With urbanization as goal, China moves to change registration rules

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HONG KONG — The Chinese government issued proposals Wednesday to break down barriers that a nationwide household registration system has long imposed between rural and urban residents and among regions, reinforcing inequality, breeding discontent and hampering economic growth.

Yet even as officials promoted easier urbanization and the goal of permanently settling an additional 100 million rural people in towns and cities by 2020, they said changes to the system — which links many government entitlements to a person’s official residence, even if that person has long since moved away — must be gradual and must protect big cities such as Beijing.

“This reform of the household registration system will be more decisive, vigorous, broad-ranging and substantive than it’s ever been,” Huang Ming, a vice minister of public security, said at a televised news conference in Beijing, where officials explained the proposals set out in a document released Wednesday. But Mr. Huang later added a caveat that displayed the caution accompanying the promises of change. “At the same time, however, specific policies have to be tailored to the practical circumstances of each city,” he said.

Changing China’s household registration rules was one of the main planks of reform promised by President Xi Jinping at a Communist Party meeting in November, and it was reiterated in plans for more vigorous urbanization issued this year. Now, Mr. Xi’s test will be achieving that promise, city by city, despite qualms and resistance from local officials and many long-term urban residents.

“I think there’s more hope of substantive change this time,” said professor Lu Yilong at Beijing’s Renmin University, who studies household registration divisions and their effects. “This is more a coordinated, top-down reform — unlike in the past, when local governments had more room to set their own rules. There have been changes already, and now we need a more systematic approach.”

The barriers in China’s system of household registration, or hukou, date to Mao’s era. In the late 1950s, the system was instituted to keep famished peasants from pouring into cities. The policies later calcified into caste-like barriers that still often tie citizens’ education, welfare and housing opportunities to their official residence, even if they have moved far away from that place to find a livelihood. The restrictions hinder permanent migration among many urban and rural areas and among regions and cities, such as Shanghai and Beijing.

“The main problem now is not the rural population moving to a local city; that’s quite easy,” said Ren Xinghui, a researcher for the Transition Institute, a privately funded organization in Beijing, who campaigns to stop educational discrimination against children from the countryside. “The main problem is migration across provinces and cities, and the controls imposed by the big cities against cross-region migration. That’s the key to hukou reform.”

Despite market forces that have transformed China’s economy, many of those barriers persist. Nowadays, about 54 percent of the population lives long-term in towns and cities. But only 36 percent of the Chinese people are counted as urban residents under the registration rules, according to government statistics. Under a plan issued in March, the government wants the long-term urban population to reach 60 percent of the total by 2020, and the number with urban household status to reach 45 percent.

The divisions have become a source of discontent, and sometimes protest — when, for example, children from the countryside or from another city cannot enroll in a local school or take the university entrance exam where they live.

Mr. Xi and, particularly, Prime Minister Li Keqiang have argued that faster urbanization should become an engine of economic growth in the coming decades. Already, 174 million of China’s 1.3 billion people are rural migrants working away from their hometowns, Yang Zhiming, a labor and social welfare official, said at the news conference. Many economists say the barriers deter consumption by migrant workers, who are afraid to spend more of their savings.

The government document released Wednesday brought together commitments, some already announced, to steadily and selectively lift some of these barriers. Some cities have already made such changes, including formally erasing the division between urban and rural registration for local residents. But experts have said such changes do not mean much unless welfare, housing and other policies are also changed to overcome persistent inequalities.

In small cities with urban populations of up to 1 million, people with steady jobs and housing who meet requirements for welfare payments will be allowed to register as local residents. Similar rules will apply to larger cities, with stricter limits. But the proposals say that for the biggest cities, with urban populations of 5 million or more, the number of newcomers must be stringently controlled, and a points system will be used to ration household registration opportunities.

The government also said, as it had before, that it would try to ease barriers that deny places in schools, health care and family-planning, and other public services to residents who do not have local household registration papers. Many city governments have resisted such changes, and urban residents fear the erosion of their privileges.

East Asia - Asia - China - Greater China - Beijing - China government - Shanghai - Xi Jinping - Li Keqiang - Christopher Buckley


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