Achieving Comprehensive Hukou Reform in China

Kam Wing Chan of the University of Washington provides a high-level overview of the tradeoffs Chinese policymakers should confront as they tackle reform of the household registration system—or hukou.


Hukou Paper PhotoThe Chinese government has repeatedly stated its commitment to pursue systematic urbanization. But in doing so, the government will have to allow migrant workers who have left rural areas for cities to become genuine urban citizens.

In addressing this challenge, Professor Chan suggests expanding current hukou reform efforts into China’s largest cities. And he makes other recommendations too, especially for how to handle the large “floating population” of migrant workers. Such a policy change will involve much more than simply altering a citizen’s hukou category from rural to urban in the registration record. Rather, it will mean allowing migrant workers to gain permanent residency in Chinese cities, and thus to be covered by the urban public service system in their place of work. In effect, China’s migrants need to become full urban residents.

Many have argued that the cost burdens associated with liberalization of the hukou system are so large that they necessitate a cautious approach to reform. But Chan looks at the other side of the ledger, viewing migrants as an asset rather than a liability. Viewed this way, he argues, concerns about cost may not be as valid as some suggest because one must also account for the dividends that will accrue from a bigger tax base comprised of newly enfranchised migrants.


Kam Wing Chan

Professor of Geography, University of Washington

Kam Wing ChanKam Wing Chan is Professor of Geography at the University of Washington. His main research program focuses on China’s cities, migration, employment, the household registration system, and related statistics. In recent years, he has served as a consultant for the World Bank, United Nations, Asian Development Bank, and McKinsey & Company on a number of policy projects related to China’s cities and economy. He is the author of Cities with Invisible Walls: Reinterpreting Urbanization in Post-1949 China, and some 60 journal articles and book chapters. His recent commentaries and interviews have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Economist, China Daily, South China Morning Post, BBC, China Radio International, CBC Radio, Caixin, and other media. His webpage is

Topics: Economy, Urbanization