China in Transition

Reform of the Household Registration System is the Key to Resolving China's "Four agriculture-related problems"

Chi Hung KWAN
Consulting Fellow, RIETI

Farmers seek "national treatment"

As underscored by the fact that living standards in rural areas are much lower than those in urban areas, in China the issue of resolving the "three agriculture-related problems" of agriculture, rural villages and farmers, is the greatest problem for the government, which is aiming to create a harmonious society. In order to resolve the three agriculture-related problems, the government has launched a plan to create new rural villages that focuses on increasing the income of farmers by reducing their tax burden and providing them with subsidies, and improving infrastructure and social services. However, it is likely that the government will ultimately have no choice but to move the farmers who have become excess labor in the rural areas to the cities so that they can be reemployed in the industrial and services sectors. A large-scale migration from the rural to urban areas has already begun. However, due to such restrictions as household registration, migrant farmer-laborers face discrimination in many ways, and make up the poor of the cities. This suggests that the traditional three agriculture-related problems are turning into four agriculture-related problems, with the addition of the farmer-laborer problem.

Since the Communist Party took power in 1949, a rigid dual structure of urban versus rural areas has existed in Chinese society, and because of this, the social status of farmers remains low even today, and their freedom to move is strictly limited by the household registration system. According to China's constitution, its citizens have the right to receive assistance from the state and society in the event they become old, sick or lose the ability to work. The state sets up and operates social insurance, social relief and medical and health facilities so that its citizens can enjoy such rights. However, in reality, farmers do not receive such basic public goods and services provided by the state because of the restrictions that come from their status.

Bound by the household registration system, farmers are not free to migrate to the cities. Even if they find work there they can only receive the zanzhu (temporary residence) certification, which is essentially a domestic visa. Although their ranks have swollen to some 86.73 million, even when only counting those who have registered with the authorities (as of June 2005), because these farmer-laborers do not have an urban household register, they see their job opportunities severely limited and are forced to work under poor conditions such as low wages and long working hours. Although they pay taxes and other fees under various pretexts, they cannot receive the public services that urban residents do, such as medical care and compulsory education for their children. In addition, even if they lose their jobs, they cannot receive unemployment benefits. Children born to them in the cities remain in their rural household register, and cannot receive an urban one.

Thus farmers are treated as second-class citizens whether they remain in the rural villages or move to the cities. Not only does restricting the movement of people through the household registration system block the effective distribution of labor, it also clearly violates the article in the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which China itself is also a signatory, that stipulates that "everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state."

From around October this year, riots broke out across France; led by immigrants who have been shunned from local society. When we consider the fact that in China, farmer-laborers who work in the cities are treated worse than foreign laborers, it would be no wonder if a similar situation were to arise. In order to prevent this, the authorities should give farmers "national treatment" through such means as revising the household registration system by eliminating the distinction between rural and urban registers.

The time for household registration reform is ripe

In response to such demands, recently moves to reform the household registration system have finally begun. Liu Jinguo, vice minister of the Public Security Ministry, said at a meeting of the Central Committee for Comprehensive Management of Social Security that "China's Public Security Ministry is currently considering reforms to the household registration system and is seeking ways to abolish the wall between the rural and urban household registers and establish a unified household register management system in both urban and rural areas. Simultaneously, it will gradually ease restrictions on movement of household registers to large and mid-sized cities by making a person's actual place of residence the grounds for household registration." These remarks have attracted a great deal of public attention. (Legal Daily, Oct. 26, 2005)

Reforms to the household registration system have already begun in some provinces and municipalities. In 2003, Hubei Province designated the cities of Wuhan, Xiangfan and Huangshu as model cases and removed the distinction between rural and urban household registers, unifying them as "Hubei Province residents." In 2004, Shandong Province launched a household registration system that unified the urban and rural areas, and stopped collecting fees from those moving to the cities. At present, public security organizations in 11 provinces and municipalities including Shandong Province, Liaoning Province and Fujian Province are working to unify the household registers of urban and rural areas.

This illustrates that, backed by public opinion and the government's strong resolve, reform of the household registration system is gathering momentum. It is true that in the short term there may be an increase in unemployment pressure, a decline in peace and order and a lack of public services in the cities if farmers are no longer discriminated against and are allowed to move freely. However, this should not be used as an excuse to reject reform. Rather, the government should speed up the transition to a new system by putting in place the prerequisites for reform. By doing so, the day in which farmers and farmer-laborers who move to the cities will enjoy the same rights as urban residents will not be far off.

November 22, 2005

November 22, 2005