Op-Ed Contributors

Crossing the great divide

By He Rulong (China Daily)
Updated: 2011-02-14 07:46
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Reform of the household registration system will reduce the inequality that exists between urban and rural residents

As the two sessions approach, the People's Daily website is undertaking a survey to find out what topics ordinary people think our legislators and political advisers should prioritize in the discussions. Among the topics proposed is reform of the household registration system and elimination of the artificial distinction between urban and rural residents.

In 1958, a household registration system was introduced in order to control the movement of people between rural and urban areas. At that time, China was developing its heavy industries in a bid to increase its national strength. Since nearly all the industries were located in cities, it was natural to concentrate national resources on urban areas for industrial growth. The rural areas thus became a raw material production base for the cities and the movement of rural residents to cities was strictly controlled so as not to disrupt the urban industrial labor market. Hence the distinction between the agricultural (rural) and non-agricultural (urban) household registrations.

While it's true that the household registration system was effective in accumulating social wealth for industrial development, it also contributed to the creation of a divide between urban and rural areas.

As time went by, holders of the agricultural household registration not only had to endure restrictions on their movement, they were also greatly disadvantaged when it came to healthcare, education, employment and marriage, etc.

Thanks to this system, farmers are less privileged than their urban peers. Even today, some people still assume that cities do not belong to farmers and that it's natural for rural migrant workers to live in shantytowns without any social welfare.

However, such a divide is unfair and unethical. Each and every one of us should have the same freedom of movement and enjoy the same benefits, regardless of who we are. The Chinese Constitution stipulates that everyone is equal before the law and the United Nations' International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families goes a step further and proposes transnational freedom of movement for migrant workers and members of their families.

There is abundant evidence pointing to the unfairness that exists between agricultural and non-agricultural household registrations, yet looking back at China's modern history, one cannot but be overwhelmed by the enormous contribution farmers have made to the country.

First, hundreds of millions of farmers risked their lives for the birth of a new nation by firmly supporting the Communist Party's efforts to encircle the cities from the countryside.

Second, in the era of industrial development immediately following the founding of the People's Republic, farmers made another sacrifice for the growth of heavy industries thanks to the "price scissors", a move by the government to artificially lower the price of rural produce while raising the price of industrial products, in order to accumulate wealth for further industrial growth.

Last but not the least, hundreds of millions of farmers came to cities to work in low-paid and less desirable jobs on construction sites for high-profile national projects, such as the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai.

Fortunately, the inequality and unfairness endured by Chinese farmers has not gone unnoticed. The central government has long stressed equal values for urban and rural development. It rescinded the thousand-year-old agricultural tax, established a new-type of rural cooperative healthcare system and is now experimenting on a new-type of rural social insurance system. In his work report last year, Premier Wen Jiabao vowed that the government will propel reform of the household registration system by loosening the requirements for migrants to obtain resident status in small and medium-sized cities.

We have every reason to anticipate the dawn of equality between urban and rural residents as the government is paying more attention to rural development.

The author is a doctoral scholar with the Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, School of Law, China University of Political Science and Law.