BEIJING is set to abolish its rural hukou, or residence permit, ending the divide between rural and urban residents.
The term “city” in China is usually applied to an urban center with a sometimes vast, rural hinterland often including farmland, mountains and forests. Even metropolises such as Shanghai and Beijing have residents considered “rural.”
According to a new guideline, Beijing’s government will no longer distinguish between urban and rural residents, but establish a unified permit system. Education, health, employment, social welfare, and housing will thus be the same for all Beijing residents.
Among the 31 provincial regions of the Chinese mainland, Beijing is the 30th to announce a plan to terminate the hukou divide. Only the Tibet Autonomous Region maintains the distinction.
The reform is set to affect hundreds of millions of people. By 2015, the mainland urban population — with or without residence permits — was 767.5 million, or 55.9 percent of the total, while the population categorized as rural was 606 million, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
The hukou has a significant bearing on the lives of Chinese citizens. For decades the dualistic structure has meant better services for urban people, while preventing rural people from upping sticks and moving freely into cities to enjoy the good life.
Since the 1950s, where food and other material supplies were limited, China has divided people into urban or rural and used the hukou system to control the population flow and to plan supplies.
As a traditionally agrarian society, at that time most people lived in the countryside and were not allowed to move to cities. They had to support themselves — and the urban population — with the yields of their farming.
Rural people rarely got the chance to move to cities, except by going to university, joining the army, or by finding jobs in state-owned industries.
Zhang Ping, 59, still remembers the admiration of his fellow villagers when he became a railway worker and converted his rural hukou to an urban one in 1976. His family still hold rural hukou in Beijing’s Daxing District.
“Urban hukou meant never needing to toil in the fields again,” Zhang said.
For the past half century or so, great disparities have existed and grown between urban and rural populations in terms of welfare and rights. Urban workers have their medical expenses reimbursed and are granted pensions, but farmers are entitled to no such “luxuries.”
Decades later, when simply feeding the country’s 1.3 billion people with very limited land resources became a central political issue, farmers with land have felt more privileged and often have little interest in becoming urbanites.
Zhang’s son, Zhang Hongliang, 34, feels lucky to hold a rural hukou. According to a 30-year agreement between his family and the village, they are granted 25,000 yuan (US$3,700) per person per year for leasing their farmland for commercial exploitation. His father, with his urban hukou, receives nothing.
Hukou reform will bring social equality and justice by breaking the barriers that defined the divide, said Zhu Lijia of the Chinese Academy of Governance.
By establishing a unified hukou system, public services will be equal for all, urban and rural residents alike, greatly assisting the free flow of labor and urbanization, Zhu said.