Who should have rights to the City?

Questions of civic identity haunt Shenzhen like the tag lines of a never-ending soap opera: When will people who live in Shenzhen feel that the city is their hometown (老家)? Is it possible to feel like a Shenzhener without a Shenzhen hukou? When will residents with Shenzhen hukou (户口) say, “I’m a Shenzhener (full stop)” and not, “I’m a Shanghai person (uncertain fade out)”? Will residents who claim Shenzhen identity ever admit that they are from Guangdong and not transplants in a non-Cantonese city? And if Shenzhen gives long-term residents with hukou in another city a residence permit that includes all hukou rights will this administrative restructuring generate a corresponding rise in civic identity?

30 years ago, most Chinese had hukou in the place where they were born and raised. Consequently, their administrative status reiterated their emotional identification with their hometowns. A Beijiner both held a Beijing hukou and self-identified as someone from Beijing.

Today, uncounted millions of Chinese people have migrated from their hometowns to live and work elsewhere, unmaking the easy correspondence between one’s hukou and one’s hometown that had defined Maoist society.This situation is particularly acute in Shenzhen, where the majority of residents are classified as 非深圳户籍的深圳人 (Shenzheners without Shenzhen hukou). Statistics from 2005 put Shenzhen’s population at 5.97 million of which 1.65 million had Shenzhen hukou and over 4 million had temporary residences (暫住证). In addition, the City identified over 4 million temporary residents who had lived in Shenzhen for under a year, bringing the actual population to roughly 10 million.

Here’s the rub: the traditional correspondence between hukou and hometown has had concrete effects on efforts to create post-hukou civic identities. In many cities, for example, those who are “really (have both hukou and hometown status)” from the city blame those who aren’t for urban problems. This logic hinges on the assumption that “real” residents care about the quality of life in a city, while “sojourners” don’t. In addition, under the current hukou system, a Chinese citizen only has rights to city  welfare (including public education for child) in the city or town of their hukou residency, rather than in where they live.

The question of whether or not rights to the city should be based on hukou status is more pressing in Shenzhen than in any other Chinese city because most residents aren’t from here. Moreover, the City’s growth and success is attributed not to residents, but to immigrants. In other words, Shenzheners without Shenzhen hukou are the majority of Shenzhen residents.

In August 2008, Shenzhen promulgated the Shenzhen Residency Permit Temporary Application Process (深圳市居住证暂行办法), a reform of the hukou system, allowing anyone age 16 or over, who has lived in the city for more than 30 days to apply for a residence permit (居住证) that carries the same rights as a Shenzhen hukou.

The Shenzhen reform is notable for several reasons. First, it makes inhabitation, rather than birthplace the criteria for urban welfare. Second, it is open to all Chinese citizens, regardless of whether or not they hold a rural or urban hukou. Third, it assumes that people immigrate to rather than temporarily sojourn in Shenzhen. Fourth, it implicitly challenges traditional assumptions that hometown identification is natural, instead foregrounding the idea that civic identity is a voluntary practice.

Nevertheless, the larger question of who actually claims Shenzhen as their hometown continues to hinge on the question: does administratively designating a city necessarily produce a community that identifies with those borders? It’s possible that what is being produced in Shenzhen is not hometown identification, but rather a weak hometown identification with strong national ties. In other words, any Chinese person should have rights to Shenzhen regardless of hometown identity, making citizenship the only precondition for claiming rights to urban welfare.

This legislation has me hopeful. Not because I think it will be unproblematically implemented and thereby unmake the inequality that has structured Shenzhen hukou. Nor because a stop-gap status between no hukou and hukou status is enough to unmake the inequality that is the national hukou system. But rather, this legislation has me hopeful because it clearly states that living in Shenzhen entitles one to rights to the city.

2 thoughts on “Who should have rights to the City?

  1. Pingback: Shenzhen reform, only 14.000 new local hukou holders « HuKou Reform – 户口改革

  2. Pingback: Week 5

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