(by Sky Canaves, The Wall Street Journal, WSJ.com) BEIJING – Thirteen local Chinese newspapers published an editorial urging authorities to reform the system of household registration that divides China’s rural and urban residents, in a bold call for reform days ahead of the start of the country’s annual legislative session.

Monday’s editorial represents a rare coordinated effort by Chinese media to speak out on a sensitive matter of major domestic importance. The piece describes the hukou household-registration system, adopted in the late 1950s to control population movement, in scathing terms as a source of injustice and a breeding ground for corruption. The system limits rural migrant workers’ access to city services and restricts their ability to settle permanently in urban areas.

“China has endured the bitterness of its household registration system for so long!” the editorial says. “We hold that individuals are born free, possessing the right to move freely!”

The editorial highlights growing public unhappiness with a system that officials have failed to change as rapidly as China’s population. Controls have been loosened to allow for a massive migration of labor from the countryside to cities over the three decades since China’s economic reforms started. But established urban residents continue to enjoy preferential access to subsidized education, health care and housing in the cities in which they are registered. Migrants face restrictions and often have to pay much more for benefits available to those with urban residency status.

Although not carried by leading state-run media outlets, Monday’s editorial was featured in several influential publications such as the Southern Metropolis Daily and the Economic Observer, and in newspapers with broad geographic coverage, from Inner Mongolia in the north to Yunnan province in the southwest. The editorial also was widely republished on Chinese Internet news portals.

The editorial contrasts the division perpetuated by the hukou system with China’s constitutional guarantees of equality for citizens. “For how many more generations will this division persist?” it asks.

Critics of the system have been calling for reform for years. But so far, only fairly superficial changes have been made, and it remains nearly impossible for low-income migrant workers to shift their household registrations to the any of the country’s sizable cities.

Still, the hukou system has been getting greater public attention lately, and reforming it is expected to be a topic of discussion at the National People’s Congress, the annual full session of the legislature that starts Friday. The authors of Monday’s article appealed to the NPC’s nearly 3,000 delegates, and those of a government advisory body that also convenes this week, to hasten the pace of reform.

Premier Wen Jiabao highlighted the need for further reform of the system in a public Internet chat session Saturday in response to a question about government efforts to improve the lot of rural migrants. The government is trying to encourage migrants to settle in smaller cities, but that effort is likely to fail unless such cities can manage to rival the employment opportunities found in the large urban areas favored by most migrants.

Authorities also are studying how to delink hukou status from the provision of social services as a way of boosting domestic consumption. If migrant workers and their families were able to enjoy benefits in the cities where they live and work on par with urban hukou holders, the thinking goes, they would focus less on saving and sending money back home and more on spending their increased disposable income. But so far, piecemeal measures implemented by local governments have resulted in wide disparity in conditions.

Write to Sky Canaves at sky.canaves@wsj.com.

Copyright 2010 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.  Reprinted here for educational purposes only.  Visit the website at wsj.com.


1. Define the following words as used in the article:
-hukou (para. 2)
-migrant (para. 2)
-perpetuated (para. 6)
-disparity (para. 10)

2. a) What is the purpose of the hukou system put into practice in China in the late 1950s?
b) How does the hukou system affect rural migrant workers? (see para 2, 7 and 4)

3. a) What is the significance of the same editorial being published in 13 Chinese newspapers?
b) Why do the editors oppose the hukou system?

4. Which media outlets did not run the editorial opposing hukou?

5. What division does the editorial contrast?

6. a) Where is reform of the hukou system expected to be discussed in the near future?
b) What solution do the authors of the editorial suggest? (What do they ask the government to do?)

7. Contrast the reason the editorialists have for ending the hukou system with the reason the Chinese government has for wanting to end hukou.


The People’s Republic of China, with a population of approximately 1.3 billion, is an authoritarian state in which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) constitutionally is the paramount source of power. Party members hold almost all top government, police, and military positions. Ultimate authority rests with the 25-member political bureau (Politburo) of the CCP and its nine-member standing committee. Hu Jintao holds the three most powerful positions as CCP general secretary, president, and chairman of the Central Military Commission. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control of the security forces. (Read more at the U.S. State Department website at state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2008/eap/119037.htm.)


For background on China, go to the U.S. State Department website at state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/18902.htm.

For a map of China, go to worldatlas.com.

Read about China at freedomhouse.org/inc/content/pubs/fiw/inc_country_detail.cfm?year=2009&country=7586&pf.

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