China plans to abolish legal distinctions between urban residents and peasants in 11 provinces as the government tries to slow the country's surging wealth gap and reduce social unrest, state media said Wednesday.
Under an experimental program, local governments in those provinces will allow peasants to register as urban residents and to have the same rights to housing, education, medical care and social security that city dwellers have.
If carried out as advertised, the program would eliminate a cornerstone of the population control policies begun by Mao in the 1950's. The system of residence permits, known as hukou, ties every person to a locale and once made travel difficult without permission.
In practice, the system has been fading away for more than a decade. An estimated 200 million peasants have left the countryside to live in urban areas, some of them full time. Their access to urban services varies widely depending on local rules and the kind of employment they find.
In today's market-oriented economy, the once-comprehensive socialist benefits bestowed on urban residents carry far less weight. Most people rely on their own resources, or those of their employers, to pay for health care, housing and schooling.
Even so, the system of residence permits has been a fixture of social and political culture in Communist China and a prominent symbol of the government's control of daily life. Its elimination could be regarded as an advance in human rights, some specialists said.
"This is an old-style way of managing a huge country and no longer makes sense with a market economy," said Qin Hui, a historian at Qinghua University in Beijing. "If it's really going away, it is a significant turning point."
Mr. Qin said he expected that even if the system disappeared, local governments would retain administrative control over their populations. They would still set conditions on registration for urban residents and prevent the growth of slums.
"The cities will become places where the relatively well off live," he said. "Beijing is not going to look like New Delhi, or even like Bangkok."
Economic forces have eroded population controls in recent years. Shenzhen emerged from rice fields in the early 1980's to become one of China's most prosperous metropolitan areas, and nearly all of its 10 million residents were born elsewhere. Shanghai began the concept of a "blue card" for qualified migrant workers in the mid-1990's, giving them full access to housing and city services if they met criteria.
The central government declared that it intended to drop the residency permit system at the 16th Communist Party Congress in 2002, and has made incremental changes since.
An episode in 2003, when Sun Zhigang, a college-educated migrant in Guangdong Province, was beaten to death in police custody after being detained on suspicion of vagrancy, gave impetus to changing the system. His death caused nationwide outrage and led to the abolition of vagrancy laws.
"We knew it was a dead duck after they abolished the custody and repatriation system" or vagrancy law, said Nicolas Becquelin, a researcher for Human Rights in China based in Hong Kong. "The police had no power to enforce the hukou laws."
Doing away with the residency system also fits the political agenda of President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who have tried to demonstrate that they are more attentive to people left behind in China's economic boom. The market-oriented economy has produced enormous wealth but also generated major social cleavages. In the past several years, peasants and migrant workers have led an upsurge in protests over corruption, land grabs and environmental degradation.
Long term, Mr. Becquelin said, urbanization remains an enormous administrative challenge for China and one that the government is unlikely to entrust to the market.
"I think you'll see a situation where the largest cities retain very tight controls, while medium cities are a little looser and newer small cities have more freedom," he said.
The 11 major provinces involved in the latest move include Guangdong, Fujian and Liaoning. China has 23 provinces.
Articles about the change in several state-run publications suggested, though, that the Public Security Bureau, the nation's police bureaucracy, remained deeply wary of the change and may slow its progression.
Sunday, November 6
It's about time
China to Drop Urbanite-Peasant Legal DifferencesBy JOSEPH KAHN