Set us free!

China’s Jeffersonian moment?

Set us free!

Mao’s ‘planned’ economy wasn’t just about designating how much steel to make, or how many bushels of wheat to harvest. In a country as populous as China, a planned economy also meant telling citizens where they had the right to live.

Mao’s planners thus created the ‘hukou’: a complex system of household registration that remains one of China’s most controversial social policies.

Simply explained: the hukou ties a citizens rights and entitlements to the place they were born. Perhaps this made sense during the command economy, but over the past 30 years the hukou system has looked more and more outdated thanks to massive migration – particularly from the countryside to the cities. Without that migration, China’s economy could not have grown so fast.

Under the hukou system, migrants from the countryside are denied the social welfare benefits available to residents with urban passes, including state-sponsored retirement pensions, housing subsidies and medical insurance nets. That’s why migrants rarely bring their families with them when they seek work in the cities, says the Shanghai Daily.

Critics argue that the hukou policy is a form of discrimination, dividing the population in two – urban ‘haves’ and rural ‘have nots’.

Now, the hukou is in the news again, and in a big way. In what the Wall Street Journal considers an unprecedented move, 13 Chinese newspapers have run an editorial urging the authorities to reform the household registration system. In a country where media control is considered the norm, this act resembles the sort of newspaper campaign Westerners are familiar with, but Chinese less so.

It may even surprise some Western journalists – after all, they are normally quick to label China’s 1,938 newspapers as mere ‘state-mouthpieces’. In this case, the newspapers attacking the government’s hukou policy included the influential Southern Metropolis Daily and Economic Observer.

“China has endured the bitterness of its household registration system for so long!” the joint editorial says. “We hold that individuals are born free, possessing the right to move freely!”

The timing of the editorial is designed to have maximum impact. The National People’s Congress begins its annual session today. The Chinese parliament (for more on how it works see WiC6) is expected to discuss the hukou. It is thought the government is considering major reforms to delink the provision of social services from a person’s hukou registration. For example, that could give migrants the same right to send their kids to city schools (for free) as urban residents.

The editorial might sound vaguely Jeffersonian. But from the government’s perspective, it is perhaps less about the rights of man than boosting domestic consumption.

The Wall Street Journal notes: “If migrant workers and their families were able to enjoy benefits in the cities where they live and work on par with urban hukou holders, the thinking goes, they would focus less on saving and sending money back home and more on spending their increased disposable income.”

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