Great expectations and dashed hopes: Hukou transfer in Beijing

This blog originally appeared on The China Story on 16 September 2021.


The Beijing municipal government has a set of stringent eligibility criteria for those applying for a Beijing hukou, such as higher education qualifications and working in jobs serving the city’s development priorities. Yet these criteria are not well-publicized. On top of the formal eligibility criteria, the government applies yet another set of hidden rules, which give it absolute control over hukou transfers. Together, the eligibility criteria and hidden rules frustrate the efforts of uninformed hukou hopefuls. More transparency will go a long way toward addressing the mismatch between the expectations and the reality of applicants’ chances for hukou transfers. 

In China, the household registration (hukou) system shapes the life chances and choices of each and every citizen. It restricts access to social services, largely to the registered (hukou) place. For migrants who have moved residence, but have left their (hukou) place unchanged, they are unable to access social services at their new homes. According to the Census of 2020, the number of such migrants stands at 493 million.

A hukou transfer is essential for migrants to access local social services. Yet not every migrant who wants to transfer their hukou is able to do so. They need to make an application to the local government at their new destination.

However, the eligibility criteria and process of selection are often unclear. Rather, the specifics of both eligibility and selection are usually – and perhaps deliberately – elusive. This is especially true in mega-cities, which have both massive migrant populations and relatively high standards of social services. Among such cities, the ambiguity of this application process in Beijing remains unparalleled.

Who can apply for a Beijing hukou?

The application for a Beijing hukou can be made via a family-based route or a work-based route. The eligibility criteria for the former is set nationally with clarity. In contrast, the eligibility criteria for a work-based route is established locally and can only be inferred from dozens of government documents.

We identified four criteria on who can apply for a Beijing hukou via a work-based route. First, qualification matters. Prior to 2009, a bachelor’s degree was the minimum requirement, after which a master’s degree became necessary. Second, a job that serves the city’s development priorities is a prerequisite; a job that requires high skills or that is in the government is preferable. Third, a certain period of residence within the Beijing municipality is mandatory. The central government suggests this period to be five years. Yet the Beijing municipal government, which has the final say, has been ambiguous on how long this period should be.

Unlike the first three criteria, however, a fourth is not intended to limit eligibility. Rather it is meant to relax these criteria for migrants living in less-developed districts. For them, for example, a bachelor’s degree has remained the prerequisite.

The four criteria send a clear message. As the nation’s capital, Beijing needs to maintain its political and economic clout as well as balance intra-metropolitan development. A Beijing hukou, and the social benefits attached to it, is possible only for those who meet Beijing’s requirements.

Most migrants in Beijing are not eligible for a hukou in the city. Our estimate is that in 2010, only 13 per cent of migrants met the requirements on both qualification and job. What makes this even more startling is that these criteria are kept so elusive — they’re not well-publicized — and that most migrants are unaware of their own ineligibility. Instead, they remain hopeful of getting a Beijing hukou. But for the majority of them, hope eventually turns into disappointment.

Who is granted a Beijing hukou?

Even if an applicant meets the criteria, acquiring a Beijing hukou is not guaranteed. We estimated that in 2010, less than half of all migrants with a university education and a job that served the city’s development priorities had successfully obtained a Beijing hukou. Even for those migrants who have also lived in Beijing for over five years, only one-third of them had the city’s hukou.

Which of the eligible applicants are granted a Beijing hukou is not random. By 2010, those with a postgraduate education were twice more likely than those with an undergraduate education to be granted a Beijing hukou. The government also gave preference to those who worked in the civil service over workers in other sectors, including prioritised economic sectors.

The different success rates across applicant groups reveal that, on top of the eligibility criteria, the Beijing municipal government also applies a set of additional rules in determining which applicants are granted a hukou. This set of rules is not merely elusive; it is kept hidden.

More transparency needed

The practice of adopting elusive criteria and hidden rules gives local governments in China absolute control over local hukou transfers. However, for those migrants hopeful of getting a local hukou, there can be a mismatch between expectations and reality, shattering their dreams of acquiring resident status in their adopted cities. This can potentially lead to social unrest.

To avoid this, local governments must better inform migrants about the eligibility criteria and rules. More transparency is needed on who can apply for a local hukou and on how applicants are selected. Hukou reforms should be formulated to meet this end, especially in megacities like Beijing.


For more about recent hukou reform, you can read Acquiring a Beijing Hukou : who is eligible and who is successful? by Qiujie Shi and Tao Liu.