The People’s Republic of China (PRC) recently published its seventh national ten-year 2020 Census results, which led to much discussion and commentary about the development implications of low population growth and a rapidly aging population (e.g., China Brief, May 21). Fewer have noted insights that the 2020 Census has provided into the progress of China’s long-awaited reforms to its household registration system (户籍制度, huji zhidu, also known as 户口, hukou) (Weixin, May 12). The system China adopted in 1958, which was similar to the Soviet Union’s residence registration system (propiska), broadly divided all Chinese citizens into a “dual system” (二元制eryuan zhi) that created different systems for urban and rural residents. It was initially used to limit rural-to-urban population movement but was refashioned in the reform era to serve China’s export industrialization.
Although internal migration restrictions were gradually lifted following the period of reform and opening up in the 1980s, the hukou system has continued to determine Chinese citizens’ access to housing, education, and public services. For example, only urban hukou holders have access to urban social benefits or public services. Lacking a local (urban) hukou, China’s large rural migrant population (also known as the “floating population,” or 流动人口 liudong renkou) working and living in cities cannot access most basic public services. As a result, many of the workers that have provided the cheap labor behind decades of manufacturing growth have been effectively disenfranchised. The hukou system poses many problems at present and for the future; despite frequent calls for reform, its continuation points to a difficult path toward building an integrated and equal Chinese society.
Hukou Reform Plan 2014
The Chinese government finally moved to address the hukou reform issue in 2014, when the State Council released the “National New-type Urbanization Plan (2014-2020)” ([国家新型城镇化规划 (2014-2020年)], Guojia Xinxing chengzhenhua guihua) (State Council, March 16, 2014), and a related “State Council Opinion on Further Promoting the Household Registration System Reform” ([国务院关于进一步推进户籍制度改革的意见], Guowuyuan guanyu jinyibu tuijin huji zhidu gaige de yijian) (State Council, July 30, 2014), aiming to close the urban social benefits gap incrementally over the next six years. As a first step, the Plan set a goal of bringing down the “difference” (i.e. the percentage of the floating population), from 17.2 percent in 2012 to 15 percent in 2020. The two documents also stipulated to gradually equalize social benefits for migrants and locals through a resident permit system (居住证, juzhu zheng) and open up hukou conversions in smaller cities while tightening them in mega-cities. The new initiatives left plenty of room for local governments to design their system of granting social benefits, which some chose to do based on a points system that would privilege highly educated or affluent migrants. The 2014 plan represented the most ambitious hukou reform program since its inception in 1958.
Even as China has pursued a city-driven approach to economic development, achieving an urbanization rate of 63.9 percent in 2020 (see Table 1), systemic inequalities between rural and urban residents remain. To overcome these, China will need to gradually reform or even phase out its current hukou system and provide all urban residents (including migrants) with access to social benefits. One way to achieve this would be to accelerate urban hukou conversions so that the size of the population holding urban hukou (urban hukou population, UHP) is the same as that of the urban population (UP). In quantitative terms, the UP% should match the UHP% as a percentage of the national population.
In reality, the UP% and UHP% have diverged continuously since the early 1980s, reaching a gap of about 17.2 percent in 2012 (see Table 1, Column G). This gap is called the “difference between two rates” (两率之差, lianglü zhicha), and is roughly equivalent to the percentage of rural hukou population (RHP) living as “floating population” (FP) in urban areas without social benefits. The 17.2 percent can be conceived of as the “urban social benefits gap,” translating to about 230-240 million urban dwellers without social benefits in 2012. In response to the release of the 2014 hukou reform plan, the author proposed a 15-year program to close this “difference” (Paulson Institute, December 2014).
Table 1: China’s Urban Population, Urban Hukou Population and Floating Population, 2010-2020
Explanation and sources:
Columns D and E use MPS registration data reported in various sources (e.g. for 2020, see Sohu.com, May 10).
Analysis of the 2020 Census Data
To summarize, the “difference” was the single most important metric for measuring the success of the 2014 initiatives in hukou reform. It can be evaluated based on the latest official data from the 2020 Census released by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS, May 11). The latest household registration data published by the Ministry of Public Security shows that the UHP reached 45.4 percent in 2020 (Table 1, Column E), meeting the 2014 Plan’s target (Sohu.com, May 10). However, 2020 Census figures showed a UP% of 63.9 percent (Column C) for last year, resulting in a floating population percentage of 18.5 percent (Column G). This results in a “difference” that exceeds the 15 percent goal set in the 2014 Plan by 3.5 percentage points. Indeed, the 2020 urban social services gap is even higher than the 17.8 percent (RHP%) that was recorded at the end of 2013 when the Plan began, demonstrating that hukou reform has basically stalled according to those figures.
Moreover, the Census also revealed a far larger floating population than expected, recording 376 million Chinese citizens living outside of their hukou residencies in another city or county in 2020 (NBS, May 11). Because the 2020 Census FP figure is the result of a direct and full population survey, it is more accurate than pre-Census UP figures, which are extrapolated from smaller sample surveys such as a 1 percent mini-census taken in 2015 or 0.1 percent annual surveys taken in the mid-to late 2010s (Chinanews.com, May 12). (The UP figures are used to derive the RHP figures, as shown in Table 1). Furthermore, floating population counts derived from sample surveys designed for counting the general population, such as those taken in 2015-2019, often easily undercount migrant populations that are much more mobile than the general population.
It is worth noting that the 2020 Census, which was conducted during pandemic conditions, likely returned more accurate population counts as Chinese citizens’ movements were severely restricted and heavily surveilled due to various lockdown and public health monitoring measures (Weixin, May 11). The nonrespondent rate of the 2020 Census is exceedingly low, at 0.05 percent (Chinanews.com, May 11). Even though the 2020 Census FP figure initially caught many observers by surprise, demographers have now agreed that the recent pre-Census sample surveys seriously undercounted the population, including migrants, and that the 2020 Census numbers are far more accurate (NBS, May 12; Weixin, May 11). Since then, the NBS has also adjusted its pre-Census urban population figures for the 2010s upwards (Zhihu, Jun 5).
What can one make of the large difference between the FP figure (26.6 percent) and the RHP figure (18.5 percent) in 2020? Two different interpretations have been suggested: the first contends that there is continued migration despite the difficulty of getting an urban hukou, implying that hukou residency is becoming less of a barrier to migration. Many cities now offer residence permits to migrants without local hukou, granting partial urban social benefits based on a points system. The benefits of such relaxed policies appear to apply to mostly small and medium cities, where urban social benefits are few, and hukou-based discrimination occurs less. But in the megacities that attract the most migrants, the situation is quite different.
This leads to the second interpretation, which holds that the old “cheap migrant labor” model—in which migrants can come to work in urban areas but they cannot access social benefits, especially in “first tier” megacities (i.e., Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen) that have better job and education opportunities— still prevails. These cities continue to exploit a large pool of cheap labor (in relative terms—although migrants’ wages are rising, so are urban living costs). The new residence permit system in these cities scores migrants by a variety of social and economic factors and use the scores to distribute partial urban social benefits, including public education. Only a small group of highly educated and affluent migrants is qualified for most benefits, and the residency relaxations exclude the vast majority of migrants (Dong and Goodburn 2019). This has further stratified urban society and exacerbated long-term social problems.
Although researchers will need to await the release of more detailed data to analyze what has happened in the last few years, the 2020 Census clearly indicates that the population of migrant workers—either represented by the FP figure released by the NBS or by RHP calculations—is higher than the target set by the 2014 Plan. This lends strong support to the author’s contention that China’s hukou reform has stalled and arguably even regressed. In the inter-censual period, the migrant percentage exploded from 16.5 percent in 2010 to 26.6 percent in 2020, representing an increase of 156 million FP in that decade. Put another way, the social benefits gap in the cities has widened considerably in the last ten years despite pledges to narrow it in the 2014 Plan.
These metrics aside, research on the children of migrants provides further indications that China’s hukou reforms have not succeeded. A litmus test of the hukou reform progress is whether or not ordinary migrants—not just the highly educated “talents” or wealthy that benefit from residence permits—have greater access to urban social benefits. A critical benefit to most migrant families is whether their children can access education at the destination, the lack of which often forces parents to send their kids back home, turning them into “left-behind children” (LBC, 留守儿童, liushou ertong). With no or only partial parental care close by, LBC face many problems in their nurturing and education, which is a highly troubling situation with serious long-term consequences (Caixin, June 26, 2015). Although there are no comparable LBC population figures yet from the 2020 Census to make a definitive judgment, the author’s earlier research has shown that the LBC population increased from less than 70 million in 2010 to 88 million in 2015, making up about one third of China’s total children population. Between 2010 and 2015, the migrant children population in Shanghai and Beijing decreased by 34-40 percent despite continued FP growth. Reports have also shown that children of migrants in megacities face greater difficulties in school enrollment in recent years, likely fueling the growth of the LBC population nationwide (Xin Gongmin Jihua, March 25).
The gap between the UP% and UHP% has persisted and widened in the last few years. Many of the reform measures in the 2014 Plan turned out to be largely cosmetic or were usurped by local governments for other purposes (Sohu.com, December 28, 2018).The disadvantaged floating population has continued to grow rapidly, reaching 376 million in 2020. There remains much to be done in reforming the hukou system.
Kam Wing Chan is Professor of Geography at the University of Washington. He is the author of Cities with Invisible Walls: Reinterpreting Urbanization in Post-1949 China (1994), and Urbanization with Chinese Characteristics (2018). His research focuses on China’s urbanization, migration, spatial economy and the hukou (household registration) system.
 Kam Wing Chan and Yanning Wei. 2019. “Two Systems in One Country: The Origin, Functions, and Mechanisms of the Rural-Urban Dual System in China.” Eurasian Geography and Economics, 60(4): 422-454.
 The UHP statistics are household registration data kept by the Ministry of Public Security (MPS); the UP data are collected by the National Bureau of Statistics (NPS) through direct surveys (censuses and sample surveys).
 Note that RHP refers to those with rural (agricultural) hukou. RHP and FP overlap a great deal, but strictly speaking they are not the same. For details, see Kam Wing Chan, 2019. “China’s Hukou System at 60: Continuity and Reform,” in Ray Yep, June Wang, Thomas Johnson (eds.) Edward Elgar Handbook on Urban Development in China, Edward Elgar, pp.59-79.
 Rosealea Yao. “The Urbanization Surprise,” GavekalDragonomics Ideas, June 7, 2021.
 Kam Wing Chan and Yuan Ren. 2018. “Children of Migrants in China in the 21st Century: Trends, Living Arrangements, Age-gender Structure, and Geography.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 59 (2): 133–163.