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Farmers Seek Future in Cities
On his hukou, or certificate of residence registration, Meng Jiliang is a farmer, but in fact he makes a living a long way from the land.

Instead of ploughing and reaping in his native mountain village, Meng and his wife own a small restaurant near the South Railway Station in Beijing.

Eight years ago, the 32-year-old farmer bid farewell to the land where he had lived for over 20 years in north China's Shanxi Province and went to Beijing, becoming one of the 3.2 million "floating population" in the country's capital.

"Of course, I felt there was more promise of finding work in a city than to toil on farmland all my life," said Meng, who has a yearly income of 50,000 yuan (US$6,000) from the restaurant.

Meng said the money was ten times the amount he and his wife could make on the farm. He and his wife now started work at 5:00 am and continued through until 10:00 pm every day.

With China's gradual shift to a market economy since the early 1990s, more and more rural laborers like Meng Jiliang are moving to cities, leaving behind their farming jobs, though most can still not delete the printed word "farmer" in their hukou booklets.

Shi Ying, a sociology researcher with the Academy of Social Sciences of Shaanxi, a province in northwest China, said the free flow of surplus rural laborers reflected the social progress of the country and helped solve labor shortages in the manufacturing and service sectors in economically developed regions.

"In the planned economy, the word 'farmer' was a symbol of social identity rather than a reference to a profession," Shi said. "As long as one was born into a rural family, the identity would be printed in his hukou and he was doomed to be a farmer.

"Such methods of identification used to restrict farmers' freedom to choose other professions," Shi said. "There were only three ways for rural people to change their identity -- by joining the army, seeking higher education or being recruited by factories."

However, rural people are no longer bound by the label of farmer, though they may still have the same hukou or even continue to stay on their native land.

In Dazhai, a village in Shanxi famous for its high-yielding terraces in the 1960s, about 80 percent of the 500 villagers had changed profession from their traditional role of farmers, according to Jia Chunsheng, head of the village committee.

Jia said most became workers, technicians and managers in village enterprises, whose products include walnut juice, shirts and cement which can be seen in city shops. The former model farming village now had 10 village enterprises.

In south China's Guangdong Province, about 10 million farmers from other provinces had found new positions, many as professional workers and managers in businesses, said Yun Youzhen, an official with the provincial government.

Now China is reforming its system of residence registration, and the former restrictions on employment according to hukou are being gradually lifted.

According to the statistics from the Ministry of Personnel, 18,000 farmers who passed recruiting tests have become civil servants since 1996 and have urban resident hukou -- freeing them from their "farmer" identification.

Meng Jiliang, the restaurant boss, envies the farmers-turned-civil servants. "I do not envy their jobs or positions," Meng said. "My only concern is hukou. Without the residence registration in Beijing, I cannot apply for a pension and old age insurance and I also have to pay a higher fee for the schooling of my daughter."

Shi Ying, the sociologist, said he believed the need for "farmers" like Meng Jiliang to change their hukou identities would inevitably lead to a deep and thorough reform of the residence registration system in China.

(Xinhua News Agency December 5, 2002)

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