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March 1, 2010 10:16 am
A group of 13 Chinese newspapers from across the country carried an identical front-page editorial on Monday calling for the abolition of China’s household registration hukou system in a highly unusual co-ordinated critique of government policy.
In language that unmistakably evoked early 20th century Chinese revolutionary movements, the editorial referred to the hukou system as “segregation” and “unconstitutional” and “the heavy invisible fetters placed on all citizens”.
The hukou system was introduced in the 1950s soon after the Communist victory to help manage the planned economy and limit internal migration. Although it has been eroded by economic reforms over the past three decades it still functions as a deterrent for many citizens wanting to migrate from rural to urban areas.
Every person in China is supposed to be registered at birth in their parents’ registered location and is designated as a rural or urban citizen eligible only for social services such as health, education and welfare provided in that location.
Hundreds of millions of rural migrants have flooded the cities in recent decades to work on construction sites, in factories, and the service industries but they often remain second-class citizens in their new homes and are unable to access most social services, including education for their children, because they cannot change their hukou status.
In Beijing alone, about half of the 460,000 children born in the city over the past three years were not eligible for a hukou registration in the city and would be denied proper access to education, according to independent research by Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology, and Li Fangping, an independent lawyer.
“The hukou system perpetuates highly discriminatory policies and social inequality; it violates China’s constitution and should be abolished,” Mr Hu told the Financial Times on Monday.
Monday’s editorial was published on the front page of the Economic Observer, an influential national financial newspaper, and also ran in 12 other regional publications across the country. It was written by the Economic Observer’s deputy editor-in-chief, according to people familiar with the matter.
In language familiar to all students of early Chinese revolutionary literature, the article’s first line declared: “China has suffered under the bitter hukou system for too long!”
It called the system a “hotbed of corruption” because urban registrations can often be bought for exorbitant sums from unscrupulous officials and called on delegates to China’s political consultative committee and rubber stamp parliament to push for its abolition at their annual meetings, which open this week in Beijing.
In recent months the central government has publicly placed reform of the hukou system at the top of its agenda and the issue was already scheduled to be a big discussion topic at the political meetings that begin later this week.
In an online “chat” with internet users on Saturday, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao pledged to push through reform of the hukou system and Chinese political analysts said Monday’s editorial probably had the blessing of senior Communist party officials.
“I’ve never heard of Chinese newspapers jointly publishing an editorial on a specific policy matter like this, it is very unusual,” said Yao Yang, deputy dean of China’s National School of Development at Peking University.
Mr Yao said the government is likely to first liberalise the hukou system in medium-sized and small cities while maintaining tight restrictions on large cities so as to avoid a flood of migrants to the large centres.
In recent years, local governments in some cities, including Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, have taken steps to introduce more permanent resident permits for higher-income migrants.
But in some places where the hukou system has been suspended, and social services have been extended to all residents, those services have been paralysed because of soaring demand and an influx of new migrants.
The World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have both recommended an overhaul of the hukou system to allow more balanced economic growth and avoid social instability.
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