What is the toughest prize to win in Chinese sport? Turns out it is getting a Beijing hukou or ‘household registration’.
A group of athletes who represented Beijing at national competitions (against other Chinese cities and provinces) are threatening to sue the city’s sport authorities for now refusing to pay their retirement fee on the grounds they were not Beijing residents.
The 27 men and women came to Beijing as children and teenagers at a time when the city wanted to attract the best sporting talent.
The athletes say they were promised sizable payouts when they retired and, in some cases, also a hukou. But when they were released from their duties in their mid-twenties neither was forthcoming.
Getting a Beijing hukou has become much harder. And only those with a hukou can receive retirement pay from the city’s sports authorities.
“I relocated to Beijing hoping to get a local hukou and go to college. Now it turns out I can’t even get my retirement fund without being registered here, ” Xie Lili the former captain of Beijing’s female boxing team tells Tencent News.
A typical payout would be in the range of about $15,000, the Global Times said, a modest sum given most of the athletes earn almost nothing while competiting and often retire with injuries and health problems.
The dispute is reminiscent of a case a few years ago when a former gymnastics star Zhang Shangwu was found begging on the streets in Beijing.
At the time China’s Soviet-style sports system came in for a lot of criticism and it pledged to do more to help former athletes find work and adapt to normal life after years of institutional existence.
Yet the case of the 27 athletes has yet again turned the spotlight on the hukou system, which links access to government services to the person’s place of registration – often the same place they were born.
The system, introduced in the 1950s, was intended to control the movement of people. The idea: that there would always be enough farmers to feed the population and just enough people in the cities to do non-agricultural work.
Ironically, even as governments have pursued a policy of rapid urbanisation, the system has remained in place – albeit with modifications.
As of last year, people are no longer classified as urban or rural, and most provinces no longer insist a farmer gives up land rights in their village if he wants to transfer his hukou to a town or city.
This is important because many of China’s 170 million migrant workers are farmers and they view their land as a safety net – a way of feeding themselves in an economic downturn or if life in the city doesn’t work out.
The government’s goal is to get 100 million people currently registered in rural areas to transfer their hukou to towns or cities by 2020.
To facilitate this, small urban centres have been instructed to do away with restrictions on accepting new people, and larger conurbations have introduced a points system to attract the people they need.
Bigger cities have also started providing migrant workers with temporary residence permits so they can access basic social services outside their place of registration. The permits also count towards any hukou application, alongside tax payment records, home ownership and doing a useful job or possessing a useful skill.
Crucially cities with under 5 million inhabitants have been told they cannot place excessive demands on people who want to register there.
Yet the situation in the first tier cities – where a third of the population does not have local hukou – is totally different.
The government is trying to curb population growth in the bigger conurbations like Beijing and has said such cities will only give out hukou on “the basis of [the city’s] overall load bearing capacity and social and economic requirements”.
Sadly for athletes already past their medal-winning days, Beijing might decide it doesn’t need them after all.
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