seems even more byzantine than I already thought…

  8. Ji Village News Says:

    Hey Chris, I’ve been in my periodic funk lately, slowly climbing out of it.

    Anyway, this whole 农业/非农业 thing can be a great subject for an excellent sociology book, in my view. Growing up in the 70s, the differences between the 2 classes were huge: we are talking about if one needs to do hard manual labor toiling in the field; if one has half of Saturday and all Sunday for oneself and his/her family; if one has access to electricity, running water, somewhat furnished housing (brick houses or even multi-story apartment buildings) versus a thatched hut, some kind of library, parks, community center (青少年宫) for oneself and the child(ren), and on and on. In other words, the difference between an agrarian and a modern life.

    And the system works in interesting ways: both parents need to be non-agricultural for the family and children to attain that status. For example, in my family, Dad was 非农业 but Mom was not, so we were not but we could clearly see Dad’s non-agricultural colleagues at 枣庄四中 and other schools and one of my aunt’s family living what we considered a high-flying life style. As I alluded in one of my posts commenting your 父母称谓 question, there are even subtle differences in languages the two classes speak.

    Another interesting dynamic is that for a family with one non-agricultural parent, that status can be inherited by only one of the children, what is commonly known as 接班, when the child reaches working age and the parent retires. Say Dad works in a factory or a coal mine(my city is fairly big in coal producing. Check out 铁道游击队 for some interesting historical background, also something that made Zaozhuang famous), when Dad retires, only one child can go to the said factory or coal mine to work, acquiring non-agricultural status for him/herself in the process. I am not too sure if a non-agricultural teacher can pass that to one child, because 师范学校 training is needed for that position.

    It seemed, I could be wrong on this, that the class status stigma carried over to the 80后 generation, or even 90后, which surprised me somewhat. I read in my hometown’s newspaper that some villages in my hometown have built their own community centers with 乒乓球室, 台球室, books, newspaper and magazines, which is really encouraging to me.

    I’ve thought about writing a post in Chinese called 尴尬风流, to describe some of that experience and what I learned from it, if only I can force myself to grab a pen, put it on a notepad, and start writing!

  9. wangbo Says:

    Ah, Mr Ji, everybody’s allowed a funk every now and then, nothing wrong with that. Thanks for two awesome comments. The beauty of blogging is just how much you learn. Up till now, basically all I’ve known of the hukou system has come from my wife, and here you are doubling my understanding. Thanks, mate.

    But it seems to me there must be variations across the provinces. My parents in law are both 农业, while my wife and her brother, born in the early 80s about the time you finally got your 非农业, are both 非农业. Maybe that’s the benefit of being under Beijing Municipality’s jurisdiction? I don’t know.

    As for class- yeah, I remember that comment, you’re good at leaving top-quality comments from which I learn a lot. Trouble for me is that apart from an uncle, aunt and cousin and cousin’s wife and son in the county town- uncle and cousin working in the power company, cousin’s wife a nurse, aunt totally illiterate housewife- oh, almost forgot: and a cousin, her son and de facto husband who are itinerant labourers based in the county town (he just went down to Zhejiang, which flies in the face of everything I’ve been reading about the economy!)- everybody I know outside the city is either a farmer or farmer’s child, right at the bottom end of the social ladder.

    But I can appreciate what you’re saying about class here, if from a somewhat odd perspective. For one, I get really irritated with my (affluent, urban for the most part) students using 农民 as an expletive. Secondly, you have in the past said that Yanqing County seems quite well developed- and you’re right, it is. I have also, from the comfort of a nice, modern bus speeding along the highway, seen villages in the Taihangshan that, apart from the huge piles of coal next to the local powerplant or the vividly coloured river, looked little changed from the fall of the Yuan Dynasty. And then visiting my mother in law’s home village in Huailai County, wow- 20 li up the road, and 20 years into the past. Even comparing my uncle and aunt’s apartment in the county town with the two rooms my cousin rents on the edge of the town with the farmhouses the rest of my extended family in law is instructive, to say the least.

    Our village hasn’t yet built any community centres that I’ve heard of, but the village temples were refurbished two years ago (first time I saw them they were literally in ruins, now they’re back in a reasonably decent state) and outdoor parks/leisure areas/exercise/sport grounds have appeared, with benches to sit on, a pavillion or two, and maybe some basketball hoops or other exercise equipment. I think this is all part of the building of the “new socialist countryside”, and I assume that’s part of what’s behind the community centres you’re seeing down in Shandong.

    Coal, huh. That’s a fragrance burned into my memory from my time in Shanxi. When I went to Linfen towards the end of last year, I stepped off the plane and, yep, I’m back in Shanxi. The whiff of coal on the air gave me almost a homecoming kind of feeling.

    铁道游击队! Mate! I spent many a happy evening watching the modern TV series that summer I had to spend out in Changping. That and the local beer seller and my neighbour were the only good things about Changping. Love that, and I’ve been wanting to get my hands on the original film ever since. Actually, a few months back I came across a selection of old comics which included 铁道游击队 and 小兵张嘎, but the price wasn’t good, so I walked away but the bastard didn’t chase me with a better price. I’ve regretted that ever since.

    But once again, mate, thanks. You’re comments contribute immeasurably to my understanding of this country.

  10. Ji Village News Says:

    Thanks mate. This is a fun and engaging discussion.

    You know, it was really fun meeting Price Roy last week in Washington DC. I’ve been following him for a while. I feel some day we will meet too. Too bad my upcoming China trip does not bring me to Beijing.

  11. wangbo Says:

    Next time you’re in Beijing I’ll take you out for a beer… or a baijiu, depending on whether it’s summer or winter.

  12. light487 Says:

    Hey there Wobang and Mr Ji. Thanks for putting things into perspective for me on this topic. I guess its easy to imagine the good side of things but equally as easy to leave out the bad things even though you know they are there.