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Opinion: New rule shows change in gov't role
( 2003-06-26 09:41) (China Daily)

Vagrants and beggars in urban areas are to be dealt with humanely under a new regulation to take effect in August.

The State Council signed and published the new regulation last Sunday after revising a June 19 draft.

August will see the end of the old so-called holding system, under which vagrants were forced to return to their home provinces.

The new system is designed to provide temporary shelter to people who do not have enough money to cover basic living costs and who are begging or roaming in cities. It will be a pure welfare and relief system, as stipulated in the first of the regulation's 18 articles.

The first article draws a dividing line between the new and old system. The old way was aimed mainly at "maintaining social order and stability in cities."

The State Council implemented the old method of putting people in custody and relocating them in 1982. The old regulation also referred to "aiding and educating" beggars and vagrants. In practice, however, this element was watered down or even neglected.

Excessive emphasis on maintaining social order and ambiguous wording led to an excessive number of people becoming targets of the holding system. Farmers seeking work in cities usually became potential victims.

It was not rare for farmers who had just set foot in a city to be sent home as sanwu people, which refers to those with no legal identity documents, normal residence or source of income.

With the function of maintaining social order being removed from the new regulation, discriminatory actions against migrant workers are expected to stop.

To thoroughly plug any possible loopholes, the new regulation stipulates that "workers in shelters should not prevent those receiving relief from leaving." This underlines the voluntary basis of the new relief system.

The reduced role of the police in handling vagrants and beggars should bear further testimony to the change from forced detention to relief. Under the old method, the police were involved in the whole process of forced holding and relocation. But the new regulation entrusts the relief work to civil affairs departments at all levels.

Under the new regulation, the police have the duty to "inform beggars and vagrants that they can ask for help from shelters" and to "guide and escort" disabled people, the elderly and juveniles to the relief shelters.

They have no right to order or force beggars and vagrants into a shelter.

The new regulation urges all city governments at county level and above to set up such shelters for vagrants and beggars. The relief work should be financed totally from local budgets. Shelter workers should not charge those receiving relief.

Such a clause cannot be fully appreciated without some knowledge of the old days, when holding-centre personnel would randomly extort money from those being detained. Since most holding centres were only partly financed from State funds, some used this as an excuse to charge those detained to augment their insufficient funding.

In some areas, this practice went to extremes and encouraged the centres' staff to target more people to be held.

To maintain disciplined behaviour among shelter workers in future, the new regulation explicitly forbids staff from beating, insulting, blackmailing or imposing physical punishment on those seeking shelter in the relief centres. Staff should not force beggars or vagrants to work for them or hold onto their identification documents.

These requirements for shelter workers were absent in the old rules, which imposed more duties on those being held.

The old holding system did, in fact, start to be amended as early as 1997, according to Ma Huaide, a law expert from the Beijing-based China University of Political Science and Law. Ma took part in the State Council consultative meeting on the new regulation.

According to Ma, the new regulation was adopted and published so quickly as a result of the death of garment worker Sun Zhigang in a holding centre in Guangzhou in South China's Guangdong Province on March 20 and letters by law experts to the National People's Congress urging revision of the old rules.

The significance of the government's quick action goes beyond the birth of an upgraded regulation. More importantly, it signifies that a positive system of interactive administration is coming into being.

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