In an ambitious move to make basic welfare more accessible, the central government will issue social security cards for everyone on the mainland. The cards, which can double as bank cards, are issued by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security with the co-operation of the central bank, the People's Bank of China. The programme, currently in pilot form, will dwarf that for identity cards. ID cards, issued by the public security authorities, are for residents aged 16 and above, but the social security cards are to be for all. Although a person's social security card will have the same number as their ID card, the functions of the two are not to be merged soon, said Hu Xiaoyi, vice-minister of human resources and social security. In the future, Hu said, the social security card would take on more functions, such as for claiming retirement, unemployment, work-injury and maternity benefits. In a pilot programme, now being extended, about 145 million new social security cards have been issued in 170 cities, according to official data from the end of July. The mainland has more than 360 cities. According to the nation's 12th five-year plan, which covers the period from 2011 to 2015, up to 800 million cards will be issued, covering 60 per cent of the mainland population. The rest will be issued after that. It was premature to expect the security cards to take on personal investment functions any time soon, said Wang Yanzhong, a scholar with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences known for his research on social security. Still, according to both social security and central bank officials at an official press conference in Beijing yesterday, the social security card will provide access to the holder's personal welfare accounts and will be able to process much larger amounts of information than the present ID cards. ID cards carry limited information about the cardholder and don't allow for changes to information. At present, according to Hu, the main function of the new social security card is to allow the holder to pay medical bills wherever they are on the mainland. 'It is the priority,' he said; 'a focal demand from society'. When dealing with inter-city medical care, beneficiaries are usually required to pay with their own money and seek reimbursement afterwards. 'But to claim reimbursement can be an annoying experience, as the social security administrators in one city tend to turn down the bills from another city for who knows how many reasons,' said Zhou Xiaxia, an employee of Ericsson (China) who recently went back to the city where her mother retired, to get reimbursement for her medical bills. 'There don't seem to be clear rules. It ends up like a one-on-one negotiation.' Beneficiaries of retirement policies can face similar difficulties. One prerequisite for cities to be admitted to the pilot programme for the social security card is that they must have reliable connectivity with the nationwide network, so that they can process cards issued anywhere on the mainland, Hu said. A network has been built between the central data centre of the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security and all provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions, he said. The pilot programme is progressing rapidly. Officials said they expected that by the end of this year cardholders would reach 190 million. There is also a plan to upgrade the card's security features, said Li Dongrong, assistant governor of the central bank. In five years, he said, all cards would be upgraded from the present magnetic-strip cards to more sophisticated chip-only cards, to make them more secure. Li said the country's UnionPay network, which allows for the nationwide use of bank debit cards, had generated sufficient experience to handle the social security card's withdrawal and payment features.