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The Hukou Impact on the Welfare of Children

Chinese children © Sabu728 / Public Domain / Pixabay

Any form of migration that exists undoubtedly has an impact on people, especially children and their mental health. Contained in this volatile dynamic with respect to internal migration inside China, the Hukou (户口) system plays a part in influencing the welfare of each member of a family within this context. Welfare then, shall be understood as relating to the health (both mental and physical) and education level of an individual in this article. Regarding the origins of the Hukou system, it acts as a form of household registration which has its origins loosely dating all the way back to the baojia (保甲) system during the Song Dynasty and possibly earlier. It’s modern iteration implemented under the People's Republic of China Hukou Registration Regulation in 1958, however, acted as a way to control the rapid movement of resources, including labour, from rural areas to urban areas during China’s economic expansion at the end of the 20th century. This ensured that the central government’s plan for growth would not be hindered by potential instabilities created by these rapid movements.

Being segregated from one’s family members due to the Hukou system seems to have a negative impact on the welfare of individual children due to the mental issues that may arise as a result of this. Following Mao’s death in 1976, there was a huge surge in the demand of labour in urban areas, with many rural workers rising to meet this demand, often leaving their families behind because of the Hukou system to do so (Chen & Sun, 2015). What this resulted in was a plethora of ‘left-behind children’, causing difficulties in mental health for these children and thus additionally impacting their individual attainment in school.

The Fifth National Population Census for the year 2000 reports that 22.9 million children between the ages of 0-14 were living without either one or both of their parents due to the parents needing to migrate to urban areas and maintain residence there in order to work (Chen & Sun, 2015). This number has only worsened over time, as over 61 million children, equal to 37.7% of rural children and 21.88% of all Chinese children in 2010, can now be categorised as these ‘left-behind children’ (Gao & Xue, 2015). This possesses a profound impact on the welfare of migrant children, as even though there is a 96% school enrolment rate among ‘left-behind children’ (Chen, et al., 2014), they are disproportionately affected by developmental challenges. This is expressed in various ways, such as children possessing a proclivity toward resisting authority and problems in interacting with their peers (Chen & Sun, 2015).

Furthermore, although it could be argued that the ‘left-behind children’ have greater academic opportunities due to their parents being in higher paying work, some researchers such as Gao and Xue argue this actually results in an increased likelihood of school related stress as well as earlier mental health issues, including loneliness and depression (Gao & Xue, 2015). Yet it isn’t only mental health that seems to suffer by being left behind. Additional studies by Gao and Xue indicate that these children are also prone to more unhealthy diets and less physical exercise whilst being disproportionately more likely to partake in unhealthy and extreme habits such as smoking and alcoholism.

Subsequently, these unhealthy habits have contributed to unhealthy body weights and stunted growth amongst some students (Zhang, et al., 2016). These factors collectively result in some more severe and tragic events, as 5 left-behind children died from carbon monoxide inhalation in 2012 by lighting a rubbish bin to keep warm (Phillips, 2015), whilst 12 schoolgirls were threatened and raped by their schoolteachers (Wu, 2013). Finally, in 2015, 4 left-behind children living under domestic abuse attempted suicide by drinking pesticide (Miller, 2015).

Given the crippling hardships that left-behind children go through, it is unsurprising that some turn to crime, with their rate of crime being 70% greater than that of other juveniles (China Labour Bulletin, 2009).

The common characteristic of all these issues is that they are children left behind by their families who pursue work elsewhere as migrant, rural Hukou holders. It can be deduced that the Hukou system that obstructs taking children with parents is the key issue that severely, negatively impacts the welfare of ‘left-behind children’. Evidenced by the above, there is a stark negative impact on the welfare of these ‘left-behind children’, though children that do end up migrating may have it even worse.

Even those rural children who join their parents in migrating face similar, if not inflated negative impacts. After the central government had introduced reforms in both 1986 and 1993, local governments were allowed greater autonomy in education regulations. Yet due to limited space and prioritisation of the local area, local governments prioritised the enrolment of local students into their schools rather than rural, migrant students. Due to state subsidies for urban and local students, rural and migrant students have to pay higher tuition fees, essentially pricing them out of a quality education. Consequently, Sun and Chen find that migrant families thus instead choose to send their children to majority migrant schools, yet lower enrolment rates and lower attendance fees means that these migrant majority schools have to cut costs (Sun & Chen, 2015), subsequently diminishing the quality of education for migrant children in urban areas. Often this leaves school facilities in terrible condition, with some teachers being unqualified. So not only do these children have poor education in rural areas due to the Hukou system, but when they do migrate to urban areas, the Hukou system prioritises local residents and forces the majority of migrant families who can’t afford the higher tuition fees to send their children to poor education. Migrant children are also still required to take the National College Entrance Examination (高考, gāokǎo) in their respective region of origin, which in rural regions has a smaller quota on the number of students allowed for admission to certain colleges in comparison to larger cities and urban areas, thus making the text relatively more difficult and competitive (Fu, 2013).

Moreover, similar to their rural counterparts, migrant children are disproportionately affected by mental health issues, with 70% experiencing academic anxiety and 36% suffering mental issues in comparison to 22% among their local, urban Hukou counterparts (Sun & Chen, 2015). Additionally, Sun and Chen find that migrant students face additional discrimination by other students because of the way they dress and speak, presenting difficulties in interacting with other local students. Ergo, the Hukou system has a directly negative impact on the welfare of migrant children in their pursuit of quality education and attainment.

Based on further findings by Sun and Chen, there seems to have been a substantial number of reforms that seek to rectify these stark disparities for the ‘left-behind children’, though the impact seems limited at best. Focusing on reforms for ‘left-behind children’ first, following the 2012 Notice on Actively Yet Prudently Pushing Forward the Reform of Hukou System Management, as well as the National New-type Urbanization Plan announced in 2014, the state has tried to provide urban Hukou to children whose parents had received urban Hukou themselves whilst also giving left-behind children the right to attend urban schools to be reunited with their rural migrant parents. Yet these reforms fail to factor the hardship faced by migrant children as they only address the right to attend. They also fail to address previously raised concerns regarding the price of admission to not only urban schools but also the acquisition of urban Hukou which average migrant parents often can’t afford, though these reforms are definitely a step in the right direction.

The reforms for migrant children who go with their parents are also limited in their scope. In 2001, the central government claimed that public schools should be the primary means of education for all children within China, and in 2003 stated that migrant children should pay lower tuition fees considering the exorbitant premium they have to pay due to them possessing migrant, rural Hukou. However, no practical solutions or clear directions as to how these reforms were to be implemented was presented, and so little has changed in the years following these announcements. However, in 2006 the central government introduced the New Compulsory Education Act, which assured equal rights to all students in education and granted the responsibility of enrolling migrant children into schools to the provincial government, not the local government. Yet this proved to be an inefficient method in addressing the problem, as the admission fees for migrant children is still approximately 3000 to 5000 yuan, despite migrant rural Hukou holders possessing an average annual household income of 10000 yuan, though hopefully the declaration of migrant children possessing equal rights in education to local children will perhaps begin to rectify the discrimination that migrant children face.

In summation, ‘left-behind children’ suffer greatly due to the either tarnished or absent family dynamic when segregated by the Hukou system, manifesting either in lower attainment, depression, and poor health. Children who do manage to succeed in following their parents to urban areas instead face a poor quality of education due to needing to attend a cheaper, majority migrant school as a result of schools prioritising the enrolment of local, urban Hukou holders. Even if they can afford urban schooling, they often face discrimination and disproportionately suffer from stress and other mental health concerns. Thus, the Hukou system severely impacts the individual family members and family dynamic within China because of these segregations and discrimination. It seems then that this further compounds the notion that China currently places greater emphasis on the economic development of the country over the welfare of individuals. However, whether this is simply a symptom of economic expansion or deliberately because of China’s pursuit for such expansion is beyond the scope of this article. Indeed, reforms are being and have been pursued, suggesting, at the least, a recognition of the importance of welfare concerns on the individual level.

Calvin Oliver is a recent graduate in philosphy, politics, and economics at the University of Sussex as well as a member of the Royal Economic Society in the United Kingdom. Aside from his time at university and further studies, he enjoys video games and works with an e-commerce company. You can find him on LinkedIn and Instagram.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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