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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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What's Spoiling The Kids: The Big Tech v. Bad Parenting Debate

Without an extended family network, modern parents have sought to raise happy kids in a "hostile" world. It's a tall order, when youngsters absorb the fears (and devices) around them like a sponge.

Image of a kid wearing a blue striped sweater, using an ipad.

Children exposed to technology at a very young age are prominent today.

Julián de Zubiría Samper


BOGOTÁ — A 2021 report from the United States (the Youth Risk Behavior Survey) found that 42% of the country's high-school students persistently felt sad and 22% had thought about suicide. In other words, almost half of the country's young people are living in despair and a fifth of them have thought about killing themselves.

Such chilling figures are unprecedented in history. Many have suggested that this might be the result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but sadly, we can see depression has deeper causes, and the pandemic merely illustrated its complexity.

I have written before on possible links between severe depression and the time young people spend on social media. But this is just one aspect of the problem. Today, young people suffer frequent and intense emotional crises, and not just for all the hours spent staring at a screen. Another, possibly more important cause may lie in changes to the family composition and authority patterns at home.

Firstly: Families today have fewer members, who communicate less among themselves.

Young people marry at a later age, have fewer children and many opt for personal projects and pets instead of having children. Families are more diverse and flexible. In many countries, the number of children per woman is close to or less than one (Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong among others).

In Colombia, women have on average 1.9 children, compared to 7.6 in 1970. Worldwide, women aged 15 to 49 years have on average 2.4 children, or half the average figure for 1970. The changes are much more pronounced in cities and among middle and upper-income groups.

Of further concern today is the decline in communication time at home, notably between parents and children. This is difficult to quantify, but reasons may include fewer household members, pervasive use of screens, mothers going to work, microwave ovens that have eliminated family cooking and meals and, thanks to new technologies, an increase in time spent on work, even at home. Our society is addicted to work and devotes little time to minors.

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