Many migrants unpersuaded by hukou reform

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Though the Chinese government has decided to relax restrictions for migrant workers to seek permanent resident status in towns, small and medium-sized cities, the long-awaited reform faces indifference from many nostalgic migrant workers.

Only 10.7 percent of people surveyed by the statistics bureau of southwest China's Sichuan Province said they are willing to register their resident permit, or "hukou," in cities.

The uninterested migrant workers believe the hukou is more advantageous in rural areas than in cities. Among the issues they worry about most is their old-age care, house-buying opportunities and unemployment in cities, showed the research, which questioned 3,000 migrant workers aged 18 to 65 in nine cities in Sichuan in April and May.

The State Council, China's cabinet, said on Wednesday that better services will be provided to migrant workers in cities to help them become urbanites as it plans to help about 100 million migrant rural people settle in towns and cities by 2020.

A scheme unveiled by the central government will replace the current hukou system, which has divided people into urban or rural residents since the 1950s, with a unified one which no longer differentiates.

A citizen's hukou has significant bearing on his or her life. For the past half a century or so, great disparities have existed between residents with urban and rural hukou in terms of welfare and rights.

"I got an urban hukou after graduating from college and finding a government job. How excited and glad I was at that time!" remembered Li Wenzhong, 52, an agricultural official in central China's Henan Province.

According to Li, an urban hukou first of all meant one had monthly rationed food coupons under the past planned economy. With the coupons, they could buy grain at much lower prices.

Hao Qike, a 54-year-old farmer in the eastern Shandong Province, said he could only secure employment as a temporary worker with no bonus at a township supply and distribution cooperative in 1978 because of his rural hukou. He needed to change his hukou into an urban one in order to be a formal staffer.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, the status symbol of an urban hukou was so attractive in China that many people living rurally tried to obtain one through financial means and exploiting any contacts they had.

The urban hukou began to lose its luster a little after the food coupon system was revoked nationwide in the mid-1990s. Yet with reform and opening up, a large number of rural citizens have moved to cities for jobs.

By the end of last year, China had 269 million migrant workers.

The current dual hukou system has prevented millions of migrant workers from enjoying the same services as urbanites in pensions, medical care and housing, as all these are linked to the hukou.

For example, it is very difficult for migrant workers' children to enter public schools in cities where they live. In megacities such as Beijing, the hukou is a basic requirement for young girls when choosing boyfriends.

Meanwhile, living standards on farms have improved a lot over the past decade as their inhabitants have gradually gained access to pensions and medical care besides contracted land interests such as grain subsidies.

This makes many farmers unwilling to try for a hukou in cities. If they become urban residents, migrant workers lose their land-related interests under current local regulations of many rural areas. Most farmers still regard land as the most reliable guarantee of their livelihood.

"If it was not for marriage and buying a house, I would not have obtained a hukou in Guangzhou. My piece of contracted land was lost after I moved my hukou to the city," said Zhang Haiyuan, a teacher in Guangzhou, capital of south China's Guangdong Province. Zhang comes from a village in Shandong Province.

The hukou reform document also says the government will improve the population administration system and ensure the legal rights and interests of people migrated from the countryside.

The hukou is the most fundamental Chinese system which plays an important role in modern governance. Reforms in finance and public services should be carried out at the same time to ensure the success of the hukou reform, said Yan Jirong, a professor of politics at Peking University.

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