Pia Eskelinen

Land is a powerful asset, but it also has a social function because its economic and social aspects are central in advancing gender equality. Legal control of land as well as legal and social recognition of women’s uses of and rights to land, can also have catalytic effects of empowerment, increasing women’s influence and status in their homes and communities. Unfortunately, the hukou, a household registration system, causes problems when clashing with especially women’s land tenure rights. The lack of women’s land-use rights recognition deprives them of their chances of surviving in rural China. -They become legal ghosts.


The hukou system used in China is deprived form the Russian propiska i.e., internal passport which was used in Russia and the Soviet Union until 1991. The Chinese government implemented the hukou system in the form of a law in 1958, when the hukou system changed from a surveillance system to a system controlling citizens. Although the hukou system was originally intended only as a tool for controlling internal migration, it was soon transformed into a social institution that divided Chinese society into regional hierarchies.

Nowadays, the Chinese hukou divides citizens into two categories, i.e. status: agriculture and non-agriculture. In addition to this, person’s location is also registered. The purposes of the dichotomy or separation are remarkably diverse, and the Chinese administration sees the division as necessary for the functioning of the state, as the system is able to effectively control all citizens. However, the division and control of people into different categories adversely affects the realisation of their fundamental rights, livelihood, and ordinary lives.

During past decades, changes in the practices of the Chinese hukou legislation and land tenure rights have brought important incentives for rural developments including farmer income and living standards. Yet, between 1980 and the mid-1990s gender bias was explicit in the implementation of land tenure policies and population control especially in rural China. Since that time, explicit gender bias has been reduced, reflecting China’s modernization goals. However, the policies are still not gender neutral in their implementation. Women remain more likely to become “landless” after changing their hukou, the household registration system.

Since the hukou system is a key institution in defining individual’s socioeconomic status and opportunities in China, it not only impacts women’s bargaining power but also their social security, economic well-being, and independency. It is clear that land tenure policies have a strong linkage to the hukou. The hukou system and its reforms are incredibly complex, largely due to the ubiquitous nature of it to Chinese governance and the linking of hukou status to social services and thus local finances.

Even though both men and women face difficulties in rural areas due to the hukou system and its clashes with land rights, women are more vulnerable and so more at risk of facing poverty and abuse. Legislation concerning the hukou and land rights is very neutral and that causes genuine problems.  The implementation of the legislation is not neutral, and unfortunately that causes and indeed justifies unequal treatment. Village committees and other authorities defend their own decisions with neutrality. Not just male members of the committees, but all those in  power. – In a way it is a pretence of equality.

In addition to that, policies and legislation reinforce and strengthen the traditional gender bias that is seen in China. The complex situation is aggravated by the above-mentioned neutrality typical of Chinese legislation. Laws and regulations are considered not just equal but neutral as well and they are considered to eliminate any potential threats of inequality.

It is important that the hukou system and its problems are researched and written about. It is a comprehensive and fear-provoking system that affects fundamental rights and cannot be avoided when living in, visiting, or studying China.

Pia Eskelinen is a PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Law, University of Turku. Currently she is a Joel Toivola foundation scholar.