Wednesday, March 3, 2010

An independent voice in China?

Thirteen newspapers in China have banded together on Monday to release a simultaneous appeal to the Chinese Communist Party to put an end to the family registration system known as hukou [户口]:
Thirteen Chinese newspapers launched a highly unusual joint appeal for social reforms on Monday. They criticised the country's household registration system, which limits the access of rural migrant workers to basic services in China's cities.

"China has suffered from the 'hukou' system for so long," the appeal said, using the Chinese term for the residency permits that tie government benefits to a person's registered hometown.

"We believe people are born free and should have the right to migrate freely," it added.

The appeal appeared to have been removed from the websites of several of the papers yesterday.

The "hukou" system ties people to their parents' hometown, where their birth has to be registered. Many government services, like schooling and police protection, are tied to people's "hukou".

Despite the rules, hundreds of millions of the rural poor have migrated to cities for work. But they do not have the same rights as local residents and they have difficulty putting their children in schools or getting medical care.

Newspapers, including the Metropolis Times of Kunming, the Southern Metropolis Daily, Chongqing Times and the Economic Observer ran the appeal in a rare co-ordinated action.

They timed their call to coincide with the annual meetings this week of the National People's Congress and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, where the "hukou" is likely to be high on the agenda.

Officials have already pledged changes but the joint editorial urged delegates to step up reforms aimed at ending the system.

The authorities fear a drastic overhaul of the system could lead to an unmanageable influx of migrants into main urban centres such as Beijing and Shanghai.
Given that there have been official pledges to change the system, this may not be all that radical, but it still sounds (to me, at least) like it was a criticism of the powers-that-be in Beijing. And with that, I am impressed. Of course, in non-democratic China, the Party's claim to leadership is that they are doing the right thing for the people, but how do they know what the people need if the the press only plays the role of mouthpiece and not voice of the people?

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