Less than equal
In a rare move, 13 newspapers across the country recently published a joint editorial exhorting the country's leaders to abolish the hukou system of residential control, which prevents those from the countryside from ever becoming recognised as city residents.
The system was introduced more than 50 years ago to curb the migration of peasants into the cities. But now, with a market economy that requires free movement of workers, the system is clearly no longer appropriate.
Tens of millions of people - possibly up to 200 million - no longer live in their registered domiciles because they work in factories churning out products for export.
But they and their children - even those born in the cities - still carry with them the stigma of rural residence. That means they do not have social welfare benefits like other urban dwellers, such as public housing assistance. Their children are not entitled to educational benefits and they do not get health care.
Premier Wen Jiabao , in his work report to the National People's Congress on March 5, promised that the state will 'carry out reform of the household registration system and relax requirements for household registration in towns and small and medium-sized cities'. However, his words did not carry a sense of urgency.
It is unusual for a Chinese newspaper to demand change of Beijing. It is even more rare for so many newspapers to join together to demand the scrapping of an outmoded policy.
China's censors have retaliated. The chief drafter of the editorial, Zhang Hong, deputy editor in chief of the website of the Beijing-based Economic Observer weekly newspaper, was fired. Others involved were disciplined, although no details are available. The offending article was erased from websites.
The communist leadership has traditionally squeezed the peasants to support industrialisation in the cities. Discrimination against farmers was entrenched even in the country's electoral legislation. When the electoral law was enacted in the 1950s, urban residents were entitled to one NPC representative for every 100,000 people; in the countryside, the people were entitled to only one representative per 800,000 residents. In 1995, this became one for every 400,000 rural dwellers. Last week, the law was finally changed to provide for equal representation.
Even so, as long as the hukou regulations remain on the books, there will not be true equality.
The joint editorial cited the Chinese constitution, which says in Article 33: 'All citizens of the People's Republic of China are equal before the law.'
It did not cite George Orwell, but it is clear that, if all Chinese are equal, those with an urban hukou are more equal than others.
Beijing has pledged to reform the current system, but giving everyone the same social benefits will be a drain on government coffers.
Employers, naturally, oppose making welfare contributions on behalf of their migrant workers. Besides, such contributions will cause payroll costs to rise, cut into profit margins and reduce competitiveness.
But there are also powerful economic arguments for taking action. Beijing understands that exports will no longer provide the economic stimulus they did previously and that domestic consumption will have to be greatly increased.
However, as long as social welfare benefits are denied to a substantial portion of the population, those affected will save as much as possible to provide for the inevitable rainy day. But, if a social safety net were extended to them, there would be a resulting - and continuing - stimulus to the economy.
If President Hu Jintao is serious about social harmony and a people-oriented government, he really has no choice. He must bring an end to the injustice in which hundreds of millions of people who contribute disproportionately to the nation's economy are deprived of a fair share of the rewards.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator