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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 November 2005, 16:43 GMT
China rethinks peasant 'apartheid'
By Tim Luard

Plans to end a controversial residency permit system have been welcomed as a positive step towards bridging the social, political and economic gulf between China's countryside and its cities.

A Chinese farmer herds his sheep in a village near Beijing Tuesday Dec. 10, 2002.
Under the change, rural workers may get the same rights as urbanites

The hukou system of household registration has for decades discriminated against the nation's 800 million rural inhabitants, by depriving them of most of the rights enjoyed by those born in urban areas.

The proposed abolition of the system in 11 of China's 23 provinces, mainly along the developed eastern coast, is expected to promote further growth by encouraging a new influx of labour from poorer western regions.

The government also hopes the reforms will help provide stability at a time of simmering protests over the ever-widening wealth gap.

Reaction from abroad has included rare praise for China on human rights grounds.

Such measures are long overdue, according to Jiang Wenran, acting director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta.

He described the hukou system as one of the most strictly enforced "apartheid" social structures in modern world history.

Scrapping the system will be helpful in the long term, but it will be hard to eradicate deep-rooted prejudices against those from the countryside
Ren Li, Chongqing resident

"Urban dwellers enjoy a range of social, economic and cultural benefits while peasants, the majority of the Chinese population, are treated as second-class citizens," he told the BBC News website.


In 1953 - four years after the Communists took power in the name of the peasants - the Chinese government advised people born in the countryside to stay there.

A strict registration system was devised over the next few years to classify people as either rural or urban residents. Only registered city dwellers were allowed to live in urban areas.

The hukou system actually has a much longer history, going back to dynastic times, said Mr Jiang.

"But its function has been the same - that is social, political and economic control by a centralised government," he said.

The Communists took the system further, using it to finance the industrialisation process by paying the peasants less than market prices for their agricultural products, he added.

Even today, a farmer's income is one sixth that of the average urban dweller, but he has to pay three times more in taxes.

In the past two decades, an estimated 200 million impoverished rural dwellers have braved discrimination and possible arrest by moving to the cities, to try to share the fruits of the spectacular economic development taking place there.

Most work in construction or other low-paid industries, sleeping in dormitories provided by their employers. Others tout for work on street corners, sleeping in railway stations or under bridges.

Landmark case

They no longer face arrest simply for being there, thanks to a change in the law which followed an outcry over the death of a university-educated migrant in Guangdong province in 2003.

Xu Zhiyong, a Beijing law lecturer who exposed that case, says it spelt the end of the hukou system. He believes that, at least in most smaller cities, the system has already been abandoned in all but name.

"Even in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, it has almost lost its function," Mr Xu said.

Neither of China's two biggest cities is included in the list of provinces proposing to drop the system, because both still face problems in dealing with migrants over matters such as education and security, he said.

A group of peasants pull a cart filled with their belongings and wood to build a makeshift hut, as they make their way into Beijing 10 January 2003,
Migrants without permits get paid less

He conceded that more needed to be done to help the migrants, noting that in many rural areas the most important income comes from family members in the cities.

China's market reforms have meant that even registered urban dwellers no longer receive many of their earlier state handouts and free services. But they are still at a big advantage over the outsiders.

The export-driven southern province of Guangdong is among the areas planning to end the permit system. Migrants already make up about a third of its 110 million population, but it has recently struggled to attract as many migrants as it needs to fill its factories.

"If you come to the city without an urban permit you'll have a lot of problems," said Ren Li, a resident of the western city of Chongqing, which draws 400,000 rural migrants a year.

"You get paid less, your children don't have the same education rights and it's hard to get any welfare," he said.

But the hukou is more than just a document - it represents a person's whole identity, he said.

Police officials have been quoted in the official media as warning that rapid changes to the residency system could lead to social chaos and soaring crime

"Scrapping the system will be helpful in the long term, but it will be hard to eradicate deep-rooted prejudices against those from the countryside. Some people say there's no way they should live in the city, because of their low education and bad habits."

Farmers were the first to benefit from free-market reforms after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. But ever since, they have been largely marginalised, with few in political or academic circles to represent their interests.

The new generation of national leaders has vowed to restore balance and harmony to China's stark new form of capitalism, by helping those who are worst-off.

If this latest reform finally helps bring that about, Beijing may be prepared to ignore the expected grumbles from middle class city folk anxious to keep their privileges to themselves.

More remarkable is the leadership's apparent determination to push ahead with the changes in the face of opposition from those in charge of security.

Police officials have been quoted in the official media as warning that rapid changes to the residency system could lead to social chaos and soaring crime. Monitoring of targeted individuals such as dissidents might also become harder.

Some observers believe the proposed reforms may still not happen, once city governments realise how much of a strain a fresh influx of migrants would put on local resources.

But others point out that every dynasty in China's imperial history was destroyed by discontented peasants and drifters.

Mao's successors are determined to give the countryside a belated helping hand, they say, if only out of fear of a new peasant uprising.

Do you think there is a serious gulf between rural and urban China? Have you or has anyone you know been affected by the hukou system? Send us your comments and experiences.

Yes, all my family members were born in the countryside and we all have had many struggles for a equal life to the city dwellers. Although we now all live in the city, we have to pay much more for children's education and other things because our Hukou is rural.
Aijie , Zhumadian

I taught English for a year in a university just outside Beijing in 2001-2. The pace of change was exceptional then, and the visible number of migrants looking for work was growing month by month. The central government has a huge task on its hands ensuring that the modern economic growth reaches those in the rural areas, who need it most. This new plan is certainly a step in the right direction, and shows very clearly that the policies of the 'new', more capitalist, China are evolving from the socialist past.
Richard Lilly, Cardiff

I think this is a significant move. Rural residents comprise more than 70% of China's population and yet they have had this stigma attached to them because of the hukou system. It is about time that China finally did away with this "second class citizen┐ status for the majority of its population. This will not solve the great socio-economic problems facing the rural poor, but it is at least a step in the right direction.
Ben Chan, Austin, USA

Four years ago I was travelling through Guizhou, one of China's poorest provinces, with a Shanghainese friend. She had grandparents in Guiyang and spoke a local dialect. She was one of the 5% of Chinese people who are actually card carrying members of the Chinese Communist Party. Despite being a member of the party which is said to represent the people, she was not sympathetic to the rural poverty we saw there. She was embarrassed by it. But then, why would she be sympathetic? With her cellular phone, blue jeans, and urban lifestyle, she was almost as removed from local conditions as I, a white American, was.
Peter, San Francisco, USA

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