BEIJING - Last month, this city's Human Resources and Social Security Bureau introduced an administrative circular that stipulates "in principle" municipal government departments should impose age restrictions when hiring graduates settling in Beijing who are not officially residents holding local household registrations.
Those with undergraduate degrees who have moved to Beijing shouldn't be hired if they are older than 24, graduate students should be 28 or younger, and doctoral students, 35 or younger. The uproar came quickly.
On May 3, when interviewed by the Xinhua News Agency, the Beijing Human Resources and Social Security Bureau stated that their policy "has the premise of strictly controlling Beijing's household population growth." It stated that this new policy is not aimed at specific populations. The system of "household registration" denies certain rights to migrants from other parts of China.
On April 16th, China's Education Ministry issued a paper that "strictly prohibits discrimination in employment." The aim is to protect the legitimate rights and interests of graduates from violations related to gender, household registration or academic qualifications. Nevertheless, Beijing does not seem to be affected. On the contrary, it seems to be putting into practice this new policy of discrimination involving one's age and household registration.
So should graduates who wish to stay on in Beijing be subject to an age threshold? Is it considered to be a reasonable administrative policy attempting to balance population control and social equity?
Zheng Ge, Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Hong Kong, is convinced that in Beijing, where the environmental resources are below China's national average, it is necessary to enforce population control. However, the question is: does the cost of doing this have to be borne by those groups striving to change their own destiny?
Zheng pointed out that although it is recognized that age distinction and exclusion are flawed, it is effective in practice. Despite the age threshold appearing to be arbitrary, compared with gender, ethnicity, or educational degrees, it is relatively fairer. After all, when one knows the existence of an age threshold, one can adjust ones choice by continuous study without the interruption of working in between, or, even choose to study in Shanghai instead of in Beijing.
However, a fair society should provide channels of upward mobility for people who strive hard, Zheng Ge also pointed out. The reason why talent flocks to Beijing is not just because it has superior material conditions such as infrastructure and medical and education facilities, but also because the fierce job competition is actually a sign of an open labor market.
Breaking the infatuation
The smaller the place is, the more one relies on guanxi, the relationship, explains Zheng. The more interesting posts are often occupied by the relatives of local bigwigs. Older fresh graduates are often people who return to school aspiring to change their fate. The majority of them do not wish to go back to where they originally worked.
The Chinese government, says Zheng, should make efforts to break the local feudal networks so as to create a relatively fair and open nationwide job market. This is the how to break the infatuation that the the talented have with the Imperial capital.
"Even though differentiating and rejection are necessary management measures, the authorities should nonetheless try their best to reduce the harm to citizen rights when using this kind of method," Zheng asserts. Even though the one-size-fits-all age policy is fairer than gender or ethnicity discrimination, it nevertheless remains as a rigid policy that lacks sensibility to specific conditions. The government should allow employers autonomous decision-making so as to develop a screening mechanism based on merit rather solely on birthplace or age.
Although the native Beijing people are not to be driven away, they should participate in fair competition instead of using household registration as an advantage on the job market.
Zheng Ge puts it bluntly: restricting official residency in fact cannot control the number of people who actually come to live and work in Beijing. The existence of a large number of “North drifting” migrants is an indisputable fact. Not to allow them to settle down in fact increases the government’s management cost. Therefore, in the long run, migration should be dispersed, not blocked.
More generally, the current system of household registration solidifies regional disparities between urban and rural areas, and ought to be gradually replaced by a population registration system for security and management purposes.
"With the rapid development of China's process of urbanization, the transition function of the household registration system is gradually subsiding," concludes Zheng Ge. "The corresponding reform is inevitable. Against this backdrop, Beijing new policy about settlement is going in the wrong direction.”