- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 29, 2001

BEIJING — Some observers call it Chinas apartheid. Han Chun, a farmers daughter from south China, knows it as the "hukou," a system of household registration and social control that classes people as rural or urban residents, and requires them to live and work only in their permanent residence.
The result is the division of China into rural and urban worlds, and discrimination against 900 million farmers in favor of 400 million city dwellers.
Mrs. Han once considered the day she landed a Beijing man as her husband to be the luckiest day of her life. But four years later, she is losing faith.
"After so much hassle, I no longer consider myself lucky," Mrs. Han said in despair over her fruitless fight to clear her name of a crippling social stigma — she is a peasant.
Mrs. Han does not endure rude stares or insults on Beijings streets, for she passes off as a city woman these days. But looks alone cannot change her second-class status in the hukou book.
Despite her marriage to a permanent Beijing resident, Mrs. Han, 26, can obtain only a temporary resident permit, and she could be ejected from the city during periodic police crackdowns against migrant workers.
To educate her young daughter will require double the normal school fees, as city authorities consider her a peasant like her mother even though she was born in the Chinese capital.
Yet when Mrs. Han returned to her home village in Anhui province to register 2-year-old Han Ye, she discovered her name had been deleted from local records.
"We dont belong to the city," she cried. "But we dont even belong to our hometown. We are now a 'black household,"
Relief may finally be on the horizon, as the Chinese government considers long overdue reform of this unpopular relic of the planned economy.
A senior official from the Ministry of Public Security, the chief regulator of residency policy, confirmed to The Washington Times in a recent interview that top policy-makers are reviewing drafts for change.
"Even we acknowledge that the whole hukou package, controlling education, employment, marriage and so on, is too heavy," he said, on the condition of anonymity.
A number of pilot projects are under way throughout China to experiment with a less rigid version of a system designed to restrict population flow and keep peasants tied to the land.
The State Council, effectively Chinas Cabinet, has received draft proposals from the Ministry of Public Security and is seeking opinions from the other concerned ministries, including civil affairs, finance and personnel.
Moves toward humanizing the draconian policy are welcome news to campaigners such as Lu Xueyi, a professor of sociology at Chinas Academy of Social Sciences and member of the National Peoples Congress, Chinas parliament.
"Many of the peasants sufferings are caused by the hukou system," Mr. Lu said. "Moreover, it has become a major hurdle to economic development."
At the annual Peoples Congress session in March, Mr. Lu drafted a proposal for reform signed by dozens of legislators.
"Changing this 'one country, two systems policy requires a set of sensible laws, and the transition should be gradual," he said. "But this reform, a second liberation for the peasants in my view, simply cannot be put off any longer."
Communist founder Mao Tse-tung, after his victory in 1949, lauded the peasants honesty, simplicity and ability to "eat bitterness."
He sorely tested that last trait when one of his worst follies, the Great Leap Forward, caused a famine that killed up to 30 million people.
Amid that fateful leap, Mao in 1958 instigated the hukou system of registration for tighter social control.
Restrictions on internal migration were eased in the 1980s, but the 120 million peasants who have since quit the land remain stuck at the margins of urban society.
Urban Chinese blame their uncouth cousins for everything from rising crime to unemployment, and city governments respond with discriminatory rules limiting migrant workers to certain types of jobs or prohibiting their employment during certain periods.
Teacher Li Sumei is no stranger to discrimination. She founded the Xingzhi Migrant School in a Beijing vegetable patch in 1994, after fellow migrants begged her to help their children.
"The hukou system causes a vicious circle," Miss Li said. "Because of the restrictions, migrants normally cant get good jobs and make good money, so they cant send their children to proper schools."
Xingzhi has grown from nine pupils to 2,000, but size is no protection. By July, Miss Li must relocate the school for the fifth time in its short history.
The city government refuses to legalize any migrant schools, leaving Miss Li at the mercy of local officials and developers.
"Well keep going," she said. "Without education, our children will have more reason to feel inferior."


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