“Now Gao Jialin is in a state of ecstasy, what’s that for? As he realized—this time—his coming into the county town, he is no longer a passer-by; he has become one member of the county town.”
These words, were wrote by Chinese writer Lu Yao（路遥）in his novel Life (人生) in 1982. They show protagonist Gao Jialin’s joy at finally transferring his hukou (户口, permanent residence permit) from that of the village to that of a country town (县城, the lowest “city” administrative district in China). Born in a small and poor village, Gao aspired to a better life. Graduating from high school, he had no choice but to return to his hometown. At the time (1959-1978), the Chinese government enforced a strict hukou system, limiting movement within the country, especially between cities and villages.
Using guanxi (关系) and non-legitimate channels Gao manages to get a city hukou and find work. He becomes a city person and begins to live the peaceful urban life. However, his use of unorthodox channels to get the hukou come to light, and his plans unravel as he loses his job.
His girlfriend panics; she loves Gao Jialin sincerely, but doesn’t like the thought of returning to the countryside. So they break-up, with Gao saying :”I knew it’s impossible, I have became a farmer again, we can not live together any more. Besides, you will soon go to Nanjing to work.”However, his girlfriend is willing to make sacrifices for love, saying:”I would like to quit my job! Do not go to Nanjing! I will resign! I would be together with you as a farmer! I can’t live without you…”
In the end Gao returns to the village defeated. It’s unclear whether life makes a joke with him, or he made joke on life. What is clear though is that the harsh hukou system completely changed Gao Jialin’s destiny. And it still does for many today. Although the household registration system is not so strict as it once was, it still has the power to play massive role in people’s lives.
Netizen 凡眼观尘世 said：户籍制度使人从出生的那一刻起就面临不平等。(The hukou system brings about inequality from the moment people are born.)
Why? Because the key point of the hukou is that many public services and social welfare are associated with it.
People believe it’s unfair that they have to work in a city, without the city’s hukou, and can’t enjoy many aspects of social welfare. The current hukou system ignites another issue too, that of education opportunity. As netizen 正能量小健 said：真心酸。户籍制度再不改革，孩子们连学都上不了了。(I feel sad. If we don’t reform the current hukou system, these migrant workers’ children will not even go to school.)
For children of migrant workers, it is difficult to obtain education in a non-permanent region, they have to stay in their hometowns with their old grandparents, which causes social problems, such as teenage crime.
Thus many are concerned about hukou reform. It’s a fuse that lights up many other issues. Hukou reform affects Chinese society as a whole. A comment on the Hukou Network’s weibo reflects on the challenges:
“The new hukou reform is a bigger challenge. In order to achieve a new blueprint for reform of the hukou system, it’s not just a residency change or to replace a identity, it’s not simple like that, acutally, it puts forward higher requirements on the entire community resources, regional balance and urbanization level.”
Anyhow, people are hoping for a fairer hukou system in the future. As Ren Zhiqiang said on his weibo: 放开户籍，让民众自由选择。(Turn the hukou system loose, allow people to choose freely.)
But for the moment Ren’s ideas are a pipe dream and those who fail to get the right hukou will, for now end up like Gao Jialin and just be left behind.
Photo courtesy of CNS