BEIJING — For millions of Chinese, the difference between a life of struggle and one of opportunity comes down to a little red booklet known as the hukou.
Introduced 54 years ago under Mao Tse-tung as a means of social control, this household registration permit limits where China’s 1.3 billion citizens can live, work and go to school by splitting them into two categories — urban and rural.
Today, the hukou, inspired by family registers from centuries ago, has created a modern economic chasm between city dwellers and peasants that threatens China’s economic future as a powerhouse world economy.
The hukou system also has become a flash point in China’s wealth gap. Pent-up frustration with the country’s growing divide has erupted in violent protests and riots.
Anger over the household registration system exploded again last month on China’s frenetic micro-blogs after five rural boys in southern Guizhou province died of asphyxiation; the children had been huddled in a dumpster where they had lit a fire to escape the cold.
The youngsters were part of the so-called left-behind generation, unable to join their parents in the city because their families couldn’t afford the extra school fees charged to migrants. The issue has become so sensitive that the journalist who broke the story has reportedly been detained by authorities.
“The popular narrative about migrants’ lives getting better by the second generation doesn’t work in China because children there also suffer from a lack of access to equal rights and equal opportunity,” said University of Washington professor Kam Wing Chan, an expert on Chinese migration and hukou policy.
China’s leaders appear to recognize the need to overhaul the hukou (pronounced WHO-ko) system. The issue received modest attention at the recent Communist Party congress.
“Our people have an ardent love for life,” China’s incoming president, Xi Jinping, said in a nod to populism at the closing of the congress. “They wish to have better education, more stable jobs, more income, greater social security, better medical and healthcare, improved housing conditions and a better environment.”
But change has been slow largely because of resistance from municipalities. Most local tax revenue is controlled by the central government, leaving cities few resources to expand public services for migrants.
Those lucky enough to hold an urban hukou, particularly in vibrant cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, have access to urban schools, hospitals and jobs that are far superior to those in the countryside.
Rural hukou holders are welcomed in urban areas only when they are needed as construction workers, waiters, cooks, factory hands and nannies. But authorities don’t want them planting roots and overwhelming China’s cities.
They are in effect barred from bringing their children and extended families because they face prohibitive fees for obtaining education and other public services in the cities.
Wei Yuying is one of about 200 million rural transplants, a massive underclass of migrant workers living like illegal immigrants in their own country with slim prospects of joining the middle class.
A former rice and corn farmer from western Sichuan province, Wei moved to Beijing eight years ago in search of a better life. She now lives with her husband in a rented room no bigger than a tool shed in a half-demolished neighborhood filled with fellow migrants.
Their children stayed behind with grandparents in the countryside. Wei saw her son and daughter just once a year, during the spring festival holidays. Now in their 20s, the offspring are migrants themselves in western Chengdu and southern Guangzhou.
“Our family is poor so we decided to leave for the city. Now we’re here, we can’t make much money either,” said Wei, 46, who works under-the-table construction jobs for a few hundred dollars a month. “We have no pension or medical insurance. It’s almost impossible. We’re barely surviving.”
China may be the world’s second-largest economy, but if it wants to become a rich nation like Japan or South Korea, it will need to improve the living standards of ordinary citizens like Wei, economists say.
A robust consumer class would help China reduce its lopsided reliance on cheap exports, real estate development and public infrastructure to keep growing at a sustainable pace.
“This is a very important part of rebalancing,” said Louis Kuijs, a former World Bank economist now with the Royal Bank of Scotland. “If people urbanize fully, they’ll behave like normal urban citizens by spending more of their incomes.”
Experts have advocated phasing out the household registration program to give rural residents the same rights and benefits as their city cousins. Rough estimates put the cost of doing so at about $240 billion over two decades. The World Bank said expanded entitlements, such as pensions, must be transportable to encourage China’s workers to head for markets where they’re needed most.
“Just as land and capital need to be used where they provide the highest returns, so too should labor be allowed to move to where the most productive and best-paying jobs are,” the bank said in a report released earlier this year.
Many city dwellers are ambivalent about the plight of China’s rural poor. While they enjoy the cheap labor, urbanites often view migrants as low-class outsiders.
“They make everything a bit messy, dirty and chaotic,” said Chen Yizhi, 62, a Beijing native sitting outside her traditional courtyard home on a recent afternoon. “They don’t maintain the same hygienic standards as we do.”
That’s often not by choice.
In the dilapidated neighborhood of Guanzhuang on the eastern outskirts of Beijing, squat, one-story homes rented to migrants for $30 to $80 a month are being razed to widen a road. Many will be forced to relocate.
In the meantime, residents must tread carefully over piles of rubble and garbage to reach their dwellings and communal toilets. Indoor heating, when it’s available, comes from stoves that burn dirty coal briquettes.
Liu Siping, a 50-year-old widow, arrived in Beijing in 2001 to work as a nanny to support her daughter back in central Anhui province. She said migrants like her and her neighbors might as well be invisible to the city folk who benefit from their labor.
“The people who live in this area, we all get up early and come home late,” Liu said. “We work very hard and we struggle. All the local hukou holders have to do is collect rent. That’s the difference.”
Nicole Liu in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.