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China

Fixing What It Means To Be A Citizen Of China

Known as the "household registration" system, hukou has denied certain basic rights to millions who have migrated from rural to urban areas. This may be set to change radically.

At the Guangzhou train station
At the Guangzhou train station
Liu Jinsong

BEIJING — China is finally set to break down the divide between its rural and urban residents. A long-awaited reform of the pervasive national system of household registration is about to begin, following last week's government announcement that there would be no difference between agricultural and non-agricultural registrations.

The Chinese public is anxious for this fundamental reform, which is intended not only to abolish discrimination against the rural population as a de facto lower class but also to equalize access to social benefits between urban and rural residents.

The current household registration system was established over time after the communist takeover of China in 1949. Before 1958, Chinese people were allowed to move freely, giving way to a subsequent period when movement was severely controlled. The current system was implemented in 1978.

For a long time, the dual urban-rural hukou system was regarded as a cornerstone of social stability. That's because it both guaranteed an economic exchange between rural areas and cities and prevented the rural population from flooding cities and taking jobs from urbanites.

But since China opened up starting in the late 1970s, and the coastal and eastern regions developed, there has been a huge wave of migration toward Chinese cities. While the population movements have been good for China's overall economy and society, the fundamental problems of the household registration system also became increasingly obvious.

Hundreds of millions of rural migrants set out from home in search of urban jobs, yet the cities where they wound up living do not recognize them. They live and work in the cities but are not identified or recognized as urban residents. Even if they have lived and worked in a city for many years, they receive no public services because their domicile registrations remain in the area from which they originally came.

China's reform of the system is meant to help some 100 million rural migrants in settling in the towns and cities, and in guaranteeing that people who left agricultural work to find jobs in the urban areas will enjoy equal access to public services such as education, health care and retirement.

There will still be different settlement policies and principles in various cities — primarily to strictly control the population of megacities popping up — but the impending changes nonetheless represent unprecedented improvement.

Crucial to this reform is eliminating the restriction of movement. Not only will farmers be allowed to migrate to cities, but urbanites will be free to move to the countryside. There is a considerable development gap between urban and rural areas, which will also be mitigated with greater access to education, health care and other benefits.

School matters

In fact, the key to the reform's success is in separating household registration from all the social benefits attached to a particular official residence.

Consider equal rights to education as an example. Most cities have tied school enrollments, as well as high school and college entrance exams, with household registration, thus preventing the children of non-domiciled migrant workers from entering schools where they actually live.

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Photo: Tarotastic

The recent relaxation of restrictions on migrant children from sitting for exams in most provinces has partly resolved unequal education access. But in densely populated cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, household registration is still the most important deciding factor in whether someone has access to local education resources.

Hopefully, with the registration reform and through further efforts, education access will finally become universal for all Chinese children.

Again, whether China achieves its reform goals depends on whether access to benefits is detached from household registration. When Chinese citizens are finally able to move about freely with household certificates or resident permits, the costs and barriers to mobility will fade. This will in turn enable the market to play a more important role in allocating resources, including manpower, in different cities.

We should look forward to the day when a Chinese city is no longer a gated metropolis, where those inside can't get out and outsiders try desperately to get in.

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Minsk Never More: Lessons For The West About Negotiating With Putin

The longer the war in Ukraine continues, the louder calls will grow for a ceasefire . Stockholm-based analysts explain how the West can reach a viable deal on this: primarily by avoiding strategic mistakes from last time following the annexation of Crimea.

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Each new day the Russian assault on Ukraine continues, the wider and deeper is the global impact. And so with each day, there is more and more talk of a ceasefire. But just how and under what conditions such an agreement might be reached are wide open questions.

What is already clear, however, is that a ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine must not repeat mistakes made since the open conflict between the two countries began more than eight years ago.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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Contrary to widespread opinion, the so-called Minsk ceasefire agreements of 2014-2015 were not meant as a definitive solution. And as we now know, they would not offer a path to peace. Instead, the accord negotiated in the Belarusian capital would indeed become part of the problem, as it fueled the aggressive Russian strategies that led to the escalation in 2022.

In early September 2014, the Ukrainian army suffered a crushing defeat at Ilovaisk against unmarked regular Russian ground forces. Fearing further losses, Kyiv agreed to negotiations with Moscow.

The Minsk Protocol (“Minsk I”) – followed shortly thereafter by a clarifying memorandum – baldly served Russian interests. For example, it envisaged a “decentralization” – i.e. Balkanization – of Ukraine. An uneasy truce came about; but the conflict was in no way resolved.

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