Joint Editorial Calling for Hukou Reform Removed From Internet Hours After Publication, Co-Author Fired

March 26, 2010

China's hukou (household registration) system imposes strict limits on where Chinese citizens may legally reside. Since access to social services is tied to household registration, some migrant workers are more likely than local residents to face discrimination in areas such as education, healthcare, and housing. On March 1, 13 mainland newspapers, apparently echoing recent statements by several high-level Chinese officials, jointly published an editorial calling on People's Congress and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference delegates to inquire about a timetable for hukou system reform. Just one day after its publication, however, the joint editorial―originally co-authored by Zhang Hong, a top editor at the Economic Observer―was removed from many of the news sites. And on March 9, Zhang was forced to resign.

The hukou (household registration) system imposes strict limits on Chinese citizens' ability to choose their permanent places of residence (see the Congressional-Executive Commission on China's topic paper on the hukou system). Given that social services are linked to hukou registrations, migrant workers who do not hold urban hukou registrations are more likely than than those who do to face discrimination when they attempt to access healthcare and education or find housing in China's cities―see previous CECC analysis on the barriers to education that migrants face.

In light of this, 13 mainland newspapers jointly published an editorial on March 1―just four days before the Third Plenum of the 11th National People's Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) convened in Beijing―asking the delegates at these meetings, also known as the "Two Sessions," to demand a clear timetable for reforms from the relevant departments. A full English translation of the editorial is available here.

The 1,400-character joint editorial―co-authored by Zhang Hong, the deputy editor-in-chief of the Economic Observer―argues that China's Constitution "stipulates that the citizens of the People's Republic of China are all equal before the law, that the nation respects and protects human rights, and that the citizens' personal freedoms will not be infringed upon." The joint editorial goes on to make the following points:

  • "the current household registration policy has created unequal statuses among urban residents and between urban residents and peasants, constraining the Chinese citizens' freedom of movement";
  • freedom of movement is "an inseparable part of human rights and personal freedom";
  • even though the first generation of migrant workers labored to develop China's cities, their children still have no way to divest themselves of the status as migrants and must bear the predicament(s) faced by the previous generation, and the cities in which they live remain unwilling to accept them;
  • though migrant workers work and pay taxes, just like other urban residents, they are unable to enjoy the same employment opportunities and social services such as medical treatment, education, and elderly care;
  • the hukou system is "a breeding ground for corruption," as people have bought and sold hukous in many cities;
  • while various cities have launched hukou reform measures, household registration still distresses "innumerable people caught in the trap of having to be on the move constantly";
  • at a stage when China is beginning to adjust its internal economic structures to rely more on internal demand and optimizing natural resource use, hukou reform will be good for the people's welfare and also inject more dynamism into China's economy; and,
  • the delegates at the "Two Sessions" should use the power that the people granted them and push for the abolishment of the 1958 Household Registration Regulations.

In fact, the joint editorial's message appears to echo some segments of several recent statements or essays by high-level Chinese officials on the need to reform the country's hukou system:

  • Agricultural Minister Han Changfu writes in a February 1 People's Daily essay calling on the central government to make the necessary policy and administrative preparations as more migrants become urban residents. Han explains that the new generation of migrant workers, born after 1990, have certain characteristics that set them apart from the previous ones: many of them have never laid down roots, have at least a junior high school education, are the only child in the family, and are more likely to demand equal access to employment and social services - and even equal political rights - in the cities.
  • Political and Legislative Affairs Committee Secretary Zhou Yongkang, writing in a February 16 Qiushi Magazine essay entitled "Deeply Advance Resolving Social Contradictions, Renewing Social Management, and Clean and Just Enforcement in Order To Provide More Powerful Legal Protection for Sound and Speedy Economic and Social Developments," references the need to accelerate reform of the hukou management system and make efforts to resolve the challenges facing migrant workers including employment, residency, obtaining medical treatment, and child education.
  • Premier Wen Jiabao, during a February 27 online chat with Web users, reportedly said that China would advance reforms of the hukou system for the new generation of migrant workers, according to a March 2 Global Times article.

However, even though the joint editorial appeared to be in line with the Chinese officials' statements, it disappeared from many of the 13 newspapers' Web sites just one day after its publication, according to a March 3 Wall Street Journal article. The Central Propaganda Department called the joint editorial's publication an inappropriate act, as the South China Morning Post reported (subscription required) on March 6. And on March 9, the New York Times reported that Zhang Hong, one of the joint editorial's authors, was reportedly "forced out of his job in a fresh warning that journalists who challenge government policy too directly face retribution."

In response to his dismissal, Zhang, writing in a March 9 letter to the Wall Street Journal titled "I am a Moderate Adviser," said that, given the previous statements by high-level government officials regarding hukou reforms, he thought during the drafting process that the joint editorial "would be in line with the direction of Chinese government reforms and with the broad public interest, and that the risks were not too great."

In the same letter, also published in Chinese by the Wall Street Journal Chinese Net, Zhang builds on the joint editorial's theme and writes:

I have a firm conviction that legislation that disregards the dignity and freedom of the people will ultimately land on the rubbish heap of history. I hope that this system ultimately will be abolished. When the time comes I believe that many people will burst into tears from happiness and run around spreading the news.

Zhang also clarifies in the letter that his newspaper timed the editorial's publication with the opening of the "Two Sessions" in order to "express the media's wish to participate in China's overall reform," pointing out that the media can serve as a platform where the "voices of the masses" can be heard by the delegates who are supposed to "represent public opinion."

For more information on the conditions of migrant workers in China, see Section II―Worker Rights in the CECC 2009 Annual Report.