BEIJING - After it was recently revealed that the entire family of a top housing administration official in the northern Chinese city of Zhengzhou had two sets of identity papers (or hukou), people have taken to joking online that China doesn't really have 1.3 billion people, as many people have a "dual hukou."
The hukou household registration system, like a social security number or a passport, is a unique piece of ID. It gives access to healthcare, welfare, education, employment and the right to own houses and cars, or even the right to have more than one child. Without a Beijing hukou, for instance, you cannot enroll your children into Beijing schools.
Chinese Internet users were further shocked to find out that a "dual hukou" was nothing special when a woman named Gong Aiai in Shaanxi was revealed to have four hukou. One of the four official identities she possessed was a much sought after Beijing hukou.
Investigators discovered that under her various identities, this former deputy head of a rural bank, owned two properties in Shenmu, two in Xi’an and three in Beijing. Having multiple hukou is a much bigger deal than owning multiple properties: If someone is found to own many houses, they can defend themselves by claiming that the properties were bought using legal income. But there's nothing they can say when they've been caught with multiple hukou. According to China’s household registration rules, a citizen can only be registered as a permanent resident in a single location. It's impossible for Gong to have obtained her four hukou legally. But although this might seem quite "extraordinary," it turns out it's quite a common occurrence in China.
Other cases that have been revealed recently include that of Tao Yong, the former head of a public security bureau in a county in Anhui province who obtained a fake ID card in order to accept kickbacks and hide his ill-gotten gains. Chen Wenzhu, the former head of a local office of China Tobacco in Guangdong, used a fake ID to travel to and from Macao on gambling trips for six years. And there are many more officials holding "dual hukou" that have not yet been caught.
The first question is how did these officials manage to get multiple hukou? China’s household registration system has always been very strict. It is totally impossible for an ordinary citizen to get more than one ID card, and even 500,000 yuan ($80,000) don’t guarantee that you can get a Beijing hukou on the black market.
Claims that all the “dual hukou” of these officials are caused by data entry errors aren't fooling anyone. Additional IDs can only be obtained with the help of corrupt people working inside the public security organs. As the head of a local public security bureau, it was very easy for Tao Yong to cheat the system.
Revoking the illegal hukou isn’t enough
Why would people working in our public security agencies be willing to help out the Gong Aiais of this world? To put it simply, they either fear power or are tempted by what they can get. If it's fear of power, it means that people with authority are interfering with the management of the household registration system. If they are motivated by personal gain, it means that powerful people are corrupting the household registration administration.
In this sense, when dealing with the Zhengzhou and Shenmu hukou scandals, revoking the illegal IDs simply isn’t enough. Neither is investigating the individual employees of the public security bureau who were involved in the scandals. We need instead to launch an official investigation into all the “dual hukou” holders across the country. At the same time, we need to think about why the carefully designed household registration system is so susceptible to corruption. Can this system be effectively implemented and effectively supervised?
Another question is, why are officials are so fond of hukou? There are two reasons. The first and most important is that they can use a fake identity to evade the long arm of China's anti-corruption departments. It is like a cat-and-mouse game. If the Central Commission Discipline Inspection wants officials to declare their assets or if the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development wants to establish a property database, corrupt officials can simply get a second hukou to avoid being detected.
The other reason is that there are still many benefits attached to having a certain hukou. The government still uses household registration to allocate scarce resources and bestow special rights and interests.
Having more than one hukou implies that:
-An individual can bypass restrictions placed on property purchases, including having access to preferential interest rates when buying a second house;
-An individual can have access to affordable housing;
-If it's the much sought-after permit indicating that you're a permanent resident of Beijing or Shanghai, it also means that your children will find it easier to get into a good university.
For all these reasons, a household registration is more likely to be abused by greedy officials and a breeding ground for corruption. We must have the courage to get rid of all these special privileges. We should return to the situation where a household registration is simply used as a proof of a citizen's identity and as a useful tool in the collection of population statistics.
Translated by Zhu Na.