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Equality elusive for China's urban migrants

SHANGHAI -- China's efforts to overhaul its hukou (household registration) system, which has been criticized for depriving migrant workers in urban areas of social welfare and other benefits, are being hampered by funding problems and opposition from city dwellers.

Currently, Chinese citizens can access pension, health care and other social welfare benefits only in places where their households are registered. That leaves millions of migrant workers without crucial government support.

Zhang Qingyi operates a sundries shop and mahjong parlor in a Chongqing condo her family received in return for giving up its farmland.

Of the roughly 750 million people living in cities in China, some 250 million are migrant workers. The country's rural population tops 600 million.

Some cities have begun allowing migrant workers to register as residents in a bid to secure labor. But overall, the push to provide more equal treatment for all citizens is moving at a snail's pace.

Fresh start

In suburban Chongqing, in central China, a cluster of condominiums has been made available for people who have changed their hukou status from rural to urban resident in return for turning over their farmland.

Zhang Qingyi, 35, has refurbished the 90-sq.-meter first-floor apartment she was assigned into a food and sundries store and mahjong parlor. When this reporter paid Zhang a visit recently, a group of customers who appeared to be regulars were smoking and enjoying a leisurely game of mahjong. Zhang's 5-year-old daughter, something of a mascot for shop, was hovering nearby.

Zhang earns about 6,000 yuan ($905) per month, a relatively large amount considering that most factory workers start out earning 3,000 to 4,000 yuan. At night, she stays in her parents' apartment with her husband and daughter.

Though she is by no means affluent, Zhang said her family's finances have stabilized "immeasurably" from the days when they made their livelihood by planting flowers.

China draws a clear distinction between urban and rural hukou, and the gaps in the social security benefits accorded each are huge. Under the hukou system, established in 1958, people are banned in principle from receiving educations as well as health insurance, pension and other social security benefits in places where they are not registered.

Fundamental reforms of the system have been delayed for more than half a century. The system has been criticized, especially overseas, as a form of modern-day class discrimination. And its negative effects are growing more pronounced, as seen in the muted consumption by migrant workers without access to social security programs.

An increasing number of cities, including Chongqing, have begun issuing urban residency to migrant workers or otherwise making it easier for them to receive social security benefits even without a local hukou. These moves are in line with Beijing's target of granting urban registration status to 100 million people by 2020.

The hukou system was introduced to ensure there was sufficient labor in the countryside. But with the working-age population starting to decline, labor shortages have become noticeable even in cities, throwing the drawbacks of the system into sharp relief.

Realizing that the hukou model has become outdated, the central government wants to improve the social security environment for migrant workers so that they can play a greater role in consumption. This change ties in with Beijing's desire to shift to a consumption-driven growth model.   

No cure-all

But reforming the decades-old system is easier said than done. Furthermore, not all of the supposed beneficiaries are happy with their new status as urban residents.

Shi Huirong, a 53-year-old part-time maid in Chongqing, complained that being classified as a city dweller carries no merits.

To become eligible for pension benefits, a person must pay premiums for at least 15 years. That leaves people who begin paying premiums at age 50 or older at a huge disadvantage.

A further strike against Shi is the fact that her employer does not pay employment or health insurance premiums on her behalf.

Shi said owning farmland would more reassuring than receiving free housing.

Large, affluent cities have adopted tough requirements for granting permanent resident status to migrant workers. When this reporter asked Zhu Qin, 43, who was balancing a massive load of scrap material on his electric scooter in a residential area of western Shanghai, whether he has received an urban residency permit, he said he has not built up enough points.

Shanghai has introduced a system under which people are granted permits only when they have received a sufficient number of points based on their age, education, expertise and other criteria. While this method works in favor of, say, university graduates and people who pay social insurance premiums, it serves as a barrier for a large number of migrant workers.

The points system has the backing of many longtime Shanghai residents, who fear that an increase in the number of permanent residents would drain the city's social security coffers.

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