Hukou: The 2,000 year old policy undermining education equality in China.

The Hukou system which underpins university admissions is stunting social mobility in China and deepening the urban/rural divide, says Carson Qi.

Most societal policies dating back 2,000 years have vanished by now, and for good reason. However, the Hukou, China’s household registration system, is a rare exception.  

Hukou was put in place during the feudal Warring States Period (BC 475-221), and assigned people to live in specific places to control their movement and reduce the likelihood of large-scale rebellions. In China today, even though people can, in theory, move around the country freely, the Hukou system presents many challenging hurdles in their lives and influences job searches, children’s education, and medical care.

The Rural/Urban divide

Education resources in China are spread very unevenly with the best schools in urban centres like Beijing and Shanghai. In many provinces, particularly remote ones, schools have worse infrastructure, resources and teaching. When you add to the inequalities in buildings, books, and teachers, and the greater availability of private tutoring and extracurricular activities, the gulf between students in large cities and small provinces is huge. 

The famous college entrance examination that takes place at the end of high school is supposed to be a great leveller. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity for students, regardless of their social class, to attain access to the best institutions, as the score from the 3-day exam is essentially the sole deciding factor for college admission. There is no requirement of extracurricular activities, essays, or teacher recommendations. It is intended as the ultimate exercise in meritocracy. However, it is only fair to a limited extent.  

Beyond the obvious drawbacks of substandard education leading up to the test, universities have different quotas for different provinces, and students are selected based on the relevant rankings in their own province. Within the same province, the competition is by and large fair but there are more university spots allocated to students in big cities (as a percentage of the student population) than other provinces, particularly at the more prestigious universities. 

A longstanding issue

This is not a new phenomenon. When my dad, from Anhui Province, was admitted by Shanghai Jiaotong University (one of the Top 5 Chinese universities) in 1989, he needed a score of 570 (out of 710) across the 7 subjects, compared to his contemporaries in Shanghai and Beijing, who needed 470 and 490 respectively. 

In recent years, Beijing and Shanghai have switched to using their own test papers. This in a way helped quiet the complaints from other provinces by precluding a like for like comparison. However, the stark difference between the admission rate still exists.

Shanghai students were around 12 and a half times more likely to get in.”

In 2016,  Shanghai Jiaotong University admitted around 16 of every 10,000 high school graduates from Shanghai but only around 1.3 in every 10,000 from Anhui Province. That means Shanghai students were around 12 and a half times more likely to get in! This is even more remarkable given that China, unlike the US, has no policy to favor in-state applications. 

Students in Shanghai also enjoy preferential treatment for admission to universities located outside Shanghai. In 2016 they were eight and half times more likely to be accepted to Tsinghua University than a student from Anhui Province.

After Graduation

For those exceptional students from low income families, receiving an admission letter should be a moment of celebration, but all too often it is also one of concern.”

In China, there is no federal, state or commercial student grant/loan system in place. There is some financial assistance offered by colleges but this does not cover tuition plus living expenses. In most scenarios, the money comes from parent savings or generous family members.  Putting a student through college can put families through tremendous financial stress and for some it is just not feasible. 

If and when they graduate, they can expect more barriers to success. Up until 2000, students had to return to their Hukou (registered hometown) to work after graduation from university, with rare exceptions. Only people who possessed a Shanghai or Beijing Hukou were allowed to settle down in the big cities, and getting this status is dependent on things such as education, work experience and income – evaluated through a points system. Out-of-town college students may eventually work in the cities but only after many years of hard work to accumulate adequate Hukou points.

Even though the government has made efforts to address the inequality, the fundamentals of the Hukou system are largely intact.”

For migrant workers in the service or construction industries, it is next to impossible to get a Shanghai Hukou. Therefore, even though they are contributing to the safety, convenience, and prosperity of the city, their children will not be able to enjoy any of the benefits of other Shanghai students.

Hukou is a long-standing and controversial issue in China that has served to embed the rural/urban divide. Even though the government has made efforts to address the inequality, the fundamentals of the Hukou system are largely intact. It is imperative to make drastic changes to the system to ensure social equity and justice. I hope the government will abandon this appalling structure so that all people have the freedom to live, work, and learn without restriction or discrimination.

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Hukou: The 2,000 year old policy undermining education equality in China.

by Carson Qi Reading time: 4 min