Rural Development and the Hukou System in China

Written by Luna Lee as part of an assignment for the Polson Institute’s 2019 visiting faculty program course, “Inclusive Rural Development”, taught by Rural Sociologist Bettina Bock.

The hukou system is the household registration system in China. Originally created in 1958, the system intends to control population within China and to ensure adequate agricultural production. Citizens are identified by either rural or urban hukou; with urban residents receiving social benefits that are far superior to that of their rural counterparts. Rural residents on the other hand are given land on which they could farm on. Over time, this system has created a socioeconomic inequality in Chinese society. Urban residents tend to harvest the socio-economic benefits of access to education, and the urban and rural divide grows larger. Essentially, the hukou system is an example of institutional exclusion, with political, economic and social implications (Wang, 2005).

Over the past forty years, China has undergone massive industrialization in cities. As a result, many rural citizens have migrated to the cities in search of work. Unfortunately, as social benefits are attached to their rural citizenships, migrant workers in China are unable to access social services in cities. Even though migrant workers contribute significantly to the urbanization and economy of the country, they live as second-class citizens in urban areas. In the rural areas, left-behind elderly and children are dependent on remittances and increasingly abandon farming as a way of life. Farming is also unattractive due to the low profitability of agriculture as government subsidies are geared towards larger scale agriculture. As a result, agricultural output has been reduced, threatening food security, a sensitive issue in China. The rural to urban migration has also increased the population in cities tremendously, leading to the imbalance in population between rural and urban. In 2014, there were approximately 274 million migrant workers in China, which is 20% of its population.

In light of its failure in achieving both of its original goals, the Chinese government has been attempting to reform the hukou system as well as other associated systems. Most notably, significant reforms have been made to the land tenure system in order to consolidate rural lands for intensive agricultural production (Ye, 2015), and efforts have been made that allow rural citizens access to more benefits in cities (Andreas & Zhan, 2015). However, the application of reform is uneven across different provinces of China and the rural-versus-urban duality is still very much a part of the Chinese political economy (Wang, 2005).

In order to reduce rural marginalization and increase territorial cohesion between rural and urban China, interests and values of the different stakeholder groups must be considered. Due to sensitive social and political reasons, the hukou system is largely thought of as something that is here to stay (Wang, 2005). However, the Chinese government could make improvements to the system as well as other policies and programs. Citizens should be allowed to switch between rural and urban citizenships. Doing so will satisfy the government’s desire to maintain control on population flow, but at the same time giving its citizens a choice.

In order for this to be successful, due to the existing rural and urban divide, the Chinese government would need to ensure rural benefits are improved. It will need to provide supportive tax policies and agricultural subsidies to maintain farming as an attractive and important way of life. In addition, the government should also provide marketing structures that will allow for effective rural and urban circular exchanges when it comes to agricultural products, increasing the household income of rural peasant farmers while maintaining a steady flow of agricultural products for the entire country. Increasing rural income will also lead to better social services in rural areas. By increasing the quality of life in rural areas, there will be less of a need for rural citizens to migrate to cities in search of better livelihood. It is unclear, however, how the decrease in rural to urban migration will impact the economic development in cities, though as far as food security is concerned, urban citizens will benefit from having access to safe food that ensures the health of the environment, given the low environmental footprint of peasant agriculture. If implemented correctly, it has the potential of decreasing rural marginalization and ensuring territorial cohesion between rural and urban areas.


Andreas, J., & Zhan, S. (2015). Hukou and land: market reform and rural displacement in China Hukou and land: market reform and rural displacement in China. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 43.

Bock, B., Osti, G., & Ventura, F. (2016). Rural Migration and New Patterns of Exclusion and Integration in Europe. In M. Shucksmith & D. L. Brown (Eds.), Routledge International Handbook of Rural Studies (1st ed., pp. 71–84). New York: Routledge. Retrieved from

Ploeg, J. D. van der, & Ye, J. (2016). China’s peasant agriculture and rural society : changing paradigms of farming. Routledge. Retrieved from

Wang, F.-L. (2005). Organizing through division and exclusion : China’s Hukou system. Stanford University Press. Retrieved from

Ye, J. (2015). Land Transfer and the Pursuit of Agricultural Modernization in China. Journal of Agrarian Change, 15(3), 314–337.


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