China to drop urbanite-peasant differences

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China plans to abolish legal distinctions between urban residents and peasants in 11 provinces as the government tries to slow the country\'s surging wealth gap and reduce social unrest, media reports said Wednesday.Under an experimental program, local governments in those provinces will allow peasants to register as urban residents and to have the same rights to housing, education, medical care and social security that city dwellers have.

If carried out as advertised, the program would eliminate a cornerstone of the population control policies begun by Mao in the 1950\'s. The system of residence permits, known as hukou, ties every person to a locale and once made travel difficult without permission.

In practice, the system has been fading away for more than a decade. An estimated 200 million peasants have left the countryside to live in urban areas, some of them full time. Their access to urban services varies widely depending on local rules and the kind of employment they find.

In today\'s market-oriented economy, the once-comprehensive socialist benefits bestowed on urban residents carry far less weight. Most people rely on their own resources, or those of their employers, to pay for health care, housing and schooling.

\"This is an old-style way of managing a huge country and no longer makes sense with a market economy,\" said Qin Hui, a historian at Qinghua University in Beijing. \"If it\'s really going away, it is a significant turning point.\"

Mr. Qin said he expected that even if the system disappeared, local governments would retain administrative control over their populations. They would still set conditions on registration for urban residents and prevent the growth of slums.

\"The cities will become places where the relatively well off live,\" he said. \"Beijing is not going to look like New Delhi, or even like Bangkok.\"

Economic forces have eroded population controls in recent years. Shenzhen emerged from rice fields in the early 1980\'s to become one of China\'s most prosperous metropolitan areas, and nearly all of its 10 million residents were born elsewhere. Shanghai began the concept of a \"blue card\" for qualified migrant workers in the mid-1990\'s, giving them full access to housing and city services if they met criteria.

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