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Residency Reforms Favor China’s Wealthiest

Rahul Jacob in Shenzhen

Tang Jianbo, who works in a Shenzhen electronics factory, faces a 800 km trip to his hometown in Hunan to get the documents needed to get his four-year-old son into a local government school. Mr Tang, 31, has lived in the booming Chinese city for almost 10 years, but does not have the hukou, or residency rights, that would automatically entitle his son to a place in a government school.

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Guangdong, China’s southernmost province, has 37 million migrants and many jump through hoops to gain the points needed to attain residency rights under a complicated application system – some even give blood to boost their chances of success in the hukou lottery.

Now regulations introduced in Shenzhen and Guangzhou – the province’s two most populous cities – to broaden eligibility for hukou are being criticized for doing just the opposite, because they favor people with college degrees and wealth.

Guangzhou has allotted 20 points, for instance, to those who have invested as much as Rmb 5 million ($784,000) in local companies and 20 points to those who own property in the city. Applicants for hukou in Shenzhen since July this year can receive extra points for patents for inventions. Those aged between 18 and 35 also get additional points, offering an advantage to factory workers within that age bracket. Similarly, those who are studying towards a college degree or are residents of rural Guangdong can also receive more points.

For many factory workers without money or higher education, one way to increase their prospects is to give blood or donate their time through community service. This summer, a Guangzhou father seeking hukou gave blood three times, local media reported. He had quit his job to travel to his native Sichuan to get the necessary documents. He hoped to enable his son to seek admission to a local university, but fell well short of qualifying to even apply for hukou. He accrued just 98 points – 130 points are the minimum necessary to submit an application.

Few issues resonate across China as much as the need to reform the residency system, which makes second-class citizens of more than 200 million people who live in places other than where they have hukou. The resentment against this two-tier class system has risen as a more assertive generation of workers fill these cities. The criteria have created more disenchantment at a time when these provinces face labor shortages.

Professor Zhai Yujuan, a professor of law at Shenzhen University, criticizes the points system as “inhumane” because it asks people who have the least to give the most. “Of course, the policy is better than nothing, but it aims to give residence to an elite,” she says

Some of Guangdong’s measures have struck a sour note with migrants. Plans to build a migrants’ museum in the province have been greeted with derision. “Why don’t you build a museum for civil servants who do nothing,” was one comment on a Chinese microblog. “Only dying art works are exhibited in a museum.”

So far, 20,000 migrants have calculated their points online under the new system, Shenzhen authorities say, and almost 10,000 have applied for residency since July 1. Last year, 4,600 applicants received residency and the number is expected to double this year.

But this remains a tiny portion of the overall number of migrants – 12 million of Shenzhen’s 14m population.

The picture of hukou reform across China remains mixed. About 2.2 million people had been granted residency in Chongqing, authorities there said, after new hukou policies introduced a year ago. The city’s boundaries, however, are drawn very broadly; it has a population of more than 30m, including a large rural population. Sceptics say that many of those granted residency are not true migrants, but hail from nearby.

Observers say reforms in Guangzhou and Shenzhen remain the most significant bellwether of government intentions to allow more migrants to become residents.

Beijing should get rid of the hukou system altogether and treat all residents as equals, argues Liu Kaiming, a labor activist who heads the Institute of Contemporary Observation in Shenzhen. Otherwise, city administrations, unwilling to pay for benefits for migrants, will find ways around it. “The city governments are saying, ‘I need the labor force, but I don’t want people’,” he says.

With reporting by Zhou Ping