Tongzhou (The Economist) – Yuan Quan has beaten the odds as a young woman from a small mountainous city in Hubei, a province in central China. She earned one of the few spots available to non-local students at a prestigious university in Beijing and has been living in the capital for 14 years, working as a television director. But the pension she will one day receive is tied to the lower costs of living in her home town, so she stands to get much less than Beijing-born colleagues. She cannot get the same cheap healthcare. If she has a child, she would have to pay far more than locals for education.
The discrimination routinely endured by less-skilled internal migrants is the subject of much debate in China. But the disadvantages suffered by those like Ms Yuan, who are well educated, are given less attention. Recent changes in the system of household registration, known as hukou, aim to remedy the plight of the highly skilled. But only a lucky few will benefit.
Everyone in China has a hukou document which registers where they were born and which gives them rights to education and health services in that location at subsidised prices. The government has long used this system to control migration flows, especially of labourers from villages looking for work in cities. Because cheap health and education in cities are only provided to people with local hukou, the system acts as a brake on migration. Young workers eager for relatively well-paid city jobs are undeterred, but they usually leave children and older relatives behind. The government is happy with this: it fears the creation of potentially restive slums.
Local authorities do worry a bit, however, about the impact this has on people like Ms Yuan. They are seen as vital contributors to the more innovative, services-driven economy the country wants to create. But the system is causing big problems for such people. Zhang Wenxia, from the central province of Hunan, works at a logistics company in Beijing. She says she is thinking of moving back to her home town because that would boost her child’s chances of getting into a good university (the entrance exam must be taken in the province of one’s hukou). Gu Zi, from Jiangxi province in the south, wants to continue running her recording studio in the capital. But she says she may send her daughter abroad to finish schooling because of the complexities of hukou requirements for university admission. To make it easier for white-collar workers to move around the country without worrying about extra welfare costs, the government earlier this year allowed 62 cities and districts to set new rules including, in many, a points system which scores applicants by such criteria as education, wages and taxes paid. Points can also be given for good citizenship, such as donating blood. Those who score above a certain level (which varies by city) can be given local hukou.
Ms Yuan may one day be lucky: her neighbourhood, Tongzhou district in Beijing, is being allowed to try a points system. That is rare. Giant cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai and the southern city of Guangzhou, have been told by the national government not to allow much reform because they are big enough already and it wants smaller cities to grow faster. Hukou is still seen as useful for regulating the pace.
In Guangzhou applicants for hukou under the points system must have been making social-security contributions in the city for at least four years, have no criminal record and have complied with the country’s family-planning rules, which allow most couples to have only one or sometimes two children. Only 60 points are needed, which means those with degrees should be a shoo-in (see chart). But since 2011 Guangzhou, with 9m migrants, has limited the offer to 3,000 people a year.
This may not bode well for migrants in Tongzhou, who make up about half of the district’s 1.3m residents. They, and others like them in the capital, are often jokingly known as beipiao, or “northern drifters”, because their lack of local hukou means they are commonly regarded as only semi-settled in Beijing, the “northern capital”. If Tongzhou is as strict as Guangzhou, as is likely, only a few hundred a year will benefit from the reform.