Many of my fellow countrymen have problem figuring out who I am, cause I don't have a hukou. I got the "Are you still Chinese?" question a lot. Each time I had to explain that no, even though I have a US green card, I still hold a Chinese passport and thus am still Chinese; and yes, green card allows one to live in the US permanently, so it is kinda like a hukou.
In China, however, hukou is a lot more than a permanent residency--at least it used to. Before I left China in 1992, a local hukou was still required for most employment, education for one's children and other benefits. But the system gradually broke down as the economy sped away and more and more labor migrated about. Now one could live and work anywhere; nobody is counting on the government to dish out benefits based on hukou anymore.
As many of the migrant workers, I have been living "illegally" without a hukou in Beijing since 2004. I did not even bother to register with the local Public Security Bureau as a "temporary resident," since the police does not intrude on posh apartment complex to check on the registration unless for far important reasons. It suited me fine until now, until I joined a proper company and have stable income coming in but the stable income could not be invested in the red hot stock or real estate market cause I don't have a residence card, and I can't apply for a business visa to Hong Kong cause I need to apply locally where my hukou resides; and that's in addition to the 15% salary's worth of social security and housing benefits I'm foregoing cause both accounts need to be linked to one's hukou.
So I began to wonder where my hukou went. Back in 1992, three years after the student movement and with the leadership jittery of too many students going overseas to study, the policy was that one had to give up one's hukou before moving overseas. The inane policy lasted only for a couple of years, which explains why few could understand me being still Chinese but without a hukou.
So after a few phone calls, I decided to get my hukou back. Here's what happened last Thursday:
7:20 Fight left for the city where I went to university.
10:15 Found the university hukou office. The officer gave me a paper slip with a university stamp on it certifying that my hukou had been cancelled.
10:30 Arrive at Police Station A where my hukou used to be kept. A female officer checked my record on computer and put another red stamp certifying that my hukou had really been cancelled.
10:45 Arrive at the Municipal Public Security Bureau's Border Entry & Exit Office. Told to visit the local CDC to get my health certified.
11:15 Finally found the CDC office after having been directed away to a different health exam facility. Told to visit the AIDS office on the 4th floor of the dilapidated old building. Found an old guy and a young guy in the dark AIDS office stuffed with newspaper and medical records. The old guy told me the checkup would take 2 days and then turned back to the computer screen filled with stock charts and quotes. I thought OMG this would be a bureaucratic nightmare so I begged--please I came all the way from Beijing; please I have a super important career-making meeting the next day; and look, I brought the certified results of the pre-employment physical prior to starting my current job; it's what you want, right?
The young guy checked the booklet of my physical result full of all sorts of red stamps. He said maybe the checkup could be shorter in my case. The old guy said make sure the physical had checked everything. The young guy said everything except for his HIV status.
11:35 The young guy took me to the 6th floor of the brand new building linked to the old building. A female nurse took my blood. Told to come back at 2:30pm the earliest.
14:30 Woke up from a nap in the lobby of the new building. Went to the AIDS office in the old building. The young guy had gone out for business. The old guy was still checking stock charts. Told to visit the blood lab.
14:45 Saw the female nurse just starting the antibody test on my blood. The entire 6th floor was empty except for that blood lab. Waited.
15:15 Called by the nurse. She gave me a paper slip with a red stamp on it certifying that I am HIV negative.
15:30 Back at the dark AIDS office. The old guy filled in my HIV status on a form with my name and photo on it. Had the urge to ask what if I was positive but decided not to push my luck. He gave me a paper slip with a red stamp on it certifying my health check was ok. Thanked him profusely. He said many Chinese were returning to China and reclaiming their hukous. Their healths had all been ok. Saw their forms piling on the desk and wondered if they would all go to the garbage bin in a month.
15:45 Back at the Entry & Exit Office. Got another stamp on the original paper slip certifying that my hukou had really truly been cancelled and they recommend that Police Station B reactivate it. How about the business visa to Hong Kong? Told to get my hukou reactivated first.
16:05 Arrive at Police Station B that was keeping all new hukous associated with the university. Told to go back to university hukou office to get my hukou file.
16:20 Called the university hukou officer a second time. The office only opened in the morning. Begged profusedly--please I came all the way from Beijing; please I have a super important career-making meeting the next day; please I'm sure that your kindness would be duly rewarded. He finally said ok.
17:00 Arrived at the office with a fancy box of mooncakes and a plain box of Nestle instant coffee.
17:15 The officer arrived. Gave him the multi-stamped paper slip. He found my original hukou record and gave it to me. Thanked him profusely and gave him the mooncakes and instant coffee. He said I couldn't accept them. I said you must accept them.
17:30 Back at Police Station B 30 minutes before closing time. The female officer, a young girl, said I could get your hukou reactivated but you had to come back tomorrow for the residence card--too late to take the photo at Police Station C. Begged profusely. Finally a different girl officer relented. She typed on the computer and printed out a form. I said I would sprint to Station C. The girl rolled her eyes at me--if you don't sprint who would sprint for you?
17:40 Sprinting to the nearby Police Station C with the form.
17:45 Arrived at Station C but the photo room was locked! Panting, freaking out, asking everyone where the heck was the photo guy!
17:50 Photo guy came back. Took photo. He photoshopped my hair and viola, it's done--image automatically transmitted to the residence card database.
17:57 Sprinted back to Station B, 3 minutes before close time. Everyone cheered. The girl officer gave me a red-stamp receipt and told to come back to pick up the residence card in 2.5 months. Given another form with my basic info printed on it. Told the form is my hukou and I can take it with me but I have to take good care of it. What if I lost the form? Everyone giggled--guess you'd be a Black Resident, an illegal resident. Left thanking them all profusely.
18:58 Bought ticket for an overnight train back to Beijing!
Now I have the activated hukou hidden safely in my apartment. Isn't it amazing that so much could have been accomplished with just some profuse begging and some token gift-giving? A decade ago this level of efficiency would have been completely unfathomable, not to mention the smiling customer-centric police officers and the stock-market-obsessed yet not-unreasonable old AIDS officer.
Seriously, China is indeed improving, and I seriously hope not only for those who had studied overseas and have important business meetings in Beijing and are HIV negative.