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China's migrant restrictions stirs outcry

By Jaime FlorCruz, CNN Beijing Bureau Chief
  • Wen promises to solve employment, living problems that rural migrants face
  • Everyone has a hukou in China, depending on birthplace
  • Hukou system introduced in 1950s to facilitate control over burgeoning population
  • Official estimates put "floating population" at around 180 million last year

Beijing, China (CNN) -- It's break time at the Seven Colors Elementary School, a privately-run school just an hour's drive from central Beijing. Scores of warmly dressed Chinese pupils are enjoying sunshine. Some play table tennis or skip rope. Others run around the flag pole, seemingly oblivious to the problem their parents face.

They are children of enterprising rural residents, mostly from southern China, who now live and work in suburban Beijing. They typically do not have a "hukou" -- the Chinese word for the equivalent of a permanent residency card. Without it, they are technically illegal residents in the city and have no access to such public services as health care and education.

Some experts say they are modern-day victims of an antiquated system.

"The hukou system has created a situation where rural migrants are denied many of those benefits when they move to the city to find work," said Shawn Hsieh, a visiting scholar at the Beijing Foreign Studies University. "They either have to go without them or pay for them out of pocket. It has created a group of second-class citizens. It's a source of social stratification, inequality and discrimination, and that is why many feel it should be removed."

On March 1, a week before the annual meeting of the National People's Congress (NPC) opened in Beijing, 13 newspapers from 11 provinces across China jointly ran an editorial appealing for reform of the hukou system.

"China has suffered for a long time under the hukou system," the editorial said. "We believe people are born to be free, and people have the right to migrate freely!"

It was an unprecedented outcry from the local press that resonates among many Chinese.

[Hukou] has helped lower labor cost, concentrate savings and investment and fend off social demands...
--Fei-Ling Wang, The Sam Nunn School of International Affairs
  • China

The editorial said: "The NPC deputies and CPPCC (Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference) National Committee members should "press related ministries and departments to provide a clear timetable for a national household registration reform and gradually use personal information registration to replace household registration and then finally eliminate it."

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Patterned after the Stalinist "propiska," the hukou system was introduced in the 1950s to implement the socialist command-economy and to facilitate control over China's burgeoning population.

Fei-Ling Wang, a professor at Georgia Institute of Technology's Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, said: "It has served very important socio-political roles in China, especially for maintaining the much craved 'stability' and social order through an extensive and effective control of the population, especially its movement."

Economically, he said, "it has helped lower labor cost, concentrate savings and investment and fend off social demands of rights and equality and redistribution of wealth."

Everyone has a hukou in China. The local government issues a hukou booklet per family, recording their names, birth dates, addresses, employers and other essential details. Residents get either a rural hukou or an urban hukou, depending on birthplace. They are obligated to reside in their designated residence for life -- with few exceptions.

"To move hukou from one place to the other is very hard -- just as hard as getting a green card from U.S.," wrote blogger Wang Jianshuo. "It's even harder to move from rural area to city."

For years, it was virtually impossible for a Chinese to survive without a hukou. Although people could travel outside their designated residence, they could neither stay there for long nor relocate easily since without a local hukou they would not have access to jobs, schools, hospitals and other essential public services.

But over the past 30 years since Deng Xiaoping launched his market reforms, China has experienced dramatic social and economic changes. The economic boom spearheaded by the coastal cities created a growing demand for labor.

That has forced the Chinese government to gradually relax the hukou restrictions to allow mobility among rural residents.

Over the years, waves of farmers have surged into the towns and cities, some seasonally, some for an extended period of time. There, they work in factories, construction sites and public works. Others work as cooks and janitors, in restaurants or as nannies at homes. Official estimates put their total "floating population" at around 180 million last year.

In practice, the hukou system is no longer as strictly enforced as before. Even without a hukou, migrants no longer need to present ration coupons to get food and clothing as long as they have the money.

Still, they are often subject to discrimination. The kinds of jobs and salaries they get depend on whether or not they have urban hukous. Worse, their children cannot easily get into the mainstream public schools, even if they have the money, thus forcing them to set up schools for their children.

The Chinese government has promised to take action. In his annual work report delivered at the NPC session, Premier Wen Jiabao pledged to solve employment and living problems that rural migrant workers face in the cities in a "planned and step-by-step manner."

He also promised to "ensure that they receive the same treatment as urban residents in areas such as pay, children's education, health care, housing and social security."

Pilot programs are underway in more than 10 cities, including Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou in south China, where governments have started to grant permanent residency and access to social welfare to nonresidents working and living in the cities.

"We are glad to see these changes," the joint editorial said. "However, we see more people in more places still trapped by this system. Reform of this system would not only benefit people's livelihoods, but would also inject more vitality into the Chinese economy. More importantly, it would set up the people-oriented awareness, which would push social progress and harmony."

The joint editorial has prompted much public debate and censorship. Zhang Hong, deputy editor of the Web site of the Beijing-based Economic Observer, was dismissed for reportedly trying to organize a group of journalists to criticize the hukou system.

Meaningful changes remain elusive, in part because the hukou system is still beneficial to the middle class and the local governments, Georgia Tech's Fei-ling Wang said.

"Many local governments and central agencies also worry about reallocation of resources caused by the influx of more 'newcomers' to the cities. That may not be good for GDP growth, which defines their work-report card."

For the poor, less educated, marginalized rural population, they remain at a disadvantage by being unorganized.

"Unfortunately they are politically very weak, prohibited from organizing and hence have little power to really push for the demise of the system," Wang said.

The Chinese-American scholar, who has written a book on the hukou system, thinks a radical change, not piecemeal measures, is urgently needed.

"A real hukou reform can't be done by simple decrees and talks," Wang said. "It requires some fundamental changes of the current political system, and that can hardly be done this year or even the next."