China's Hukou Reforms 'Won't Work In Practice'

2013-12-18
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Chinese migrant workers lie in cement pipes to cool themselves down on a hot day in Shandong province, June 18, 2013.
Chinese migrant workers lie in cement pipes to cool themselves down on a hot day in Shandong province, June 18, 2013.
ImagineChina

China's plans to reform its unpopular household registration, or hukou, system by 2020 are unlikely to change the situation on the ground for the country's millions of migrant workers who lack access to education and social services in the cities where they work, analysts said on Wednesday.

While the new system aims to extend pension, education and healthcare services to anyone who has a legitimate job in a city, regardless of their place of birth, the additional funding and facilities are not yet in place for the changes to have any meaning for China's 260 million migrant workers, they said.

"It's all very well for the government to say this, but they can't actually deliver," Shenzhen-based current affairs commentator Zhu Jianguo said in an interview on Wednesday.

"They simply don't have enough public schools, so this system is going to have some major holes in it."

He likened the reforms to "painting a pancake" to assuage someone's hunger. "They just want to calm popular anger," Zhu said.

Under the current system, which dates back to the Mao era of collective farming and a planned economy, every household accesses services from its place of registration, posing huge social problems for China's hundreds of millions of migrant workers and their families.

The reformed hukou system will be based on a person's place of residence and job, rather than their birthplace, and transfer of hukou registrations will become possible, official media reported this week.

Call for abolition

But Beijing-based constitutional affairs scholar Yu Meisun said the current plans would leave a large number of people in a grey area, where their rights are concerned.

"They can't just make statements in principle; every detail has to be set out, and then it all has to be implemented," he said.

He said any attempt to reform the system went against the spirit of the constitution.

"People should be free to come and go as they please," Yu said. "The goal of hukou reform should be the abolition of the hukou system."

He said little progress had been made in the past 20-30 years of economic reform in China.

"This has been dragging on for decades now," Yu said.

Migrant children

Migrant workers who move to towns and cities to seek work in factories say they are often treated as unwelcome interlopers, and enjoy much less access to public services like education, welfare payments and health care than those who were born there.

China has nearly 20 million children aged under 14 who have followed their migrant-worker parents to cities, official media reported, citing figures from the China Children and Teenagers’ Fund.

Rights groups say migrant children are often barred from attending school or taking examinations in the cities where their parents work, and often end up being used as child labor.

In November 2012, the deaths of five "left-behind" children of absent migrant workers in a dumpster in the southwestern province of Guizhou caused a public outcry.

Guizhou authorities took disciplinary action against eight officials and teachers in connection with the deaths of the five children, whose bodies were found in a dumpster where they had apparently been living.

The case sparked outrage among netizens concerned over the protection of minors and threw a spotlight on the plight of migrant parents, many of whom leave their children behind in their hometowns, citing educational discrimination and tough living conditions in the cities where they work.

Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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