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Urban 'Wall' for Rural Chinese

Asia: A residency system in place since the 1950s hinders migrants who seek jobs, housing and basic services in cities.


HUZHOU, China — Seamstress Jiao Guixia complains that she feels like a second-class citizen in her own country--refused work, ripped off by cashiers, denied her dignity.

The problem is China's residency system, which binds people to their place of birth. Her residence permit says the 20-year-old Jiao is supposed to live in the countryside. That puts her at a disadvantage in Huzhou, the city in the booming coastal province of Zhejiang to which she moved four years ago in search of work.

"There is a huge wall separating us from city residents. People know you are migrant workers, you are poor, and they look down on you," she said.

China has a "floating population" of about 200 million rural residents who have flowed to cities to take low-paying jobs that urbanites shun, which range from construction to dishwashing to being nannies and other, often dangerous, work.

But because of the residency system in place since the 1950s, which aimed to keep farmers on the land and prevent them from swamping cities, rural Chinese remain a social underclass. Rural residents have trouble getting steady jobs, housing and even basic services such as health care and education.

Chinese leaders say they are trying to liberalize the system, both to ease social strains and to expand opportunities for tens of millions of jobless people still in the countryside.

Membership in the World Trade Organization, which promises to pry open Chinese markets, has made reforms more urgent. An expected influx of cheaper, better quality agricultural imports could throw millions more farmers out of work.

Last year, the Chinese government eased residency requirements in more than 20,000 small and medium-sized cities. These areas are expected to absorb 40 million "surplus rural laborers" over the next several years, according to the state-run newspaper China Daily.

Bigger, better-off cities such as Shanghai will continue to restrict migration, in part for fear of crime, the paper said.

In the long term, China's leaders hope that relocating much of its 900-million-strong rural population to urban areas will speed economic development.

"Urbanization should proceed in a positive and sound manner, and the rural work force should be encouraged to shift to nonagricultural industries," Premier Zhu Rongji said in an address to the annual meeting of China's legislature.

But rural migrants still complain of discrimination.

Migrants need a steady city job for two years before they can apply to change their residency. But most employers will give good jobs only to those who have permanent resident status.

"There's no way for migrants like us to benefit. The requirements are too high," Jiao said.

For 12 hours a day, Jiao sits in a room with dozens of other women sewing baby clothes by machine. She earns about $100 a month--twice what she'd earn back home in poor rural Anhui province.

Though Huzhou is one of the cities covered by the reforms, Jiao hasn't worked at this job long enough to qualify for residency.

Without it, hospitals charge her extra. Jiao complains that even women running fruit stands keep her change, knowing that she can't go to the police for help.

"No one will protect me here," she said. "It is their territory."

Some experts say only an outright end to residency restrictions will defuse such resentments, especially at a time when rural incomes are stagnating.

The current reforms, they also warn, might only accelerate a brain drain of the talented and ambitious away from rural areas. They also fail to fix another negative consequence of the residency system--millions of migrant children in cities now barred from getting a proper education.

But the government says lifting all restrictions would unleash a wave of crime and instability.

Restrictions perform "a major function in safeguarding public security," the China Daily quoted Bao Suixian, deputy director of the Ministry of Public Security, as saying.

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