CSR Volume 7: Interview with Timothy Wang

By Grace Faerber

Timothy Wang’s article, “China’s Hukou System: Balancing Tensions between Inequality and Growth,” is featured in Volume 7 of the SAIS China Studies Review. Below he talks with CSR online editor Grace Faerber about his background, his piece in the CSR, and his perspectives on the future of China’s hukou system.

GF: What is your concentration at SAIS? What is your primary research interest?

TW: I’m concentrating in International Development (IDEV) at SAIS. There isn’t one area in particular that I’m focused on researching, but over the past year, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about China’s policies in various spheres, including its pandemic response, immigration policies, and institutions more broadly. The courses I’ve taken at SAIS this year have helped me develop a deeper appreciation for how much context matters, and as a Chinese-Canadian, I naturally found myself drawing comparisons in policies across the two countries.

GF: What inspired your interest in researching China’s hukou system?

TW: My family immigrated to Canada from China when I was quite young, so while I had a very general understanding of the hukou system, I didn’t know very much about it before researching for this piece. I happened to take a Development Strategies class with Professor Brian Levy in the fall, which focused on exploring how institutions affect a country’s economic development, and its dynamic of inequality. The final paper for the class was a great opportunity for me to kill two birds with one stone, and learn more about the hukou system.

GF: What do you hope CSR readers take away from your piece?

TW: My biggest takeaways from writing this piece came from comparing the hukou system to the internal migration policies that were used in South Africa and India, and from better understanding how the system has evolved and persisted over time. Although the hukou system has perpetuated inequality, it has also been successful in many ways, enabling industrialization, manageable rural-urban migration, and encouraging education. Its slow but continuous evolution has also helped it persist for a relatively long period of time. I hope that readers come to better appreciate the various facets of policies, both good and bad, and that incremental changes are a viable path towards better policies.

GF: Who do you feel are the most influential advocates for migrant workers and others negatively affected by the hukou system in China, and who are the individuals and groups that should give more care and attention to the issue?

TW: From my research, it seems that the plight of migrant workers is fairly well-understood by Chinese government officials, and academics. The most influential advocates for policy change are leaders within the CCP, and indeed, we’ve seen steps towards further integration of migrants in China’s latest Five-Year Plan. China’s rural population has been steadily decreasing for decades, and as more and more migrants establish themselves in cities, pressures for equal access to public services will continue to increase, forcing government action. In addition to migrant workers themselves, I think academics, journalists, and international organizations should continue calling attention to the issue in order to increase pressure for reform.

GF: What effect do you think Beijing’s recent announcement of a Five-Year Plan to delay the retirement age to combat China’s aging population problem will have on the hukou system and migrant workers?

TW: Delaying the retirement age will help combat China’s aging population and pension gap problem, but the fundamental problem is a lack of workers. I think this problem will further incentivize the CCP to try to attract workers to urban centers, where their productivity and output are likely to be higher, and that this could be done through strengthening the rights of migrant workers. These measures won’t be sufficient to solve the aging population problem, but they should provide some buffer to the projected decrease in the working population. China has one of the world’s lowest rates of international migration stock, and opening up further in this respect could be another lever for the government to tackle the aging population issue.

GF: What role can foreign nations and international organizations play in reforming China’s hukou system and aiding migrant workers, if any?

TW: At this point in time, I wouldn’t expect any foreign interventions in pushing forward hukou reforms, nor for China to be receptive to any such efforts. The International Labour Organization (ILO) could be helpful by providing input on what further reforms to support migrant workers might look like, and continue its collaboration with the Chinese Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security (MOHRSS), but I don’t envision a major role for foreign nations or international organizations to pushing forward reform.

Timothy Wang is a first-year SAIS M.A. candidate with a concentration in International Development. Prior to SAIS, Tim worked as a management consultant focusing on financial services and public sector projects across North America and the Middle East. He graduated from Queen’s University with a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Economics in 2016. Tim can be reached at t.wangtx@gmail.com.

Grace Faerber (冯思思) is a first-year M.A. in International Studies student at the Hopkin-Nanjing Center (HNC), concentrating in International Politics and minoring in China Studies. As a Boren Fellow, Grace is currently located in Taiwan pursuing Mandarin study at National Taiwan University. The driving interest behind Grace’s academic pursuits and professional ambitions is in US-China-Taiwan relations. She currently serves as an online editor for the CSR Blog. Grace completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Arizona, where she worked as a Marketing Writer and Editor for the University Recreation Center. In 2019, She interned at the U.S. Agency for International Development and at the U.S. Senate. Grace is highly proficient in Mandarin Chinese and has been studying the language for over ten years. Grace can be reached at gfaerbe1@jhu.edu.

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