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Migrant Population Deserves Better

The debate over whether to scrap the temporary residence registration scheme is becoming increasingly heated.

Public opinions reflected through the media and those flooding the Internet are calling for an immediate halt of the system, which, they say, constitutes discrimination against migrant workers.

Standing on the sidelines are a number of experts and scholars.

It has been pointed out that extra functions have been attached to the temporary residence card, which it should not have possessed in the first place. In a sense, the small card even determines the very survival of migrant people in China's cities.

The topic also reminds people of the tragic death of Sun Zhigang in March. Sun, a young Hubei native working with a garment company in Guangzhou of Guangdong Province, was taken to the police station just because he did not own a temporary residence registration card. He later died in a penitentiary hospital from injuries sustained in a brutal beating.

The accident triggered a public outcry and widespread criticism, which finally put an end to the system of forcefully sending people without official registration for their temporary residence back to their home territories.

It has been argued that the termination of the "repatriation" system crushes the foundation for the existence of the temporary residence registration system, so an immediate elimination of the policy is a natural choice.

This argument does make sense, but opposing voices are equally loud, mainly from grassroots government departments, and public security departments in particular.

The requirement for migrant workers to register with police stations in their destination cities is an important tool of management catering to the current situation, an Outlook Weekly report quoted some public security departments as saying. It is not flawless, but generally the pros outweigh the cons.

They held that before a new and more advanced system is introduced, the temporary residence card system, first introduced in 1958, should be maintained.

Their clinging to the system is not without some good reasons.

The past few years have witnessed a rapid expansion of the migrant population. For instance, in Guangdong Province, the pioneer of the country's reform and opening up drive, the number of registered migrant residents stands at 18.53 million.

While contributing to local economic prosperity, this transient population also poses a tough challenge to social order and public security in destination cities.

Relevant statistics indicate that among the criminal suspects apprehended in Guangdong, 60 per cent are from what is considered the migrant population. In the Pearl River Delta area, the rate runs as high as 80 per cent, according to the Outlook Weekly report.

The registration system, which ensures access for local public security departments to information about the migrant population, enhances convenience in management.

Such a role in management, however, cannot fully explain the reluctance of local governments to abandon the temporary registration system.

Hiding behind the small card are enormous benefits for local government departments. Excessive fees are charged when the card is issued.

Within a centre for application of a temporary residence permit in Guangzhou, what jumps into one's eyes is a line of nine windows of government departments waiting for fee collection, including those of industry and commerce, health, labour, family planning and tax, said the Outlook Weekly story.

For the required 11 red stamps, an applicant has to pay from several hundred yuan to as high as 1,000 yuan (US$120).

Except for the 5 yuan (60 US cents) as the cost for making a plastic card, or 20 yuan (US$2.4) for an IC card -- which are also accused of being much higher than their real costs, the other items are all unreasonable charges forced upon applicants by government departments, according to experts.

There is no shortage of documents issued by the central government prohibiting unreasonable fee collection. But local organs have resorted to various approaches to continue levying charges.

In Guangzhou, there are more than 6 million migrant people. If 300 yuan (US$36) is charged for each, the economic gains for local government departments will hit 1.9 billion yuan (US$228 million).

It is a sizable sum, and the public is tempted to believe that local governments' tolerance and even encouragement of forcefully sending back those without permits for temporary residence are aimed at "selling" such cards.

Suppose benefits tied to the card are removed and extra charges are cut, will relevant local government departments still be zealous about the system?

If the charges were purely for the purpose of better management, 5 yuan would be enough to cover the costs.

So public questioning and criticism are, in fact, not targetted towards the system itself, but the departmental interests behind it.

It is estimated that the next decade will see 200 million redundant rural labourers, who are expected to seek jobs outside of their hometowns. Timely information on the transient population is truly important in policy-making.

Since the current ID card cannot provide such information, maybe it is not the right time to terminate the temporary residence registration system. It should last until the promotion of the planned second generation of ID cards.

But the interests of certain departments to charge excessive fees for profit should be dealt with as soon as possible.

Shenyang, the capital city of Northeast China's Liaoning Province, has taken the initiative in adopting a zero-cost registration system. Such a move, warmly received by the public, has gotten the cold shoulder in other cities.

It is time for relevant local government departments to make a serious analysis of their management methods, and in their handling of relationships between themselves and the public.

To enforce extra charges on the migrant population is apparently a step in the opposite direction towards the set goal of building a service-oriented government.

(China Daily November 18, 2003)

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