Integrating rural urbanites

Updated: 2012-01-06 09:21

(China Daily)

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The Ministry of Civil Affairs' "Opinions on Facilitating the Integration of Farmer-workers into Urban Communities" deserves endorsement, because it is the first central government initiative to tackle the problems arising from the identity of this special group of citizens, most of whom will be heading home to the countryside during the Spring Festival after a year of hard toil in cities.

While it is not the magic formula that some have been hoping for, it is a roadmap for a gradual process that might finally result in a tangible improvement in the lives of migrant workers, rather than just more of the well-meaning promises that we have heard in the past.

For decades, as the population has migrated from rural to urban areas for work, there have been calls for these farmer-workers to be put on an equal footing with urban residents.

Yet, owing largely to the rigid household registration regime that divides citizens into rural and urban residents, they have not been allowed to share the welfare benefits enjoyed by those officially registered as urban residents.

Across the country, 164 million of our compatriots are struggling to secure a better life in cities, despite the discrimination they endure because of their rural identity. A status that mean they are permanent strangers in the cities where they live, with little access to the benefits that are taken for granted by those urban residents that do not bear the stigma of a rural registration.

Even though the new government initiative does not touch upon social security, healthcare, and schooling for their children, it does offer the hope that the status of migrant workers might change, as it allows long-term "non-local" residents to participate in elections for residents' committees in their urban communities. At least in this way they will be given the opportunity to speak up and be heard.

And if the initiative works as intended, they may gradually be given access to the social security, civil affairs, education and public health services that have so far been reserved exclusively for registered urbanites. Genuine integration is impossible without such essential services.

Participation in community affairs is certainly a good starting point, but the move needs substantive follow-ups to ensure that such an unfair situation does finally change for the better. All such promises of equal treatment have ended up being fruitless in the past, because of a lack of supporting measures.

However, since the under-privileged status of this particular group of citizens is rooted ultimately in the obsolete household registration regime, we cannot really expect substantial changes until that regime comes under the scalpel of reform.

(China Daily 01/06/2012 page8)