Limited reforms of China's restrictive household registration system, long criticized as discriminatory by rights campaigners, don't go far enough to allow the country's hundreds of millions of rural residents fair access to services in cities, analysts said on Thursday.
China announced on Wednesday it would remove restrictions on anyone wishing to move to smaller towns and cities to find work and educate their children, while strengthening "protection" of its major cities and megacities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Chongqing.
In a legal opinion on the household registration, or "hukou," system, China's cabinet, the State Council, said the moves were aimed at encouraging rural people to migrate to cities to find work and education.
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 now become possible, the State Council said.
Under the new rules, anyone wishing to apply for a hukou in small towns and cities of less than 500,000 residents who has a job and a place to live should be able to do so, along with their dependents.
In larger cities with populations of up to one million, hukou applications will be granted, but with possible additional conditions, including payment of urban social security for a minimum period, the opinion said.
'Not far enough'
Cities where competition for hukou is fierce may add further conditions, but are banned from linking them to personal wealth or property ownership, it said.
However, urban authorities should try to attract more skilled workers and university and college graduates to settle in urban areas, it said.
Meanwhile, megacities of more than five million should take steps to control their populations, and make their settlement criteria accessible to the public, the State Council said.
Liu Kaiming, who directs the Institute of Contemporary Observation in the southern city of Shenzhen, said the proposed reforms don't go far enough, however.
"The problem is that if they just derestrict the hukou system in small and medium-sized cities, there aren't the same employment opportunities in most of those places," Liu said.
"So hukou registrations aren't so valuable there."
He said the majority of job opportunities cluster in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.
"That's where you have high concentrations of outsiders, and those are the places they should be opening up for hukou applications," Liu said.
New rules 'a mess'
Meanwhile, Beijing lawyer Cheng Hai said the new rules are "a mess."
"By law, people should be allowed to move hukou freely from one place to another," Cheng said. "The law regarding household registration in 1958 states that the hukou should relate to one's normal residence. Someone's hukou should be issued wherever they live."
"A hukou registration is purely for gathering population data; it shouldn't have any other purpose," Cheng said.
"These so-called reforms from the State Council are nothing more than a tweak to the previous illegal state of affairs."
He said China's existing national identity card system should be sufficient, and that the hukou system is outdated and burdensome on citizens.
"If the two things confer the same rights, then why duplicate them?" Cheng said. "The residence permit system is illegal."
Move to the cities
The changes to the hukou rules form part of Beijing's seven-year urbanization strategy which it hopes will see more than 100 million rural residents migrate to cities by 2020.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party hopes to boost the percent of Chinese living in cities to 60 percent by then, compared with 53.7 percent today.
The hope is that urbanization will also give 45 percent of citizens access to health care and education, benefits enjoyed now by only 35.7 percent of China's 1.3 billion population.
A Beijing University report released last week showed a rapidly widening gap between rich and poor in China, with the top one percent of households controlling more than one third of the country's wealth.
The bottom 25 percent control just one percent of the wealth between them, 2012 figures show, amid concern that growing inequality could spark mounting social unrest.
Reported by Lin Ping for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.