China to drop urbanite-peasant differences
(New York Times)
Updated: 2005-11-03 15:06
China plans to abolish legal distinctions between urban residents and
peasants in 11 provinces as the government tries to slow the country's surging
wealth gap and reduce social unrest, media reports said Wednesday.
Under an experimental program, local governments in those provinces will
allow peasants to register as urban residents and to have the same rights to
housing, education, medical care and social security that city dwellers have.
If carried out as advertised, the program would eliminate a cornerstone of
the population control policies begun by Mao in the 1950's. The system of
residence permits, known as hukou, ties every person to a locale and once made
travel difficult without permission.
In practice, the system has been fading away for more than a decade. An
estimated 200 million peasants have left the countryside to live in urban areas,
some of them full time. Their access to urban services varies widely depending
on local rules and the kind of employment they find.
In today's market-oriented economy, the once-comprehensive socialist benefits
bestowed on urban residents carry far less weight. Most people rely on their own
resources, or those of their employers, to pay for health care, housing and
"This is an old-style way of managing a huge country and no longer makes
sense with a market economy," said Qin Hui, a historian at Qinghua University in
Beijing. "If it's really going away, it is a significant turning point."
Mr. Qin said he expected that even if the system disappeared, local
governments would retain administrative control over their populations. They
would still set conditions on registration for urban residents and prevent the
growth of slums.
"The cities will become places where the relatively well off live," he said.
"Beijing is not going to look like New Delhi, or even like Bangkok."
Economic forces have eroded population controls in recent years. Shenzhen
emerged from rice fields in the early 1980's to become one of China's most
prosperous metropolitan areas, and nearly all of its 10 million residents were
born elsewhere. Shanghai began the concept of a "blue card" for qualified
migrant workers in the mid-1990's, giving them full access to housing and city
services if they met criteria.
The central government declared that it intended to drop the residency permit
system at the 16th Communist Party Congress in 2002, and has made incremental
Doing away with the residency system also fits the political agenda of
President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who have tried to demonstrate
that they are more attentive to people left behind in China's economic boom. The
market-oriented economy has produced enormous wealth but also generated major
social cleavages. Long term, Mr. Becquelin said, urbanization remains an
enormous administrative challenge for China and one that the government is
unlikely to entrust to the market.
"I think you'll see a situation where the largest cities retain very tight
controls, while medium cities are a little looser and newer small cities have
more freedom," he said.
The 11 major provinces involved in the latest move include Guangdong, Fujian
and Liaoning. China has 23 provinces.
Articles about the change in several state-run publications suggested,
though, that the Public Security Bureau, remained deeply wary of the change and
may slow its progression.