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Housing Inequality in Chinese Cities

How Important is Hukou?
Mark Duda and Bingqin Li, January 1, 2008

Although vast differences in standard of living exist among the native-born residents of Chinese cities, the distinction between all urban natives and rural migrants runs deeper. It is, in fact, the fundamental social division in Chinese cities for several reasons, including labor market segmentation that sees migrants doing dirty, dangerous, and low-paying work; institutional rules that favor urban residents in everything from health care access to university entrance exams; and cultural ideas about the backwardness of rural areas and rural people.

In the housing sector, it is therefore not surprising that migrants’ housing quality is quite low in an absolute sense and relative to that of other urban residents. What is less clear is the source of these differences. Research that we recently completed for the Lincoln Institute leads us to question the conventional wisdom that institutional rules linked to the hukou system are primarily responsible for the differential (Li, Duda, and Peng 2007). We believe that hukou status is only one of several factors responsible for migrants’ differential housing outcomes, and that the research literature has not spent enough time assessing the relative importance of these factors. While not definitive, our empirical results provide several reasons to question a hukou-centric modelof the sources of urban housing inequality.