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.

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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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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