“In many ways, China is like a big version of the European Union,” says Lauren Johnston, associate professor at the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Sydney.

“And Beijing is an administrative center like Brussels. There are all these different languages, all these different people, all these different provinces. China is trying to move from a version of Europe to a version of the United States, where people can move around a little more freely.

Cai Fang, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the hukou system was hampering China’s economy’s ability to rebound from COVID.

“The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic combines aspects of demand and supply shocks,” he wrote for the East Asia Forum. “Thus, a rapid recovery in residents’ consumption, rather than a conventional stimulus in investment, is conducive to the resumption of economic growth, and hukou reform has an important role to play.”

Previous attempts to update the system have been criticized for being incremental and giving local governments too much power to circumvent new regulations. These reform pushes in 2005 and 2014 largely saw wealthy migrants being granted hukous by local governments in some areas, while continuing to prevent poorer migrants from accessing services.

But COVID-19 has forced greater change online and away from local governments, allowing poorer migrants to access hukou services remotely. At the National People’s Congress in Beijing in March, lawmakers presented a proposal to “centrally digitize administrative processes related to residency.” In April, amid Shanghai’s lockdown, the government announced that a nationally integrated “government service platform” had been completed.

This bureaucratic title masks a monumental shift brought about by the cycle of shutdowns in China. It will allow the 290 million migrants living away from home in major Chinese cities to perform some of their administrative tasks online without having to return to their villages.

“Imagine if you had to travel to Canberra every time you needed to file your tax return or access your pension,” says Johnston. “And then suddenly, one day, you could do everything online.”

Johnston believes Chinese authorities – long frustrated with inefficiencies but not bold enough to make changes – have jumped at the opportunity presented by COVID-19.

“In China, there is an ancient war ploy to win that advises to ‘loot a burning house’. Simply put, when a country is plagued by disease, famine, corruption or crime, it will be ill-equipped to repel an attack,” says Johnston. “Another said that in the process of carrying out his plans, do not miss an opportunity to ‘steal a goat’ and then bet on the associated profits.

“Standing between a new elite minority of rent-protecting urban dwellers and hungry, frustrated masses waiting their turn to ‘get rich’, it appears China’s leaders have adopted such tactics during the coronavirus pandemic-related lockdowns. COVID-19.”

The changes are likely to be controversial. Decades of strict hukou regulations have meant that middle-class urban Chinese have had their pick of the cities best schools, apartments and facilities. The same group of millions of educated, middle-class workers are also the most frustrated with the cycle of lockdowns and border closures in China. But as Xi pursues a “common prosperity” policy, the costs could start to outweigh the benefits.

The child of a migrant worker studies by candlelight in Beijing. Credit:Sanghee Liu

“The intra-provincial market in China seems likely to resemble a nationwide Ponzi scheme of letting some get rich first. In other words, the hukou system may have already moved from a pillar of stability to a pillar of instability,” says Johnston.

“Xi looks at China in [20 years’ time] and thinking ‘what are our barriers?’ … he did Xinjiang, Hong Kong and now [hukou] and think “I’m just going to stick a big acupuncture needle in this nerve center”.

“He appreciates that the promise the party made was to let some people get rich first. So they got rich and if they don’t help everybody catch up, they’re going to have this poor border of the aging.

In April, the Beijing Municipal Education Commission announced that it would be “legally guaranteed that children and adolescents who are not registered in this city will also be accepted”. Local districts have followed suit, allowing migrant children to be educated in outlying districts such as Mentougou, but also in internal elite neighborhoods such as Haidian. Other cities like Shanghai are also trying to attract high-profile migrants. It announced in December that it would allow graduates of universities in the city to acquire a coveted Shanghai hukou.

In Beijing, at the start of the school year in September, the children of migrant workers will probably take their place alongside the children of hukou residents for the first time.

“My second child was recently admitted to a primary school in Beijing’s Tongzhou district,” said Xu Jie, a 41-year-old interior design company foreman from Bozhou City, Shandong Province ( east China).

“We submitted all application materials via email and her school award was announced online. We did not visit any government department. It was very convenient.

Johnston says the full impact of the changes won’t be known until September; In previous years, school enrollment has been marked by long queues and haggling with local authorities.

“This year, there was no visibility on the registration process. There was no real chance of getting mad at the local education official or harassing anyone – it was all just done online,” says Johnston.

“If classrooms have significantly more migrant children – even just 10% in a good school – it can be a shock to other children.”

China's birth rate has fallen to historic lows.

China’s birth rate has fallen to historic lows. Credit:National Bureau of Statistics, China

China faces a demographic cliff as it transitions from a developing to a developed economy. Its population is expected to halve by the end of this century, according to the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Education standards can vary greatly across the country, with the children of migrant workers living in rural areas often performing much lower.

“There are fewer children,” says Johnston. “So they need those few kids to be much better educated.”

While the changes are slowly being implemented, the resentment of some migrant workers remains. Reduced to second-class citizens for much of their lives, they say the system has unfairly damaged generations of working people just because of the village in which they were born.

“It all depends on his abilities. If you are as rich as Jack Ma, or have a doctor’s degree, big cities will welcome you,” Xu said. “But talking about that doesn’t make sense to grassroots people like us, we’re like a pebble in the sea making a little ripple.”

The restrictions affected both manual and white-collar workers. While Xu was able to enroll her daughter, others missed their chance, forcing them to send their children back to their hometown to live with aging grandparents.

A migrant worker rappels down a building in Beijing.

A migrant worker rappels down a building in Beijing. Credit:Sanghee Liu

Quan Longzhu, a 45-year-old employee of a foreign investment bank in Beijing, has lived in the capital for almost two of the past 15 years but was told he missed the threshold to qualify for a hukou .

“We paid more taxes in Beijing than many local Beijingers, but the one-size-fits-all policy prevented my daughter from continuing her education in Beijing,” Quan says.

“I am very disappointed to see decades of honest hard work and paying taxes in Beijing as a result. But it’s worse for young people who moved to Beijing later than us. They don’t even have any qualifications to buy a house or a car, let alone their children’s future higher education.

The rampant race for the middle class in China has driven up the costs of education, housing and consumer goods. The one-child policy meant that families devoted resources to their only child, pumping billions into music lessons, extracurricular activities and tutoring. Xi banned for-profit tutoring last year to stem demand, but the practice continues to thrive on the black market. China’s middle class is increasingly sensitive to change as it grapples with a less certain future.

Delegates applaud as Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives at the National People's Congress

Delegates applaud as Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives at the National People’s Congress Credit:PA

“They won’t be happy with these changes,” says Johnston. “Life was already competitive enough for them, as far as they were concerned. That’s why they’re spending all that extra money on education, which has just been banned. That’s why they send their kids to English lessons here, violin lessons there – they tick all the boxes.

All of this creates a sensitive environment for more sweeping reform of the hukou – such as abolishing the system altogether – ahead of the Chinese Communist Party’s National Congress in October or November this year, when Xi is expected to cement a third term in power.

“Assuming Xi Jinping wins a third term later this year, his authority as an unprecedented leader would likely allow him to overcome local government resistance that stands in the way of his shared prosperity agenda and any hukou reform. that it might involve,” the Center for Strategic and International Studies said in April.

Migrant workers like Xu hope the government can make the changes last.

“It’s like buying the lottery. You might win one day,” he says. “The metropolis offers such an opportunity. The bigger the city, the better the odds.