A 15-year-old girl’s wish to go to school in Shanghai has landed her father in jail and sparked a national debate over a national-registration policy that deprives millions of Chinese of basic rights.
Zhan Haite’s parents left their home in Jiangxi in 1994, first for Zhuhai in the south, and later headed northeast to Shanghai, in 2002. Under a system imposed by Chairman Mao Zedong, they’re still registered in Jiangxi, and can’t automatically get benefits such as social security and access to local schools for their three children anywhere else. After attending primary and junior schools in Shanghai, Zhan was rejected from high school.
The family is among millions of migrants trying to put down roots in the cities where they work, and the case is receiving national media coverage with the photogenic teenager’s outspoken description of her situation. Zhan said in an interview that “I have the right to a free education, but now that freedom is being deprived to me. Naturally, I am going to fight for it.”
Incoming Premier Li Keqiang has championed urbanization as a “huge engine” for growth, in an economy forecast to expand the least since 1999 this year. As he and Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping lay out their vision, they may consider the strictures of the “hukou” system, which inhibits poor peasants from moving to cities and limits migrants from getting healthcare and education.
“If they don’t tackle these things then they can’t squeeze out all the productivity gains that would be possible,” said Yukon Huang, a former country director for China at the World Bank and now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Asia Program in Washington. Ending the hukou system “would probably increase growth by half a percentage point a year,” he said.
After Zhan Haite was told China’s internal passport system blocked her from attending the school she wanted, she protested online and in public, triggering a reaction that included the landlord ordering her family to move.
The Shanghai Education Bureau didn’t respond to a faxed request for comment last week.
The hukou registration program started in 1958, and was designed to bind farmers to their land. Large cities such as Shanghai, Beijing and Chongqing have a strict quota each year on the number of people who are allowed to become local residents.
Attaining a local hukou may depend on a person getting sponsored by a state-owned company or reaching a certain level of education. Without the pass, people can be denied everything from discounted city park tickets to subsidized health care.
As many as 300 million people will move from the countryside by 2030, to join 600 million already living in cities, the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates. Almost 10 million people live in Shanghai without a local hukou -- more than 40 percent of the city’s population -- Huang Hong, chairman of the Shanghai Municipal Population and Family Planning Commission, said in a Dec. 11 post on the local government website.
The hukou may also be used to coerce people into doing what the government wants. In Henan province, officials seeking to enforce China’s one-child policy forced women to get contraceptive implants before they were allowed hukous for their newborns, China Central Television reported this month. Many rural families are larger, due to exceptions to the rule or because parents choose to pay a fine for having more children.
Overhauling the system would help expand a consumer class as migrants to cities settle there, buying homes and household goods rather than sending money home, said Kam Wing Chan, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle who has consulted for the World Bank on the hukou system. That would help shift China’s economy from one driven by exports to one based more on consumer demand, he said.
“A lot of them are saving up to build a house back in the countryside,” Chan said. “They are coming to work, they are not really spending, and the system prevents them from moving up because a lot of opportunities are not opening to them.”
Zhan said she decided to go public after officials “kicked the case to each other like a ball.” Her story has been widely publicized in state media, a signal that party leaders may be willing to unwind the hukou system.
At the Communist Party Congress last month, President Hu Jintao said China must “keep making progress in ensuring that all the people enjoy their rights to education, employment, medical and old-age care and housing.”
Two weeks later, Li Keqiang, now No. 2 on the Communist Party’s seven-man Politburo Standing Committee unveiled last month, asked the World Bank to help conduct a study on urbanization to deal with worker migration.
China Central Television, the state broadcaster, aired a story earlier this month about Zhan’s protest, sending a signal to the country’s 1.3 billion people that the government may be preparing to tackle the hukou issue.
“Certainly this was not an accidental thing,” said Willy Wo-Lap Lam, an adjunct professor of history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “It’s a case of the top leadership using the media to get support from the general public and also to put pressure on these provincial leaders who are opposed to hukou reform.”
Inequality between China’s rural residents and its city- dwellers has led to a wealth gap that’s now 50 percent higher than the minimum level that can trigger social unrest, according to a survey by the Survey and Research Center for China Household Finance. Xi Jinping pledged to tackle the gap after he was named Communist Party general secretary in November.
Overhauling the hukou system would require changes to local government finances, said the University of Washington’s Chan. The central government distributes money to local authorities based on the number of registered residents they have.
Zhan’s family got into trouble with the authorities once she took her appeal public and organized a demonstration. On Dec. 8, Zhan, her father and other families with children facing the same situation went to People’s Square in Shanghai and unfurled a banner that read “Love the motherland, love children.”
Her father, Zhan Quanxi, who installs phones for companies in the city, was detained for allegedly scratching a police officer, and her account was suspended on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. Her father was released from detention last week after his charge was downgraded.
In an interview at the undecorated, two-bedroom apartment that her family rents, Zhan said her landlord broke their lease and is forcing them to move out within two months. Her mother, Liu Xinhua, looked after Zhan’s younger brother and sister as she listened to her daughter.
Zhan said her family will fight to remain in Shanghai. The English-language China Daily published a commentary she wrote in which she said “all children should have the same right to an education.” She’s now studying English by reading books such as President Barack Obama’s “Dreams From My Father.”
Zhan said she no longer looks at her Weibo account, where she’s been criticized by Internet users who say she ought to return to Jiangxi instead of trying to study in Shanghai. One user called her “too greedy” and said her family were “locusts.”
“They don’t understand that I am just doing this to protect my rights,” Zhan said. “They will understand me when they realize they’re living shackled in cages, just like me.”
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