At home in Beijing, but still not locals

Updated: 2016-11-09 07:43

By Du Juan(China Daily)

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As the capital's population grows the city government is facing a growing challenge arising from the application of the household registration system. Du Juan reports.

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of reports looking at the effects of hukou, China's household registration system, on the lives of ordinary citizens who have left their homes to work in other areas and regions. More reports will follow in the weeks to come.

More than 20 million people live in Beijing, the capital of China and one of the world's great cities.

There are many ways to define the city's residents: gender; age; employment status; interests; and personality. One category stands above all others, though - the hukou, or household registration, system.

At home in Beijing, but still not locals

Unlike people's personal ID cards - similar to a social security number in the United States - which can be used on most occasions to determine a person's identity, the hukou system can affect life at a much deeper level.

Under the system, which was introduced in the late 1950s, people are awarded hukou in the place their parents are registered, irrespective of their place of birth. As long as the person remains in the area in which they are registered, the system provides them with access to services such as education, healthcare and public housing, along with employment opportunities and retirement benefits.

However, it is hard to transfer hukou, which means people who relocate for work or family reasons are often unable to register with the local authority, which denies them access to social and education services.

The problem is particularly acute in Beijing, which sees thousands of new arrivals every year, swelling the population and presenting the government with a major challenge.

There are only a few ways of obtaining Beijing hukou. First, people can apply if their parents were registered in the city at the time of their birth. However, people born in the capital to unregistered parents are ineligible.

Second, graduates can apply if they land a job in a government department, educational institution or a company that has been allocated a hukou quota for Beijing.

Third, the Beijing government has the option of granting hukou to successful entrepreneurs and industry leaders, in bid to attract them to work or invest in the capital.

China Daily canvassed the views of unregistered citizens in Beijing to discover how they face the challenges presented by a lack of hukou and how they see their lives developing.

Wang Xin, graduate student

Wang is searching for a job in Beijing. "To be honest, my main priority is not a large salary or career development opportunities, but whether the employer can offer me Beijing hukou or not," said the graduate media student at Beijing Normal University.

Wang, 25, was born in Harbin, in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, which means he is registered there.

The greater number of opportunities on offer in the capital means he is reluctant to return to his hometown.

"If I returned to Harbin, I could only get a job with a local TV station at best. The platform in Beijing is much wider," he said. "I want to stay in the city after graduation, so Beijing hukou would give me a sense of security, and the right to buy property. Moreover, if I get married here, my child will be able to attend a public school in Beijing."

He added that making money is not his prime consideration at this stage in his life. Even so, it's still getting more and more difficult to find a job that offers hukou.

The reason is simple: Too many people live in the city and the number is growing.

Faced with limited land, transportation, medical services and education resources, the government has stepped cautiously with regard to population management.

As a result, companies that were previously able to offer a job with a Beijing hukou can no longer do so, because the city government has cut the quota in recent years.

Meanwhile, government departments and municipal-level bureaus no longer accept applications from job seekers without Beijing hukou, which has closed the door to students such as Wang.

"I know that smog is a serious problem in Beijing and it's harmful to people's health, but I still want to make every effort to stay because it offers opportunities that are not available anywhere else."

Wan Ying, entrepreneur

In 2002, Wan arrived in Beijing from Zhoukou city, Henan province, in South China to chase his dream of becoming a successful businessman.

Fourteen years later, his life is approaching middle-aged perfection. He brought his wife and children to the capital in 2005, reuniting the family of four after three years of separation and hard work. He still doesn't have hukou, though.

As the owner of two small supermarkets and two cars, the 41-year-old's life is better than most other unregistered residents, but the absence of the small piece of paper still presents obstacles.

"My kids go to school in Beijing, so I fully understand that education is one of the main reasons people are eager to come to the city," he said. "The teaching quality is high, and the schools are well resourced. I would feel so satisfied if my kids could continue to study in the capital."

However, the reality is that Wan's children, ages 13 and 11, are not eligible to take the gaokao, China's notoriously grueling national university entrance examination, because they have hukou in their hometown, not in Beijing.

"My family might have to go back to Zhoukou for my son and daughter's education," Wan said.

Because the exam varies from region to region, it is better for students to prepare for it in local schools where they can be coached on the key points and styles required by the local testers, which will provide a better chance of a high score and subsequent enrollment in a renowned university.

Wan's son, who attends a middle school in Beijing, will take the gaokao in June 2021.

"If the policy hasn't changed by then, we have to give up all we have here in Beijing and go back to Henan," Wan said.

Studying at college is still one of the fairest ways to climb the social ladder in China. Even if Wan's son has to take the exam in his hometown, there is a chance he will be accepted by a college in Beijing, which would bring him back to the capital. By then, the rest of Wan's family may have returned too.

The irony is that if Wan's son graduates from college after four years, he will experience the same problem his father faces now - finding a job that will provide Beijing hukou and make his life easier.

Apart from concerns about his children's education, Wan hasn't felt disadvantaged by his lack of hukou.

"I have been in Beijing for nearly 15 years, and I've enjoyed lots of the benefits resulting from the city's development," he said.

Qin Fanyou, office worker

"I didn't used to care about Beijing hukou," said Qin, a native of Chongqing, a municipality in Southwest China, who married in the capital in October.

The 26-year-old prefers her hometown: "If not for my husband, I would have returned to Chongqing after I graduated from college in Hong Kong," she said. "It's hard to find authentic Chongqing-style restaurants in Beijing - that's my biggest complaint here."

In Qin's opinion, there are plenty of job opportunities in South China, and Beijing is just one of several cities she could live in.

"I think people in North China like Beijing far more than those of us who come from the south," she said. "Chongqing's economy has developed quickly and I believe I could find a pretty good job if I went back. However, since I settled in Beijing, I have started to care about obtaining hukou because I'm considering bringing my parents to the capital when they get old."

According to Beijing municipal government regulations, Qin will only be able to bring her parents to the capital when they retire if she can obtain hukou. If that happens, her parents will be able to enjoy similar access to healthcare as native Beijingers.

Qin's husband, a Beijing native, has held hukou since birth, which means the couple won't face problems accessing healthcare. Moreover, they are eligible to buy an apartment and car, and their children will automatically qualify to attend the city's public schools.

According to Qin, that means she and her husband are lucky compared with other young married couples in the city, who will never be able to register as Beijing citizens.

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 At home in Beijing, but still not locals

Zhang Ziyu prepares food for customers at the noodle restaurant she owns in Beijing. Even though she does not hold Beijing hukou, the Chongqing native has been pursuing her dreams in the capital city for four years.Photos By Cao Yang / For China Daily

 At home in Beijing, but still not locals

Zhang serves a dish to customers at her restaurant.

(China Daily 11/09/2016 page6)