Will loosening urban residency rules for migrants build Xi’s prosperous China?

Since China began to dissolve rural townships in the 1980s, migrants have flocked to cities to find work. But since rural transplant recipients are not eligible for urban residency, they cannot easily access public education and social security.

Previous efforts to change city residency rules have largely fallen through. Today, China is again trying to ease restrictions on household registration in small and medium-sized cities, with the aim of closing the gap between rural and urban citizens and improving economic efficiency. This is in line with Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s goal of building a secure middle class that can fuel a consumer-driven economy.

Why we wrote this

China’s household registration system blocks the rights of rural migrants in cities. Measures to relax the rules are being touted as a step towards greater shared prosperity.

Rural migrants have long been faced with the dilemma of how to educate their children who are not automatically qualified for public education in cities. Some send their children home to live with their grandparents. Others scrimp and save to pay for private schools. But the frustration runs deep for many.

“It is increasingly recognized that this system is fundamentally unfair,” said Martin Whyte, a sociologist at Harvard. “You don’t want to run a modern society by having people classified at birth in a lower status and denying them opportunities that you would allow the rest of the population. “

Tan Chunmiao left his rural hometown in the mountains in 2011 for a job at a factory in the booming Pearl River mega-city of Guangzhou.

Ten years later, Mr. Tan is still here, now working long hours as a chef in a Japanese restaurant to support his wife and two young children. But as a rural migrant – one of more than 280 million people who have put their shoulder to the wheel of China’s economy – he has been denied the same rights and social services afforded to city residents, including including free education for his children.

“I just have to depend on myself. It’s like I don’t have a “green card” from Guangzhou, ”he laughs, comparing his second-class status to that of a temporary immigrant to the United States.

Why we wrote this

China’s household registration system blocks the rights of rural migrants in cities. Measures to relax the rules are being touted as a step towards greater shared prosperity.

As part of household registration in China in the 1950s, or hukou, system, citizens are classified at birth as rural or urban, depending on where their parents are registered. Communist leader Mao Zedong sought to bind peasants to the soil for collective agriculture. After the dismantling of rural townships in the 1980s, migrants flocked to cities and became a vast underclass for businesses to exploit.

But today, the economic and social costs of a system of segregation are seen as a hindrance to China’s overarching goal of building an urbanized, advanced consumer economy that is less dependent on exports. Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s “common prosperity” campaign seeks to expand the middle class and reduce income inequality, which is almost as high in China as it is in the United States, through certain measures.

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