Shifting barriers | The Economist

THE pillars of social control are flaking at the edges.

First came the relaxation in October of draconian family-planning restrictions. Now it is the turn of the household-registration, or hukou, system, which determines whether a person may enjoy subsidised public services in urban areas—rural hukou holders are excluded. On December 12th the government announced what state media trumpeted as the biggest shake-up in decades of the hukou policy, which has aggravated a huge social divide in China’s cities and curbed the free flow of labour.

The pernicious impact of the system, however, will long persist. As with the adjustment to the decades-old family-planning policy (now all couples will be allowed to have two children), the latest changes to the hukou system follow years of half-hearted tinkering. They will allow migrant workers to apply for special residency permits which provide some of the benefits of an urban hukou (a booklet proving household registration is pictured above).

If an urban hukou is like an internal passport, the residency permit is like a green card. Under the arrangements, migrants will be able to apply for a permit if they have lived in a city for six months, and can show either an employment contract or a tenancy agreement. The document will allow access to state health care where the migrants live, and permit their children to go to local state schools up to the age of 15. It will also make other bureaucratic things easier, like buying a car. Such reforms have already been tried in some cities. They will now be rolled out nationwide.

For those who meet the requirements, the changes will bring two main benefits. They should allow some of the 70m children who have been left behind to attend school in their native villages to join their migrant parents. And it will allow migrants to use urban services without losing the main benefit of their rural hukou: the right to farm a plot of land. According to a survey in 2010 by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, 90% of migrants did not want to change their registration status because they feared losing this right.

Source: Shifting barriers | The Economist

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