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Hukou - longest stopgap policy in China

10:06, March 30, 2011

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By Li Hong

The discriminative home-buying policy, charted by Beijing, Shanghai and other Chinese cities earlier this year, which permits permanent urban residents to buy two homes, but non-permanent migrant workers to purchase only one, again sheds light on a draconian systematic divide of Chinese people – the "Hukou", or residence registration regime -- a left-over from Chairman Mao Zedong's era.

The police department is the official file-taker and enforcer of the "Hukou" system. Holders of the urban "Hukou" certificate, a brown-colored booklet dictating a person's birth place, current residence, marriage status and education level, remain the privileged among all nationals. Urban "Hukou" can be inherited, meaning a child born to a parent with the "Hukou" is automatically an urbanite. And, Urban "Hukou" could also be "earned", provided relevant government departments of a city employ you, or, they determine that you are eligible for it.

The urban "Hukou" attaches, explicitly, a long chain of favors – including retirement pensions, nearly free medical insurance, jobless allowance, and children's schooling rights in the better-shaped cities – not to mention the new policy decreeing who is eligible to buy two homes. If one's "Hukou" belongs to big and affluent cities like Beijing or Shenzhen, his or her status becomes more of envy in the eyes of other Chinese. Why? The big and wealthy cities could afford to give their permanent residents a fatter package of welfare.

To many migrant rural laborers and college graduates who have landed jobs in cities, the "Hukou" system is like a piece of inertia and barricade, blocking their "dreams coming to true". To the country, the regime, initially promulgated to prevent "blind inflow" of farmers into cities, has created enlarging inequality, between cities and rural areas, and has increasingly dealt a scar on the hearts of tens of thousands of rural youth, who aspire to live the same life as their urban peers.

Two weeks ago, Chi Fulin, a member of the CPPCC, the top advisory body to the central government, proposed a hard and fast goal: All small and medium-sized cities should grant migrant workers an urban "Hukou" within 3 years, and the larger cities follow suit after that. Chi's proposal is not exactly new, but he has come up with a definite time frame.

Many sociologists have advocated Beijing reform the decades-old "Hukou" system, because China, at its current stage of economic growth and a rapid consolidation of fiscal wealth for more than 30 years, has the rationale to cut the policy bandage, because all Chinese nationals, no matter where they are born and whoever they are born to, are entitled to the same and equal treatment.

If the urban retirees could have 95 percent of their medical bills reimbursed by the social security fund, the same umbrella should be bestowed to all rural old people. It is bizarre and quite sad to see rural elderly residents, who are seriously sick, cannot afford medicine or surgical operations.

If the government still claims it is fiscally strained and the social security fund is inadequate and cannot cover all nationals, but why not reimburse urban retirees by only 50 percent, and make all Chinese people over 60 years old insured to the same extent?

We could understand that, upon New China's setup in 1949 after an 8-year war against Japanese invaders and a subsequent 4-year civil strife that saw the corrupt and inept Kuomingtang forces flee to Taiwan, Chairman Mao's government choreographed the "Hukou" system to "economize" the cost of urban development, namely saving the cost of housing provision and other welfare subsidies provided only to urban "Hukou" holders. The system made economic sense then.

However, it makes no political sense, now, and runs counter to the principle of justice that the system has served to divide and segregate rural and urban populations in geographical terms, and more fundamentally, in economic, social and political terms. By whatever criterion, all of China's farmers should have access to the same benefits of social welfare payments, long enjoyed by the urbanities.

It is the selfless contribution of 200 million strong Chinese migrant workers, from the countryside, who have provided the sweat and blood, willing to accept a paltry pay for as long as 30 years, to make the nation what it is today. The farmers-turned-workers have made possible the rapid growth of the new and modern skylines of the cities, as well as the high-speed trains, subways and road network linking this vast country.

And, it is the 200 million migrant workers who have been working more than 10 hours a day, a backbone force operating China's giant export machine which have earned the country the world's largest foreign exchange reserve.

Shanghai has initiated a "points system" -- merited on one's financial assets and human capital -- to grant "well-qualified" migrant workers permanent residency. The eligibility requirements are so stringent that less than 0.1 percent of migrants will qualify to apply. In Beijing, only those migrants who become "national model workers" are able to get rewards of a Beijing "Hukou". But the numbers are tiny. There was merely 21 such model workers named last year.

In his government work report to the National People's Congress earlier this month, Premier Wen Jiabao pledged that China will gradually make sure that "rural migrant workers who have stable jobs and have lived in cities or towns for a number of years are registered as urban residents, in line with local conditions and in a step-by-step manner". We hope the Central Government will accelerate scrapping the longest stopgap administrative measure implemented in China, dividing urban and rural populations, so that more Chinese could start to call cities their home.

The articles in this column represent the author's views only. They do not represent opinions of People's Daily or People's Daily Online.

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About this column

Li Hong has been a reporter and column writer, mainly on China's economy and politics.

He was graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University, and once studied in University of Hawaii and the Poynter Institute in Florida.


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Dai Min

John Milligan-Whyte and Dai Min, the executive producers and co-hosts of the Collaboration of Civilizations television series adapted by the eight books they wrote in the America-China Partnership Book Series published in English and Mandarin in 2009-2010 that created the "New School of America-China Relations." They founded the America-China Partnership Foundation and Forum in 2008 and the Center for American-China Partnership in 2005, which was recognized in 2009 as "the first American think tank to combine and integrate American and Chinese perspectives providing a complete answer for America and China's success in the 21st century."

Li HongmeiLi Hongmei

Li Hongmei, editor and columnist of PD Online.