Breaking the shackles

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 August, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 August, 2001, 12:00am

The derogatory term 'blind flow' was once used to refer to the tens of thousands of rural workers who flocked to the coastal regions of China looking for work.

Not any more. As the mainland marches towards a market economy, an increasing number of urban folks have come to realise that these migrants are no country bumpkins. Although many have received little or no education, others are well qualified. And they are certainly not 'blind'. They are risk takers who have dared leave their hometowns in search of better opportunities.

Rural-urban migration is a headache for every developing country. Tackled well, it can narrow the wealth gap between the cities and the country. Handled poorly, it means urban sprawl, mushrooming shanty towns, and much worse. It was to prevent the rural poor from flooding the cities that in the 1950s the mainland established the hukou system, which ties people to working where they are registered to live.

Today, the system has clearly outlived its usefulness. For example, because they have not been allowed to transfer their hukou, millions of former migrant workers who have settled down in the cities are still denied access to social services. With surplus rural labour estimated at 150 million, and growing by about five to six million a year, the restrictions on the movement of labour risk turning the countryside into a powderkeg, with people fuming over being denied a share of the urban wealth.

For lack of an alternative, Beijing has balked at scrapping the hukou system. Until now, that is. The State Planning Commission has drawn lessons from other countries to map out an employment registration system, under which everyone will have a unique social security number, a personal salary account and a social security account.

Presumably, these portable accounts will free individuals from being tied to their work units, which have been responsible for taking care of their staff and their families, cradle to grave. Instead, people will in future contribute to their own social security accounts, regardless of who they work for and where they live.

The changes will relieve enterprises of an onerous burden and free them to use their resources more productively. For the hundreds of millions of unshackled peasants, they spell freedom to pursue their dreams. For a country that is still communist in form, the transformation they will bring about will truly be revolutionary.