Beijing residents will not fail to notice that there are more beggars in the streets and the subway these days than before. The reason? The police recently relinquished their powers to send rural migrants off to repatriation centres. Although it may take time to establish the new shelters for beggars and vagrants (converted from the original repatriation centres) as social welfare institutes, the new vagrancy law has already had a profound impact on the minds of migrants. They no longer live in fear of being sent to repatriation centres if they cannot show a residence permit. Li Tao, director of Facilitators, a Beijing-based non-governmental organisation dedicated to helping migrants, says temporary residence permits are no longer required because rural migrants can live and work freely in cities, now that the custody and repatriation centres have been abolished. The vagrancy law, prompted by a media outcry over the brutal death of a 27-year-old designer in a repatriation centre, is one of many signs of a subtle shift towards a more humanistic approach to the treatment of the disadvantaged, and to handling social grievances. Another sign of change is the extensive media coverage of the plight of farmer Zhu Zhengliang, from Anhui province, who set himself on fire near Tiananmen in protest of the demolition of his home by the local government. Incidents relating to disgruntled farmers and rural migrants resorting to extremist measures (such as self-immolation or the raising of banners in sensitive areas) were rarely reported by a local media focused on painting a rosy picture of society and disinclined to highlight cases of social discontent. The day after Mr Zhu's case made headlines in the foreign press, the Xinhua news agency confirmed the story, and it was soon picked up by local newspapers. Days before the farmer's act of self-immolation, the People's Daily ran a commentary urging officials to take a more serious view of letters of complaint from the public addressed to the government. Despite a more flexible approach in its handling of social grievances, China is facing escalating social tension as unemployment levels continue to rise, and the gap between the rich and the poor widens. Official statistics put China's urban unemployment rate at 4.5 per cent, but experts say the figure is misleading because it does not include hidden unemployment - those thousands who have been retrenched but whose names still appear on the company payroll, and the multitudes of workers in the countryside. Xinhua recently reported that at least 14 million urban residents are unemployed, and of this number women over 40 years and men over 50 have little hope of finding a job. This group accounts for at least three million jobless people. The Sars epidemic this year only made matters worse. Xinhua says employment in the tertiary sector dropped by 10 per cent in the second quarter this year, compared with the first quarter. 'In many places, policies to help the unemployed find work have been postponed, while regular training and recruitment activities were halted,'' the agency says. Even the well-educated are hit by the problems. Up to July this year, some 700,000 university graduates were still without jobs, Xinhua says. The unemployment problem prompted the government to launch a campaign last month to revive the economy in the rust belt, a major policy shift from the 'Go West' campaign launched by former Premier Zhu Rongji two years ago. Coupled with the urban discontent is the rising tension in rural areas. Although a law on rural land was introduced last year to protect farmers' rights, under the household responsibility system, farmers like Mr Zhu are vulnerable to exploitation by local officials who can seize their land to construct new buildings and roads without offering proper compensation. Despite repeated calls for regulated seizure of farmland, officials say such laws are still not on the agenda. One way to alleviate poverty and reduce discontent in the countryside is to allow rural migrants to look for jobs in the cities. In December last year, the state council issued a circular acknowledging rural-urban migration as an inevitable social trend, and ordered local governments to scrap restrictions that get in the way of such migration. This marked a major shift towards officially embracing rural migrants as a part of the urban economies. Migrants now need not fear being sent home, or being coerced by officials to pay a 'ransom' for their release from repatriation centres. Still, they face many problems. One is the lack of a social security net for migrant workers. For example, kidney patient Sun Wenjuan, whose plight was highlighted by the South China Morning Post, was denied the medical insurance employees of state enterprises are entitled to - simply because she was a rural migrant. Neither is she entitled to any of the social welfare schemes created for urban residents. (The South China Morning Post raised funds for her third kidney operation, and she is undergoing health checks for a possible transplant.) Improving the lot of migrants may be an uphill task, but at least the official propaganda machine acknowledges its presence, and makes frequent reference to 'serving the needs of the people', 'humanistic approach' and 'vulnerable groups' in articles on the subject.