Smile, you're on comrade camera

Kindergarten caretaker Liao Juchang was among the first people to register last week when Shenzhen began a pilot scheme to issue migrant workers with a smart residency card. Like others without a hukou, or residency permit, he looked forward to signing up because local authorities promised it would entitle him to benefits enjoyed by permanent residents, including free education for his children.

'Life will surely be more convenient with the new residency card if the authorities fulfil their pledge,' says the 37-year-old, who works in Shatoujiao, the mainland half of Sha Tau Kok village.

With the smart card, Liao can expect to save at least 3,000 yuan annually on school fees for his two children - a significant sum for a working-class family. He and his wife will also be able to apply for permits to visit Hong Kong and Macau directly from Shenzhen police instead of returning to his hometown of Meizhou in Guangdong to arrange travel papers.

As he left the residency card centre in Yantian district on September 12, the first day for registration, what Liao didn't realise was that the card would enable his activities to be tracked through an integrated information platform linked to about 20,000 surveillance cameras installed across Shenzhen. Phase one of the system is developed by China Public Security Technology, a software company owned by tycoon Lin Jianghui.

Introducing the first such scheme on the mainland, Shenzhen officials see the card as a tool to fight crime and control its huge migrant population. But the powerful tracking system is stirring concern over a Big Brother-style invasion of privacy and heated comments on the internet about discrimination against migrants.

Computer chips embedded in the cards store a wealth of personal information from name, religion and marital status to address, education background, job and medical insurance status, one-child policy conditions and contact number. According to the Shenzhen Police Bureau, all 2.6 million rental flats and houses in the city have been coded and migrants' addresses will be matched against them.

Face recognition software and street cameras will make scrutiny even easier.

Meanwhile, studies are under way on the feasibility of including data such as credit histories, driving records and public transport payments and convenience store purchases - which may be used to monitor a person's movements.

Although the authorities haven't set a deadline, all migrant residents aged between 16 and 60 will be required to carry a smart card if they stay in Shenzhen for more than 30 days (foreigners and Hong Kong and Macau residents are excluded). Police plan to conduct random checks. And rather than try to penalise recalcitrants, officials will fine their landlords two months' rent - a spur not to let out property to unregistered migrants.

Some say the card system is discriminatory because it requires migrant workers to apply for residency in their own country, and implies that they're likely criminals.

'The government says anyone without a residency card can't live here, can't rent an apartment for more than three months, and can't even get basic benefits like social insurance, medical services and compulsory education,' says Chen Changyi, a software engineer working in the Nanshan district. 'The policy violates our civil rights.'

An online poll on in July found that 93 per cent of 8,959 respondents viewed the new system as another version of the temporary resident permit, a bid to levy unreasonable fees, or discriminatory to migrants.

On internet forums such as, others criticise the government for neglecting migrants who make up the majority of Shenzhen's population and contributed so much to its growth. 'During the past decades, millions contributed taxes to the city, but only 10 per cent can enjoy its social welfare,' says 'PRG'.

Migrants far outnumber permanent residents, who make up only about 10 per cent of Shenzhen's population. Last year, there were only 1.96 million permanent residents - up from 1.2 million in 2001. By contrast, the migrant community jumped by 3 million in four years to 10 million in 2005 - due partly to the 2003 dismantling of a repatriation system under which the jobless were sent back to their hometowns - and now hovers at about 12 million.

This puts enormous pressure on public security, employment, transportation, education, health care and other public services, the authorities say.

Although police refuse to reveal statistics, Shenzhen has been plagued by street crime such as theft and robbery in the past decade, with officials equating the number of cases filed at a large police station to that of a mid-sized inland city. Most are blamed on migrants: Shenzhen population management official Lu Wenbin attributes more than 98 per cent of crime in the past two years to temporary residents.

Hence the need for a system to help curb crime and manage the migrant population, the deputy director of the Shenzhen Police Bureau, Shen Shaobao, said as he introduced the residency cards

last month. The US$390 million scheme is expected to be completed in three years and, if successful,

will be extended to 660 cities across the country.

Not surprisingly, permanent residents in Shenzhen are embracing the scheme as a way to ensure safer streets. Zhou Boqing, 56, a retired teacher, says he was mugged twice in recent years, once near his home in a Meilin residential estate in Futian district. The scheme will help make Shenzhen a safer city, he says.

More educated migrants criticise the scheme as reinforcing social prejudice, unfairly assuming them to be potential criminals.

Han Han, a freelance columnist for Beijing News, points out that many migrants are law-abiding people in their home towns. 'The authorities should consider why some of them turn to crime in Shenzhen,' he says. 'They aren't born criminals, and simply treating them as suspects may raise more security problems.'

Instead, the government should provide migrant workers with equal opportunities and help reduce the wealth gap, he says.

Lawyers and sociologists worry that a database accessible to various government agencies could threaten the migrant community's right to privacy.

Yang Shaonan, who heads the civil law division of the Shenzhen Lawyers' Association, says regulations aren't strong enough to protect the information and privacy problems will arise when personal data is processed carelessly.

Gao Huayou, a researcher with Shenzhen's population management office, concedes the residency card scheme had been delayed for two years because of privacy concerns but says managing such a large, mobile population is a dilemma. 'The paper-based temporary resident permit, which was introduced in 1983, cannot be used to manage 11 million migrants in Shenzhen, especially when nearly 26 per cent of them are 'floating',' he says.

The residency cards will speed Shenzhen Mayor Xu Zongheng's plan to reduce the city's population in three years to a more manageable 9 million, made up mostly of skilled workers or people with overseas education. The mayor's target will exclude most migrants: official statistics show just 8.4 per cent of migrants in Shenzhen have college diplomas and more than 66 per cent are educated only to secondary level.

Many of those who have provided the muscle for Shenzhen's boom feel a sense of betrayal. One worker who declined to be named says: 'In 2002, the hottest article about Shenzhen on the internet was titled 'Shenzhen: who has abandoned you?' But for the city's migrants, it's a case of 'Shenzhen: who have you abandoned?''