(Apologies: internet too weak for photos)
We are in Shanghai, our last city in China before we depart on the container ship day-after-tomorrow. Joe is under the weather and “wiped out,” so I am the one at the computer. Today I am going to write about a couple of very interesting topics and teach you some Chinese at the same time. The two topics are actually related in an indirect way.
The first topic is the hukuo, a person’s official place of residency. Your hukuo is stated on the “identity card” which each Chinese person carries. The interesting thing is that very often (for city-dwellers) this is not where you actually reside. Thus, because of the massive movement to cities in recent years, the official statistics on how many residents there are in certain urban places is incorrect (in Beijing and Shanghai understated by millions of people), and the population of rural areas is greatly overstated. Consequently planning for municipal services, especially schools, has lagged.
What is particularly puzzling for an American is the way that a person’s hukuo is determined. The system dates back to imperial times when the emperors wanted to count people for tax collection. Your hukuo is determined by your parents’ hukuo, not where you yourself are born. For example, both my parents were born in Georgia, so I am officially a resident of Georgia according to the Chinese system (for life, without very complicated paperwork to change it). You can change your hukuo to the place where you live, but only if you own property there and have a job there. (I believe you may also have to be married; I am not sure about that one.) Many (most) young people in their 20s and 30s cannot meet these requirements, because apartments are incredibly expensive in the cities, so they usually rent a place and double up just like they do at home.
Not having a correct hukuo is not very important when you are young and unmarried, but it becomes very important after you marry and have a kid. That is because (as I indicated) your child’s hukuo is determined by yours. (If parents have different hukuos then they can choose which to assign to their child; until about 15 years ago the hukuo was always assigned according to the mother’s hukuo (kind of like Judaism where the officials can never be sure of the paternity but they know the maternity for sure!)
If you live in a city, schools are in short supply and especially what are considered “good” schools. (This is where the two topics of the day relate, which will become evident in a minute.) When you register your child for school, they can only go to the local public school if they have the hukuo for that municipality. If you are a low income migrant from a rural area, and cannot afford to buy property, you likely will have to send your child back to your home village to live with your parents or relatives so that they can go to school. Wealthier parents can pay very high fees to send their child to a good primary school (either public or private), or can afford to buy an apartment and change the hukuo.
Until the big changes about 30 years ago, people were not allowed to travel outside their place of residency, even within China. The changes were made to allow workers to travel for jobs, but the other consequence has been there are millions of Chinese now traveling for pleasure. It has taken this long for it to build up into a huge internal tourist enterprise, since people now have more vacation time (three mandatory weeks off) and they have more money to travel.
There are reasons why you might not want to give up your rural hukuo. When land reform happened under the Communists, village farmland, which had previously been owned by large landowners, was divided up into small plots and given to the village families. Later, all land was collectivized into large state-owned farms. After the Great Leap Forward and the associated famine, the land was again re-allocated back to the smaller plots.
While farmland is still owned by the state (as is all the land in China), families have the right to farm their land as long as their lease exists. (The leases are usually for 50 years, but we have heard different amounts of time, and we hare told “nobody knows what will happen with these leases run out; they haven’t told us.”) When families were large, two generations ago, these plots were divided into sub-plots, often very small. The rights to farm are passed down in the family.
You can only keep the right to your farmland if you have a rural hukuo for the village where it is located. The land can be valuable, sometimes very valuable. If the government decides to use that land for building, they will buy out your lease. There are many “rich farmers” on the outskirts of cities. If you do not want to farm your land you can lease it out to another farmer. There are now private companies that are putting together larger plots of agricultural land (which makes sense because farming such small plots can be inefficient) through multiple sub-leases. So keeping your plot can give you extra income. For this reason, a “mixed” couple might leave one parent’s hukuo in the village and give the child an urban hukuo through the other parent.
Health benefits are better for rural residents, in that it is cheaper to buy government-sponsored health insurance if you have a rural hukuo. This is another incentive to keep your rural residency, although you would have to return home to get health services (which are not considered to be as good). This resembles the Indian Health Service benefits and other aspects of tribal citizenship in the U.S.
The One Child Policy is tied up with the hukuo system. It has always been the case that a rural couple can legally have a second child if their first child is a girl. Of course the child would have a rural hukuo for sure! If you have a child illegally (outside the One Child Policy) that child does not get a hukuo at all until you pay a fine, which can be three times your annual salary. This is particularly hard to do for an unmarried mother. (Children of unmarried mothers are illegal.) So there are millions of “undocumented” children without an identity card, who cannot register for school or get any other benefits without it.
Are you confused or dismayed yet?
The next word I will teach you is gaokao, but only briefly because I am over my word budget for this blog post.
The gaokao is the annual college entrance exam, which occurs each June (it was last week) and ties Chinese families up in knots. These exams are the modern version of the Confucian exam system going back a thousand years. In those annual exams highly educated people were selected to work as officials in the imperial court on a merit basis. The gaokao has many similarities in that it is highly selective and is regularly corrupted.
Chinese primary and junior high schools are free (if you have the right hukuo), and are widely thought to be good quality, especially for literacy and numeracy. Then at about age 14 there is a first round of exams that determine which high school you can go to. This is where the intense selectivity comes into the system. There are “good high schools” and “not-so-good high schools.” If you do not get into a good high school your chances of going to a top university are close to nil. You can only apply to a high school that matches your hukuo, and the good high schools are in the cities, cutting out rural students from the best education after junior high. In Hangzhou, a medium sized Chinese city of 10 million, there are only 12 “good high schools” that admit only 45 people each per class per year, so a small fraction of those who want to attend.
Life for a highly motivated Chinese young person is very hard. There is lots of pressure. You are usually an only child, and so you must fulfill all the dreams of your parents and grandparents. You might not get into a high school near your home, so the commute can be up to 2 hours each way (or you stay in a dorm during the week). You might begin studying (“prep classes”) by 7 am, and then after school—which ends at 4 or 5—you have more studying, often ending at 11 pm. The lives of these young people are nothing like those of the typical U.S. high school student, who spends some time each day “hanging out” and “having fun.”
At about age 17 you take the gaokao, a three day exam of multiple subjects including (for everyone who aspires to go to college): Chinese, English (everyone!), math, geography, and history. There are three more subjects according to your expected major. The scores on these exams are the single factor determining which university you will be admitted to. We were told there are only 20 “good universities” in the country, many fewer than in the U.S., although our population is a third of China’s. If you do not get into one of those top schools, your chance at a good job, especially a job in government or a top private industry, is slim, and your parents and grandparents will be extremely disappointed. Hence the pressure. There is a lot of dissatisfaction with this system, since it cuts out a lot of talent early in life, but no serious reforms as yet.
I’m stopping here because I’m way over my “word budget.” Now you have expanded your Chinese vocabulary by two words!