Politburo official calls for hukou reform – rights of migrant workers high on NPC agenda

Momentum towards reform of China’s household registration (hukou) system seems to be growing in the build-up to this year’s National People’s Congress (NPC), the country’s annual parliament, which opens at the end of this week.

Zhou Yongkang, China’s most senior official in charge of public and state security, wrote in the Communist Party’s theoretical journal Seeking Truth (求是) that there was now an “urgent” need to reform the country’s anachronistic policy of dividing citizens into urban and rural residents, and explore new ways of managing internal migration.

Zhou’s remarks echo those of the newly appointed minister for agriculture, Han Changfu, who wrote in the People’s Daily that the younger generation of migrant workers were increasingly rejecting the rural-urban administrative divide, and demanding the same rights as their urban counterparts. Even though many younger migrant workers were either born or grew up in the city, they are still classified as rural residents and denied access to the education, medical care and social services allocated to urban residents.

On 1 March, 13 local newspapers, including the influential Southern Metropolis Daily, jointly published an editorial calling for sweeping reform of the hukou (户口) system, which they described as a source of injustice and corruption, one that systematically discriminates against citizens with a rural hukou.

However, the comments by Zhou Yongkang are by far the most significant, not only because he is the most senior official to support reform, but because the Public Security Ministry, which Zhou used to head, has hitherto been staunchly opposed to reform.

Hukou reform, and the rights of migrant workers generally, are now set to become a major topic of debate at the NPC. There has been piecemeal reform of the system at the local level over the last decade or so, and the rights of rural migrants have gradually improved, but in the final analysis, they are still second-class citizens who are still widely despised and looked down upon by urban residents.

Ultimately, the only solution to the urban rural divide is the complete abolition of the hukou system but this will be a lengthy and hugely complicated process that puts the interests of rural and urban governments in direct opposition to each other. However there is one practical and relatively straight forward step that urban governments could take straight away; namely shouldering the sole responsibility for the provision of schooling, medical and social services for the children of migrant workers, as recommended in CLB’s research report last year on the children of migrant workers.

Shanghai has already pledged to provide schooling to all migrant children this year, and Beijing’s Chaoyang district, which initially refused to accept responsibility for migrant children attending unlicensed schools that it had earmarked for demolition, has now, in response to public pressure, done an about-face and has promised to provide all displaced students with an education in the city.

“Our bottom line is to make sure that no school-age kids are kept out of school,” Liu Libin, the deputy director of Chaoyang’s education commission, told the People’s Daily on 1 March.
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