Dismantling the hukou system requires care
China has weathered the global economic crisis better than other nations, but a significant proportion of the people are nonetheless suffering. About 23 million migrant factory workers lost their jobs as a result of Western demand for imports drying up. Their plight now, amid government concern about the widening gap between the urban rich and rural poor, has become the focus of a campaign in the media and policymaking circles to abolish the outdated residency permit system. National People's Congress lawmakers should heed the calls and begin a concerted programme of reforms.
The system, known as hukou, is an anomaly amid China's economic and social rise. It made a degree of sense when introduced in 1958 to minimise the movement of people to towns and cities. By classifying citizens as urban and rural and registering them to specific areas, checks could be kept on jobs, education and agricultural productivity. But with 200 million people no longer living in the place where they are registered, the system has clearly outlived its usefulness.
Authorities are well aware of the problems. The majority of migrant workers and their families in cities are not entitled to social services such as health care, public housing assistance and, most worrying, education. Premier Wen Jiabao in December promised continued steady reform of the system to ensure that all people had the same rights. A policy document issued last month by the Communist Party's central committee and the State Council envisaged changes that would affect only a minority of migrants.
Reform is a complicated matter. Rural hukou labour has kept factory production costs low and provided cheap staff for shops and restaurants. Migrant workers serve as nannies and maids for the urban middle class. Local governments do not have the finances to provide the necessary services.
Dismantling the system clearly has to be a carefully thought out, step-by-step process. Pilot schemes have been undertaken in Guangdong and Zhejiang provinces and in Shanghai, Chengdu and Wuhan, but they have affected only a small number of migrants. The scale of the challenge means that lawmakers have to give it priority at their meeting in Beijing. Every effort has to be made to ensure that all Chinese are given equal opportunities - for their own good and for the good of the country.