Press and TV reports here in the People's Republic of China indicate that the country is set to scrap its hukou or household registration system over the next five years.

The system had effectively created a kind of apartheid in China, where people with a rural household registration (some 70% of the population) were prevented from moving to the cities in search of a better life, deepening the wealth gap between urban and rural residents. Those migrants who did come to the cities found themselves excluded from equal access to education, health and other social services.

The justification for this iniquitous division that left the majority of the population as second class citizens in their own country lay in China's fear of the potential instability expected to be caused by a mass rush of farmers to the cities, destroying any of the fragile benefits of China's recent economic growth.

It appears that the motivation for this change comes from the requirements for China's imminent accession to the WTO, plus a realisation that in-migration from the countryside, far from threatening growth, helps to keep the urban economy vibrant, with migrants willing to do all sorts of dangerous, dirty and menial work that urbanites consider beneath them.
Interestingly, it appears much of the lobbying for change within the government came from the Public Security Bureau, China's civil police force, who were charged with administering the registration system. Interviewed in Nanfang Zhoumo the head of the registration department said the police were tired of bearing the brunt of criticism for a hated system they didn't devise and saw no value in. This is further evidence that governance in China is not the monolith that many foreign observers assume.

Last month (August 2001) the city of Shijiazhuang, provincial capital of Hebei, began a system whereby anyone with a fixed place of residence and stable employment in the city could register there, giving them access to benefits under China's emerging urban social security system. It appears that outside the major metropolises of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, cities have lost their appeal as the perceived rewards of migration for farmers are offset by the administrative discrimination they were subjected to.

If it does go ahead as planned, it will see China getting rid of the distinction between the peasantry and city dwellers that has existed since classical times, hopefully bringing to an end a millenia old prejudice against the farmers of China, traditionally first in creating the nation's wealth and last in receiving the benefits of that wealth. Perhaps it's related to the drop in the relative importance of agriculture to the national economy in the reform era.

2008 update - despite certain local trial programmes, the system still remains in place. Although many ignore the strictures and head for the cities anyway, the inability to register as a permanent resident affects access to services such as education and the welfare system.

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