Outdated, unfair and overdue for reform

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 October, 2009, 12:00am

One of the prices the people of the mainland have had to pay for its growing prosperity is the loss of basic entitlements for many. The mainland depends on the mobility and flexibility of its labour force to maintain the pace of its industrial growth. But under the hukou system of household registration, access to education, health services and care for children and the elderly is generally not transferable to another place of residence. Workers who move away from home to take jobs therefore sacrifice these entitlements, and often those of their families. The social inequity is indefensible as well as economically illogical.

The hukou system has served China well as an instrument of social policy. But it has become outdated as a result of the migration of more than 200 million people from rural areas to factories and construction sites on the coast. Despite acknowledgement of this by officials, the system remains in need of radical reform. Meanwhile, many cities have taken matters into their own hands for the sake of their economic development. Shanghai, for example, is looking into mechanisms for separating entitlements from the hukou system so as to increase access to social services for the city's six million residents without permanent status - a third of its population.

Priority is being given to the highest earners and investors among migrants. The city, understandably, is looking after its own interests in the competition for talent with other mainland commercial centres and, for that matter, with Hong Kong. This is a step forward, but it will exacerbate the sense of social injustice felt by those who need the benefits most and yet find themselves excluded.

The hukou is discriminatory and a violation of human rights. Instantly dismantling it would have serious consequences, though, so it must be reformed gradually. If social inequity is not considered a good enough reason to get on with this task, the importance of education to the mainland's development might be. China can ill afford to have millions of migrant children at an educational disadvantage.