Why the People’s Daily Knows Nothing About China

Vietnam's Ho Khau is based on China's hukou

Hukou, hộ khẩu, who knows?

One of the unfortunate realities about gathering information regarding China in English is the unreliability of popular websites such as the People’s Daily, the China Daily, and their many local level brethren.

Most foreigners living in China or reading about the country on a regular basis have learned to tolerate the role of the state-run media as propagandists and cheerleaders, but what I find hard to accept is the inability of many of these organisations to get basic facts straight.

My latest example is the following excerpt from an article on China’s housing market in the English version of the People’s Daily (emphasis is mine),

The city’s housing authorities had previously planned to include in the “Shanghai residents” category people who have stayed in the city for three consecutive years but have yet to obtain a hukou…

The hukou system was first introduced in the 1950s to manage the migration of people from the countryside to cities. Though Chinese people today can move freely, the hukou system still holds them back in terms of access to education, medical care and property purchases.

When I worked at the US Embassy in Bangkok doing immigrant visa petitions for Vietnamese people many years ago, the basic Vietnamese government document that we used to track people’s residency was something called a hộ khẩu. Shockingly enough, this family registry, which is pronounced a bit like “hukou” is used as both a record of where you live, and a sort of residence license. Sound familiar?

With about 15 seconds of checking on Wikipedia, I found that, while there have been minor adaptations of China’s hukou system over the years, the concept goes back to the Xia Dynasty (c. 2100 BCE – 1600 BCE), and similar systems are found in many places where China’s empire had once spread. Similar household registration systems also exist in Japan (koseki), and North Korea (Hoju). In South Korea the Hoju system was abolished in 2008.

Anyway, that is enough ranting for today, but next time you read a statement in the local English media that may sound a bit odd or implausible, just remember that your average government employee at these places do not have fact-checking as part of their KPI.

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