Rural, urban voters may get equal rights
The vote of a rural resident will finally be given the same weight as that of his urban counterpart under draft amendments to the Electoral Law tabled yesterday at the National People's Congress, but voting rights for the migrant population have not been included, causing some deputies and experts to express concern.
The change was part of China's effort to narrow widening gaps between its rural and urban population. The huge disparities have become a source of social discontent and a bottleneck of development.
Introduced in 1958 to protect the rights of workers in the cities, the Electoral Law originally stipulated that there should be one NPC deputy for every 800,000 rural residents, and one for every 100,000 urban residents. After several amendments, the ratio was lowered to 4:1 in 1995.
'The urban population in China has increased from 29.04 per cent in 1995 to 46.6 per cent in 2009. At the same time, people's congresses at all levels have gone through many terms of elections, accumulated abundant experience,' NPC Standing Committee vice-chairman Wang Zhaoguo said yesterday when presenting the draft to the legislature.
'[The amendments] will better reflect the principles of equality among people, regions and ethnic groups, spread the people's democracy, ensure the people are the masters of the country.'
Direct elections on the mainland are limited to the election of people's congress deputies at the county level and below. Deputies of the national provincial people's congresses are elected by the people's congress deputies one level below.
The Electoral Law already specifies that the number of NPC deputies will not be more than 3,000, which means that the number of deputies to be elected by each province will have to be re-allotted by the NPC Standing Committee for the next NPC term, beginning in 2013.
Apart from the same population ratio for rural and urban voters, Wang said two other guiding principles would be that every administrative area, regardless of population, would be guaranteed the same amount of basic seats, and all ethnic groups at least one representative.
The draft amendments also included a new clause which says 'there shall be an appropriate number of deputies at the primary level, especially from among workers, farmers and intellectuals'.
The proposed amendments, discussed by the NPC Standing Committee in October and December, are in line with the focus of this year's government report on reducing the rural-urban gap, which is seen by the authorities as a main cause of social disharmony.
Many NPC deputies hailed the amendments as an important first step in ensuring voting equality, but some deputies from the Beijing and Shanghai delegations said more needed to be done, especially in relation to the migrant population.
Currently, the right to vote is tied to one's hukou (residence permit), which is very difficult to transfer from a rural area to a city, or even from one city to another, unless the holder is employed by a state work unit. The law currently requires people to return to where their hukou is to vote, or authorise someone back home to vote for them.
'Apart from migrant workers, there is also a substantial number of young and middle-aged professionals in the cities who have not been able to obtain hukou there,' Beijing deputy Xu Zhihong said. 'Their right to elect and be elected must be protected.'
This group of non-hukou permanent urban residents includes lawyers, accountants, journalists, IT consultants and others working in the private sector, according to administrative law professor Cai Dingjian , of the Chinese University of Politics and Law. They make up one-third of Beijing's population, and 50 per cent of Shenzhen's.
Official data puts the mainland's mobile population at the end of 2009 at 180 million, of which more than 149 million were migrant workers.
Wang said voting rights for the migrant population was an issue 'that involves too many aspects and is too complicated' and that the conditions are not mature yet as 'the hukou system is undergoing reform'.
Cai did not agree. 'The migrant population should not have to wait until the abolition of the hukou system before they can vote,' he said.