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Hukou, marriage, and access to wealth in Shanghai

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About two-fifths of the population in Shanghai, the largest city in China, are migrants. In order to live in Shanghai permanently, many migrants strive to gain Shanghai hukou because of its close connection to easier access to jobs, schools, social welfare, and other opportunities in Shanghai. In this paper, we use newly available data from the 2013 Fudan Yangtze River Delta Social Transformation Survey. This survey sampled Shanghai residents born in the 1980s, regardless of hukou status. We evaluate how young migrants’ original hukou type and locale as well as individual and family characteristics are associated with gaining Shanghai hukou, and explore how Shanghai hukou is related to home ownership, car ownership, and income. The analyses reveal that migrants with great resources tend to gain Shanghai hukou, which, in turn, leads to greater access to home ownership; hukou plays a weaker but important role in car ownership and income. Our study indicates that Shanghai hukou is beyond the reach of poor and less-educated migrants and remains a powerful engine of social inequality in China.

About two-fifths of the population in Shanghai, the largest city in China, are migrants (Lu and Wang Citation2013; National Bureau of Statistics Citation2017). People all over China as well as many around the world have moved to Shanghai in pursuit of economic fortunes, including high paying jobs, access to wealth, and a brighter future for their family and children. To be sure, migrants have uneven opportunities. How well they forge ahead in Shanghai may depend on their education, family and political background, and parental resources. Related factors are hukou type, urban or rural, and hukou locale, Shanghai or elsewhere.

Hukou, the household registration system in China, has had a long history, dating back to the 1950s (Chan Citation2009). It has divided the Chinese population into where they live and whether they are agricultural (rural) and non-agricultural (urban), with newborns following hukou type and locale of their parents (Liang, Li, and Ma Citation2014). Citizens with urban hukou have enjoyed rights and privileges only available to urban residents (Li and Qian Citation2018; Yeung and Hu Citation2013). For decades, this system locked people in place, generation after generation. Only after economic reforms in the 1990s did we start to witness changes in the household registration system (Liang Citation2001). A large number of migrants look for jobs in cities with different fortunes: some leave shortly after without much success; many only afford living in temporary homes or dormitories; a few manage to live permanently, and a very small few gain access to hukou and own homes in cities (Wu Citation2004; Wu and Treiman Citation2004).

Gaining hukou in Shanghai is more difficult than in other cities and depends on migrants’ initial hukou type and locale, which sort people into different rungs of the socioeconomic ladder (Zhang and Tao Citation2012). Like migrants and immigrants elsewhere, migrants in Shanghai seek to improve their standard of living, look for higher paying jobs, and raise families. Yet, settling and integration in Shanghai are difficult because of limited job opportunities, children’s school choices, and residential options (Li, Li, and Chen Citation2010). Gaining Shanghai hukou could expand such opportunities. However, migrants are eligible for Shanghai hukou only if they marry Shanghai hukou residents or have credential and talent highly valued in Shanghai (i.e. special contributions to Shanghai) (Zhang Citation2012). In this paper, we draw on the conceptual framework used in research on wealth inequality among U.S. immigrants to examine wealth access among young people in Shanghai (Keister and Moller Citation2000; Painter and Qian Citation2015; Spilerman Citation2000). Applying data from the 2013 Fudan Yangtze River Delta Social Transformation Survey (FYRST), we explore how hukou and socioeconomic characteristics are interrelated with home ownership, car ownership, and income. Our results underscore hukou as an important source of social inequality in China.

Hukou, household registration in China

The hukou system in China was established in the 1950s and aimed to classify the population in China by locale and type (agricultural versus non-agricultural) (Chan Citation2009). This system has long enabled the government to control internal migration from rural to urban areas, from small to large cities, and consequently control cities’ population growth (Zhang and Wang Citation2010). For a long time, hukou maintained and aggravated the rural-urban gap – Urban hukou residents lived in a welfare state while rural residents were on their own and lacked a social safety net (Whyte Citation2010; Yeung and Hu Citation2013). The economic reforms started in 1978 ultimately changed the dynamics of urban-rural relationships and triggered massive migration from rural to urban areas, especially to large cities such as Shanghai (Liang, Li, and Ma Citation2014). A large migrant population prompted local authorities to offer ways for migrants to live in cities permanently and not as permanent second-class citizens. The hukou reform in Shanghai initiated in the 1990s targeted wealthy migrants by promoting investment, attracting skilled labour, and enhancing the real estate market (Wong and Wai-Po Citation1998). The blue-chip household registration system was then established to allow migrants with wealth and special skills to gain semi-permanent Shanghai residence and enjoy welfare and benefits previously only available to Shanghai hukou residents (Wong and Wai-Po Citation1998). However, blue-chip residents still faced barriers to children’s education, political participation, social insurance, and employment (Wong and Wai-Po Citation1998). Moreover, the blue-chip policy discriminated against unskilled rural migrants, who had low-wage marginal jobs, received no welfare benefits from employment, lived away from their families in inferior but costly housing, and integrated poorly (Wang and Zuo Citation1999).

The blue-chip registration system was replaced by the juzhu zheng (Residence Card) system in 2002, which allowed certain migrants to live in Shanghai without formal local hukou (Zhang Citation2012). Again, this system did not benefit rural or less-educated migrant workers and favoured college graduates and skilled workers. In 2004, migrants who had stable jobs, participated in the social insurance, and had legal residence also began to qualify for juzhu zheng, and further, a juzhu zheng holder could be awarded Shanghai hukou if she or he passed the point test (Zhang Citation2012). However, point tests remained barriers to unskilled rural migrants because they did not have social insurance or legal residence due to low wages (Zhang, Wang, and Lu Citation2019). In 2009, the policy was revised to include specific requirements for juzhu zheng holders to receive Shanghai hukou: holding juzhu zheng for seven years, having no criminal record, working as professionals, and making significant contribution to Shanghai (Zhang Citation2012). Zhang and Wang (Citation2010) pointed out that given the restrictions of Shanghai hukou policies, only a small fraction of migrants qualified for Shanghai hukou and this fraction hardly included rural migrants. Yet, this policy was at least transparent and opened the door for juzhu zheng holders to receive Shanghai hukou through clearly-defined point tests.

Access to Shanghai hukou through special contributions to Shanghai

City governments have started to gain control in regulating local hukou policies since the 1980s (Chan and Buckingham Citation2008). As discussed above, some migrants have opportunities to receive Shanghai hukou but many others face insurmountable barriers (Wang and Zuo Citation1999). It is in the best interest of cities to make access to local hukou difficult because of the cost to provide hukou to migrants. Expanding hukou residents’ existing benefits and services to all migrants in Shanghai was estimated to generate a fiscal deficit up to 5% of the city’s gross domestic product (Zhang and Tao Citation2012).

Shanghai, one of the most developed cities in China, has the highest standards in the country for migrants to gain Shanghai hukou (Zhang and Tao Citation2012). Zhang (Citation2012) illustrated the point system to receive Shanghai hukou. For example, a migrant with a PhD receives 27 points while a migrant with a bachelor’s degree has 21 points. A migrant with a diploma from an elite university is awarded 15 points, almost twice as high as someone with a regular university degree (8 points). One also receives points if he or she receives national awards or honours. Clearly, Shanghai hukou is highly selective of those who graduate from elite universities and are successful (with awards or honours). They are considered to have made special contributions to Shanghai, worthy of receiving Shanghai hukou.

Access to Shanghai hukou through marriage

A child’s hukou followed his or her mother’s hukou in the past. For inter-hukou marriage, it was important that the child’s mother had urban hukou because of its association with better economic and social opportunities for the child (Nie and Xing Citation2010; Qian and Qian Citation2017). A child born to a rural hukou mother and an urban hukou father had rural hukou, but conversion to urban hukou was possible when additional requirements were met (Nie and Xing Citation2010).

The hukou reform in 1998 allowed children to follow the hukou status of either parent. This reform led to an increase in inter-hukou marriage between urban hukou men and rural hukou women (Kang, Mahfuz, and Yuan Citation2011; Nie and Xing Citation2010). Using survey data in 2005, Nie and Xing (Citation2010) found that after the reform intermarriage between urban men and rural migrant women increased significantly while intermarriage between urban women and rural migrant men changed little. Kang, Mahfuz, and Yuan (Citation2011) argued that urban men benefit from marrying rural women because rural women tend to have low education and do more housework. Intermarried rural women also benefit because of access to urban hukou. In contrast, rural men are reluctant to give up their rural hukou because only those, mostly men, with rural hukou can inherit and own family land.

For a migrant who desires to live in Shanghai permanently but is unable to make special contributions, gaining hukou through marriage is an attractive route. However, barriers to marriage with Shanghai hukou residents are strong. Possession of assets and wealth can signal a migrant’s qualifications for such marriage (Schneider Citation2011). Educational attainment is potentially a great indicator for economic status; and homeownership is particularly valuable not only for its property value but also for its potential appreciation (Killewald and Bryan Citation2016; Killewald, Pfeffer, and Schachner Citation2017; Oliver and Shapiro Citation2006). Marriage with Shanghai hukou residents is not simply a marriage between two people of different hukou statuses; rather may involve status exchange, i.e. migrants trade their higher educational status (potentially greater wealth) for Shanghai hukou when they marry Shanghai hukou residents (Lui Citation2017; Qian and Qian Citation2017). Qian and Qian (Citation2017) find that highly-educated Shanghai hukou and non-Shanghai hukou migrants are both more likely than their less-educated counterparts to marry Shanghai hukou residents, and moreover, Shanghai hukou residents rarely marry migrants with less education than themselves. Interestingly, the findings do not reveal gender differences, indicating that both male and female migrants follow the pattern of status exchange in inter-hukou marriage. Status exchange is, at least in part, due to strong barriers for migrants to receive Shanghai hukou through other means (Tian, Qian, and Qian Citation2018).

Migration and access to wealth

Wealth is tied to other social and economic outcomes (Keister and Moller Citation2000; Vallejo and Keister Citation2020). Migrants’ wealth may speed transitions to homeownership (Di and Liu Citation2007). Painter and Qian (Citation2015) examined wealth attainment among U.S. immigrants by underscoring the importance of initial U.S. legal status at the time of entering the United States. Initial legal status, while being strongly related to pre-immigration characteristics, determines starting positions of immigrants on the U.S. mobility ladder and influences subsequent socioeconomic trajectories and wealth attainment. Following the same argument, we propose that migrants’ initial position in Shanghai is equally important, as hukou policy requires high levels of educational attainment. Education is a strong predictor of rapid wealth accumulation, net of income (Killewald, Pfeffer, and Schachner Citation2017). Meanwhile, college-educated migrants and migrants who pursue advanced degrees in Shanghai (enrolled in schools) receive points to qualify for Shanghai hukou (Zhang Citation2012). Yet, educational attainment is only a necessary condition and unlikely on its own to guarantee access to local hukou.

Migrants’ initial position in Shanghai also includes hukou type (urban or rural), political capital, and parents’ resources. Urban migrants, coming from other cities, know how cities work and may have an easier time adapting to life in Shanghai than their rural counterparts. In addition, parents of urban migrants are more likely than those of rural migrants to support their children to settle permanently in Shanghai. Party membership demonstrates migrants’ knowledge about how to receive Shanghai hukou. While it is a signal of political ambition and ideology, Party membership demonstrates a migrant’s desire to move ahead on the socioeconomic ladder (Wu and Treiman Citation2004). Joining the Party does not happen overnight and involves years of effort. For example, in order for college students to join the Party in college, they must demonstrate interest as early as in their freshman year so to be evaluated in subsequent years and admitted to Party membership before graduation. Party membership itself does not score hukou points but opens doors to government jobs, which are entitled more points. Party membership starts with strategic planning (fueled by knowledge and resources), sets the foundation for social and economic success, and eventually leads to wealth premium and accumulation (Jin and Xie Citation2017). Thus, we hypothesise that migrants who are Party members are much more likely to receive Shanghai hukou than migrants who are not.

Intergenerational transmission of resources must not be discounted. Intergenerational wealth mobility is evident in many societies as parental resources play a critical role in the formation of young adults’ economic positions and social capital (Charles and Hurst Citation2003; Conley Citation2001; Keister Citation2004; Prix and Pfeffer Citation2017). Parents’ educational attainment or Party membership are bound to improve young adults’ initial position in Shanghai. We hypothesise that highly educated or Party member parents tend to have stronger resources (including financial resources, knowledge, and friend networks) to support their children than their less educated or non-Party member counterparts (Bian Citation2002; Fan and Qian Citation2015; Nee Citation1989; Walder, Li, and Treiman Citation2000).

Whether through special contributions or intermarriage with Shanghai hukou residents, it is expected that migrants who gained Shanghai hukou are likely to have access to more wealth than other migrants. Migrants without Shanghai hukou do not integrate well because of ‘deeply rooted institutional restrictions associated with the hukou system that outweigh the combined effects of socioeconomic factors’ (Wu Citation2004, 1287). This means that even migrants with financial resources may find it difficult to purchase homes in Shanghai. Access to hukou indicates the removal of institutional barriers to integrate in Shanghai. Thus, we expect a stronger connection between hukou and home ownership than between hukou and access to other forms of wealth. Migrants’ low initial position, such as low education, rural hukou, and limited parental resources, impedes access to Shanghai hukou and imposes strong barriers to live or integrate in Shanghai.

Data and methods

Data for this analysis come from the first panel of the Fudan Yangtze River Delta Social Transformation Survey (FYRST) conducted by Fudan University in 2013 (https://dvn.fudan.edu.cn/dvn/dv/FYRST). It utilised a stratified, multi-stage cluster sampling design and selected a representative sample of individuals who were born in the 1980s and lived in Shanghai at the time of the survey. If more than one person in the selected household met the criterion, only one of them was randomly selected. The response rate was 78 percent. The sample encompassed a cohort of 2330 young men and women aged 24–33 years old in 2013. The FYRST data are ideal for this study because the survey collected information on respondents’ hukou type and locale at the times of birth, marriage, and survey, as well as a variety of information on socio-demographic characteristics, family background, and wealth. After we exclude individuals with missing data on variables used in our analysis, the analytic sample size is 2225.

For our purpose, we classify hukou status into (1) Shanghai hukou at birth (also called Shanghai natives), (2) non-Shanghai hukou at birth and Shanghai hukou at survey (referred as Shanghai hukou migrants), (3) non-Shanghai urban hukou (urban migrants), and (4) non-Shanghai rural hukou (rural migrants). Two things are worth noting. First, given Shanghai’s high urbanisation level, the vast majority of Shanghai hukou holders had urban hukou. As a result, we did not distinguish between urban and rural among Shanghai hukou holders. Second, although 40 percent of the Shanghai population (according to the 2010 census) are interprovincial migrants (Liang, Li, and Ma Citation2014; Lu and Wang Citation2013), only 26% of the sample were migrants. Part of the discrepancy is due to the sampling frame of the survey, which does not include those living in work dormitories (accounting for about 20% of the migrants in Shanghai). In addition, FYRST’s sampling of migrants living in residential neighbourhoods is likely to undercount temporary or short-term migrants, accounting for about 40% of the migrants in Shanghai (according to the 2010 census). As a result, the sample is representative of ‘permanent’ (long-term and settled) migrants living in residential areas, the target population of this particular study.

For married respondents, we have information on their spouse’s hukou status at the time of marriage. We code marital status into three categories: (1) never married, (2) married to a Shanghai hukou resident, and (3) married to a migrant. Educational attainment is dichotomised into college degree and no college degree for respondents and at least some college and high school or less for parents (the more educated parent). We also include variables such as gender (1 female and 0 male), age (a continuous variable ranging from 24 to 33), Party membership (yes or no) for both respondents and parents (at least one of the two is Party member), and college enrolment status (yes or no).

We have conducted the following analyses. First, we examine who secured a Shanghai hukou among those without Shanghai hukou at birth. We explore how individual characteristics such as college education, enrolment status, Party membership, gender, and age as well as parents’ at least some college education and Party membership play a role. We apply logistic regression models to predict the likelihood of gaining Shanghai hukou.

Second, we hypothesise that migrants who have secured Shanghai hukou are more likely to have access to wealth than those with no Shanghai hukou. Because men and women in our sample are relatively young and have recently transitioned into adulthood, it is unrealistic to expect that they already had their own money to have purchased cars or apartments. In addition, the survey did not ask whether they, their parents, or both bought their apartment or car. Given strong support of parents in purchase of apartments or other properties for their children, we define wealth as wealth access. An apartment mostly or completely bought by parents is a type of wealth that a young adult has access to and is likely to inherit in the future. This is the most likely scenario among those born in the 1980s (especially those with urban hukou), many of whom are indeed their parents’ only children (Wang, Cai, and Gu Citation2013). Here, we investigate three measures of wealth access: (1) access to self- or family-owned apartment (yes or no), (2) access to self- or family-owned car (yes or no), and (3) an individual income in the top 33% of the income distribution (yes or no). We first model these three variables separately and then run the logistic regression model with the dependent variable that combines apartment ownership, car ownership, and earning an income in the top 33 percent.


We first present descriptive statistics by hukou type. Migrants are more likely to be women than Shanghai natives (born with Shanghai hukou). Over 60 percent of urban and rural migrants are women, followed by Shanghai hukou migrants (59%), whereas only less than half of the Shanghai natives are women. The average age of the sample is 28.5 years, with migrants being slightly older. Strong educational differences exist by hukou type: 60% of Shanghai hukou migrants have college education, followed by urban migrants (55%), both of whom have disproportionately more people with a college degree than Shanghai natives (41%). In contrast, only 6 percent of rural migrants have a college degree. Data on Party membership reveal that Shanghai hukou migrants have the highest percent (24%), followed by urban migrants (16%), Shanghai natives (11%), and rural migrants (4%). It should be noted that urban migrants and Shanghai hukou migrants are advantaged in terms of parental characteristics. Thirty-seven percent of Shanghai hukou migrants have at least one parent who is a Communist Party member and almost a quarter have at least one college-educated parent, both twice the percentages of Shanghai natives. It is clear that urban migrants in Shanghai and Shanghai hukou migrants in particular along with their parents are most advantaged in educational attainment (human capital) and Party membership (political capital). Migrants who gain Shanghai hukou are a selective group largely based on high levels of human and political capital.

Meanwhile, one third of Shanghai hukou migrants are married to Shanghai hukou residents. This percent is twice as high as that of urban migrants, which confirms that marriage with Shanghai hukou residents is associated with Shanghai hukou. Percentages of migrants marrying other migrants are high for both urban and rural migrants, reaching 47 and 67 percent, respectively. More migrants are married than Shanghai hukou residents, which could be due to a greater concentration of married migrants living in residential areas and/or later age at marriage among Shanghai hukou residents. shows that special contributions to Shanghai and marriage with Shanghai hukou residents are two important and related channels of gaining Shanghai hukou. They are selective: both they and their parents have high levels of education and Party membership.

Table 1. Descriptive statistics for variables used in the model predicting Shanghai Hukou conversion, by Hukou status.

We now examine wealth access and how hukou type and other variables are associated with apartment and car ownership and whether the respondent has an income on the top 33 percent of the distribution. As shown in , Shanghai natives have a very high percentage of home ownership. Among those who own apartments, 81 percent are Shanghai natives and among those who do not own apartments, only 32 percent are Shanghai natives. Few Shanghai natives owned apartments before the economic reforms. The housing reform in the 1990s privatised state-owned apartments, which made an overwhelming majority of Shanghai native homeowners (Ren and Hu Citation2016). Owning a home for young adults usually means living in apartments owned by their parents. Given subsequent astronomical increases in housing prices, it is all the more impressive that Shanghai hukou migrants and other migrants are able to own homes in Shanghai.

Table 2. Descriptive statistics for variables used in models predicting wealth, by wealth indicators.

Only about a third of the sample owns a car. Among car owners, 78 percent are Shanghai natives. Relatively, car ownership is common among Shanghai hukou migrants – accounting for 5.1 percent of those who own cars and 4.2 percent of those who do not. Top earnings (making top one third of the income distribution) clearly favour Shanghai hukou migrants (accounting for 6.5 percent among the top earners and 3.4 percent among the non-top earners) as well as urban migrants (accounting for 15.5 and 7.4 percent, respectively). Rural migrants clearly did not do well in income compared to the other groups.

A comparison of home and car ownerships by respondents’ and parents’ education and Party membership underscores the importance of parents’ role in children’s wealth access. Parents’ education and Party membership matter more in young adults’ access to homes and cars than young adults’ own education and Party membership. Parents’ political and human capital (Party membership and education, respectively), which offer guanxi (connection) networks and know-how, are critical in respondents’ access to wealth. Yet, respondents’ own education rather than that of their parents is strongly related to respondents’ income. Among top income earners, 59.2% have college education and among non-top earners, 25.5% have college education. In contrast, the two percentages are 15.5% and 8.9%, respectively, for parents of at least some college education.

presents a comparison of wealth access by hukou and marital status. Hukou status is strongly associated with home ownership, with Shanghai natives most likely to own homes (89%), followed by Shanghai hukou migrants (74%), urban migrants (47%), and rural migrants (39%). This pattern also holds for car ownership, but hukou differences are much smaller. Shanghai hukou migrants have the same percentage of owning a car as Shanghai natives (35%). While lagging behind in access to home and car ownerships, proportionately more Shanghai hukou migrants and urban migrants are top earners (top one third of the income distribution) than Shanghai natives (52% and 54% respectively for the former two groups relative to 37% for the latter group). Only 17% of rural migrants belong to the top earnings category. The distinction between urban and rural migrants is clear: an advantaged starting position leads to stronger integration for urban than for rural migrants in Shanghai.

Table 3. Percentages of wealth ownership, by wealth indicators, Hukou, and marital status.

Young adults married to Shanghai hukou residents are mostly Shanghai natives. Among them, 92% have access to homes, 52% to cars, and 38% are in the top earnings category. Such levels of wealth access indicate strong economic positions. Unfortunately, we are unable to distinguish whether the respondent, the spouse, or both have the access. It is likely that the couple has access to the resources of both parents and in-laws. Given that most respondents in this cohort are the only child, the wealth access is almost ownership, if not now then later.

Predicting access to Shanghai hukou

Descriptive statistics are informative but do not account for confounding characteristics. Focusing on the sample of respondents who were not born in Shanghai (no Shanghai hukou at birth), we examine who are more likely to receive Shanghai hukou. presents results from the logistic regression on a number of variables including gender, age, educational attainment, college enrolment, Party membership, marital status, type of marriage, and parents’ education and Party membership.

Table 4. Results from the logistic regression model predicting log odds of receiving Shanghai Hukou among people who were not born in Shanghai.

Net of all other variables included in the model, the coefficients for those with college education and Party membership are statistically significant (exp (.73), p < .01 and exp (.72), p < .05). The odds of gaining Shanghai hukou are each twice as likely among the college educated and Party members than among the non-college educated and non-Party members. Furthermore, postgraduate enrolment in Shanghai is associated with increased odds of gaining Shanghai hukou (exp (.94), p < .01). Enrolled respondents may at the time work on their Masters’ or PhD degrees and thus meet the special talent hukou requirements. In multivariate regression, the coefficients for parents’ educational attainment and Party membership are positive but no longer statistically significant. It’s likely that respondents’ education and Party membership have captured the effect of parental human and political capital. In contrast, marriage with a migrant is associated with lower odds of gaining Shanghai hukou. The odds of gaining Shanghai hukou are 76.3% lower (1 – exp (−1.44)) among people married to a migrant than among their never married counterparts. The multivariate regression confirms the descriptive analysis that Shanghai hukou is only available to ‘elite’ migrants who possess both human and political capital. The capital, transmitted from their ‘resourceful’ parents, requires time to bear fruit, which includes Shanghai hukou. The capital and Shanghai hukou enable them to achieve even more, gaining access to wealth.

Predicting access to wealth

presents parameter estimates of the logistic regression models predicting the likelihoods of access to home ownership, car ownership, and top earnings. Model 1 shows that hukou is a strong predictor of homeownership. The odds of owning a home among Shanghai hukou migrants are 68 percent lower (exp (−1.13), p < .001) than among Shanghai natives. The odds of owning homes among urban and rural migrants are 90 percent (exp (−2.27), p < .001) and 92 percent (exp (−2.58), p < .001) lower, respectively, than among Shanghai natives. As discussed earlier, owning homes in Shanghai among Shanghai natives in earlier years did not require a fortune because housing reform legalised the privatisation of housing and most families acquired the ownerships of their rented apartments at deeply discounted prices (Song and Xie Citation2014; Walder and He Citation2014). Although Shanghai hukou migrants are much less likely to own apartments, their investment in home ownership represents strong wealth access. Although we don’t have data to explore whether owning a home in Shanghai facilitates Shanghai hukou or vice versa, it is clear that this is a selective group.

Table 5. Results from the logistic regression models predicting log odds of wealth, by wealth indicators.

Marriage with Shanghai hukou residents (Shanghai natives and Shanghai hukou migrants) is associated with access to homeownership. The odds of homeownership among respondents married to Shanghai hukou residents are 4.3 times (exp (1.45), p < .001) as likely as the odds among their never married peers, which supports the findings of Qian and Qian (Citation2017) that highly educated respondents (potentially with more income and resources) tend to marry Shanghai hukou residents. In addition, the odds of homeownership are 72% (exp (.54), p < .01) greater among those married to urban migrants than among never married people. It seems that marriage pools resources from the couple and their families and leads to greater access to homeownership. The data do not allow us to make causal claims but access to an apartment is often a prerequisite for marriage in Shanghai (Yu and Xie Citation2015). Parents’ educational attainment is the only individual characteristic that remains statistically significant after controlling for hukou and marital status. While parents’ human and political resources work in the background to facilitate respondents’ hukou access, parents’ educational attainment plays an additional role in respondents’ access to homeownership.

A car costs much less than an apartment. The results from the logistic regression for car ownership show less variation in hukou and marital status. Nevertheless, Shanghai natives and Shanghai hukou migrants are more likely to own a car than urban and rural migrants. Married individuals are more likely to own a car than their never married counterparts. Respondents’ education and parents’ Party membership both have a positive impact on car ownership. Greater resources lead to a stronger likelihood of car ownership. As home ownership may be complicated, due to legacy of housing policies and hukou, car ownership is more a function of individual or family financial resources and shows less variation by hukou type.

Hukou and marital status insignificantly predict the likelihood of being a top earner. The odds of top earnings are 58 percent (exp (.50), p < .01) greater among urban migrants than among Shanghai natives. This may be due to selection of urban migrants in our sample. They live in residential neighbourhoods and have stronger economic resources. While they have higher earnings, money is not enough or lack of local hukou makes it difficult to purchase an apartment.

Income is strongly associated with individual characteristics. Women are clearly at a disadvantage. The odds of women belonging to the top one third of the income distribution are 39 percent (exp (−.49), p < .001) lower than those of men. Expectedly, one unit increase in age is associated with a 9 percent (exp (.09), p < .001) increase in the odds of belonging to the top one third of the income distribution. The odds of top earnings among the college educated are 3.7 times (exp (1.31), p < .001) as high as the odds among the non-college educated. Being a Communist Party member also increases the odds of top earnings by 80 percent (exp (.59), p < .001). The impact of individual attributes outweighs that of parental characteristics. Interestingly, hukou loses its explanatory power, because income may have less to do with structural barriers than home or car ownership. A migrant can work in Shanghai with a high paying job but may find it difficult to get loans for cars or to overcome institutional barriers to purchase an apartment without Shanghai hukou (Wu Citation2004).

In the final model, we predict the likelihood of yes to all the three questions. Access to home ownership, car ownership, and higher income is indeed the dream for young people. This summary model highlights the importance of hukou, marital status, individual characteristics, and parental resources in realising the dream in Shanghai. All things considered, migrants with Shanghai hukou are closer to Shanghai natives than to other migrants in wealth access. This is an impressive achievement, especially given drastic apartment price differences in Shanghai between Shanghai hukou migrants (likely to pay at market values) and Shanghai natives (likely to buy at a very deep discount). Shanghai hukou migrants are an elite group considered to make valuable contributions to the city of Shanghai. Shanghai hukou migrants through marriage also possess similar quality as they are well endowed to become spouses of Shanghai hukou residents.

Discussion and conclusion

Hukou type and locale have long been tied to economic and political fortunes in contemporary China (Chan Citation2009). Before long, an individual had little choice but accepted his or her parents’ hukou. Early on, children knew whether he or she would be a farmer or a factory worker; and whether they would live in a large or small city. This was supposed to continue generation after generation (Wu and Treiman Citation2007). An urban hukou came with social benefits and privileges and was the very source of social inequality (Li and Qian Citation2018; Wu and Treiman Citation2004). Economic reforms in the 1990s challenged the long-standing hukou system. There was a strong call to remove such man-made barriers and provide rural farmers the same rights and benefits enjoyed by their urban peers (Chan Citation2009; Chan and Buckingham Citation2008). Yet, local authorities make and implement their hukou policy. The policy has a long-lasting impact on migrants’ and their children’s residential patterns, school opportunities, job prospects, and wealth access.

Using data from the Fudan Yangtze River Delta Social Transformation Survey conducted in 2013, we explore who receive Shanghai hukou among Shanghai migrants and how hukou is associated with wealth access. Shanghai hukou carries generous benefits, including job opportunities, higher income, and access to social insurance (Roulleau-Berger and Lu Citation2005; Song Citation2014). More importantly, Shanghai hukou offers children opportunities to enrol in local high schools, participate in Shanghai’s college entrance exams, and have a much greater likelihood of attending colleges and universities in Shanghai than those without Shanghai hukou (Liang and Chen Citation2007). Consequently, it is not a surprise that Shanghai has the most stringent requirements in China to gain local hukou and has the largest percentage of interprovincial migrants with no local hukou (Liang, Li, and Ma Citation2014; Zhang Citation2012; Zhang and Tao Citation2012). In addition, Shanghai’s migrants come from all traits, with various levels of skills and education (Shanghai Municipal Statistics Bureau Citation2011). The hukou policy in Shanghai allows few migrants to gain Shanghai hukou, via either special contributions to Shanghai through a point system based on education, occupation, and awards and honours or marriage with a Shanghai hukou resident (Zhang Citation2012).

Our analysis yields several findings. First, we find that college education and Communist Party membership are two important attributes for gaining Shanghai hukou among migrants. College education and whether college degrees are conferred from elite universities are considered in the scoring system for Shanghai hukou (Zhang Citation2012). Although Party membership is not part of the point system, becoming a Party member in college requires long-term strategic planning. As it often takes years to join the Party, a realistic chance for college educated people to become Party members in college is that they must apply in their freshmen year. Those from well-to-do and well-connected families in urban areas tend to have such knowledge and resources. Young people well coached by their parents become Party members early. Party membership comes with access to privilege, opportunity, and success. Success means valuable contributions to Shanghai, which opens doors for gaining Shanghai hukou (Jin and Xie Citation2017).

Our analysis shows that hukou is strongly tied to wealth. Shanghai natives took over the ownership of the apartments they lived in the 1990s during the housing reform. These apartments are now worth hundreds and thousands of U.S. dollars (Chen and Qiu Citation2011; Ren and Hu Citation2016; Walder and He Citation2014). Migrants with Shanghai hukou, despite their advanced socioeconomic position, have less access to homeownership than their Shanghai natives. Migrants with Shanghai hukou have been successful, thanks to not only their own economic position but also that of their parents. In other words, home ownership in Shanghai is not simply an individual effort, but a family endeavour. This family endeavour goes beyond monetary values, and includes human capital as well as political investment of both parents and young adults. As migrants face policy and institutional barriers in apartment purchase in Shanghai, gaining Shanghai hukou offers a significant advantage (Wu Citation2004). Clearly, migrants’ home ownership in Shanghai is difficult and costly but hukou makes it easier.

Hukou has a much smaller effect on car ownership than home ownership. Understandably, car ownership is more about individuals’ financial ability. Resource sharing among married couples and higher income among the college educated increase the likelihood of car ownership. For top earners, Shanghai hukou no longer matters. Being a male, having college education, and being a Party member increase the likelihood of making into the top income category. Urban migrants without Shanghai hukou are shown to have greater odds of earnings in the top category than Shanghai hukou residents. This suggests that income alone is not enough for access to Shanghai hukou or home ownership. ‘Whereas income measures the flow of financial resources at a particular time, wealth is a cumulative stock that reflects years of prior circumstances and decisions’ (Killewald, Pfeffer, and Schachner Citation2017, 380). In the Chinese context, the cumulative stock also reflects years of parents’ circumstance, including political capital.

Hukou matters in migrants’ integration in Shanghai. Gaining Shanghai hukou requires support of financial and political resources from parents, involves long-term planning, and individual success in education and Party membership. Owning an apartment in Shanghai is so valuable that money itself may not be enough. Gaining Shanghai hukou, whether through special contributions to Shanghai or marriage with Shanghai hukou residents, clearly promotes or, at least, is strongly associated with home ownership. Owning a home makes it easier for migrants to integrate and call Shanghai home, but hukou is a strong institutional barrier.

Consequently, many other migrants in Shanghai, who contribute to Shanghai and its citizens' wellbeing in various ways, lag behind (Chan Citation2010). They are construction workers, delivery persons on motorbikes, housekeepers, factory workers, and elderly care takers, to name a few, many of them do not live in residential apartments and are unable to own apartments due to financial and institutional barriers. Furthermore, there are no mechanisms for them to receive Shanghai hukou; their children have limited access to local schools, and must return home for college entrance exams among the few who could make this far. City hukou, a form of social benefits and insurance, is only available to those at the top, and those with access to hukou move on to accumulate more wealth. Rural and other migrants are forever outsiders, working for their dreams, engaging in essential jobs, but unwelcome and unable to integrate in Chinese cities. Hukou is beyond the reach of poor and less educated migrants and remains a powerful engine of social inequality in China.


The first author acknowledges centre grant support from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NIH) to Brown University (P2C HD041020) and support from School of Social Development and Public Policy at Fudan University where he spent time as a visiting professor in 2017-18.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.


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