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Hukou blamed for compensation discrepancy
By Wang Zhuoqiong and Zhou Liming (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-01-27 06:39

A traffic fatality is always a tragedy, but now the family of one victim in Southwest China know what it's like when an insult is added to it.

On December 15, three teenage girls shared a tricycle ride on their way to school in Chongqing. As they were climbing a slope, a fully loaded truck suddenly appeared coming towards them on the narrow road. To avoid a head-on collision, the truck driver clamped his brake but the truck overturned, crushing the tricycle. All three girls were killed.

The truck was a corporate vehicle, belonging to Chongqing Pujin Highway Transport Company, which chose to settle with the victims' families.

Families of two of the victims got 200,000 yuan (US$24,700) each. But the third one was offered 58,000 yuan (US$7,160), including funeral expenses.

He Yuan, 14, was her parents' only child, and the family were shocked at the settlement discrepancy. The reason, it turned out, was the family's household registration, or hukou. Even though her father, He Qingzhi, is a butcher at a farmers' market in urban Chongqing, he is still considered a rural resident. So was his daughter. By contrast, He Yuan's two classmates had urban hukou.

A 2003 regulation sets the compensation standards for such cases: A victim who was a city dweller should be compensated with 20 times the annual disposal income, and rural residents with 20 times the annual net income, both calculated by the average figures of the place where the court has jurisdiction. Statistics show that an urban Chongqinger averages 9,221 yuan (US$1,140) in per-capita annual disposal income, and a rural Chongqinger makes 2,535 yuan (US$312) a year. Hence the wide gap in compensation.

The truck company later raised the figure to 80,000 yuan (US$9,876), and the driver, out of sympathy or guilty feeling, chipped in an additional 10,000 yuan (US$1,234) out of his own pocket to He's family.

"But my daughter had lived in the city for 10 years," He Qingzhi said. "She didn't pay less for her school fees because she had rural hukou. Why was her life worth less than half of that of her classmates?"

Lu Xueyi, a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the root of the problem is the country's hukou system, which effectively divides the population into two castes.

"The Constitution stipulates that everyone is equal, but in the past 28 years, this discriminatory system has not changed," Lu said. "The local court should be ashamed."

Liu Junhai, a legal scholar at the same academy, reasoned that families of the three victims were similarly devastated, but in terms of financial loss, the rural parents suffered more because even though they had lower income, the relative cost of raising their child is higher.

He interpreted compensation as mostly for emotional damage, which cannot be measured by one's hukou or the living standard that it dictates. What's more, the compensation has punitive and educational functions, he told China Daily.

"In today's China, rural and urban residents have different costs of living," Liu said. "But when they enter heaven, they should be given the same dignity."

It seems expert and public opinions are exerting some pressure.

Dai Jun, a Chongqing court official, revealed that the city was considering a new compensation scheme that would treat long-term city dwellers with rural hukou the same as urbanites.

That leaves He Qingzhi wondering whether this regulation, even if enacted, would be retroactive to cover his daughter's case. In his eyes, for someone whose loss goes beyond description, equal treatment in financial terms could bring at least some relief.

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