New residence policy a welcome change
Published: Jun 20, 2013 06:08 PM Updated: Jun 20, 2013 06:08 PM
Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

This Wednesday, the Shanghai municipal government announced two new decisions. One is that the live poultry trade would resume on Thursday in several wet markets. More live poultry markets will open if the selected trial markets can meet the stricter standard set by authorities to protect locals from the fatal H7N9 bird flu. This is good news for home cooks happy to see chicken back on the dinner table.

The second one is the announcement of a new residence system for non-locals to apply for social welfare benefits.

Shanghai is China's largest city, with a registered population last year of 23.8 million. Among them, 9.6 million people are from other provinces, which means they don't have a Shanghai hukou. The hukou is a residence system unique to China. A hukou registration determines and restricts access to the local welfare system in a given region. An urban hukou is very different - and generally superior - to a rural hukou in terms of medical care, pension, education and housing programs. Even among urban hukou holders, policies differ depending on the city. In brief, a Shanghai hukou is a guarantee for local residents to enjoy better social benefits compared with most other places in China.

Those who live and work in the city without a Shanghai hukou often hold a residency permit card. Non-locals are called waidiren and are ineligible for many of the social welfare benefits enjoyed by local residents. But many non-locals contribute a great deal to the local economy as they invest and create employment opportunities here. They demand that they should have the same social safety net as locals. Even those who are not regarded as outstanding contributors also argue that they shouldn't be discriminated against as they play indispensable roles in the city. Household ayi, construction workers and market peddlers are among this group.

Shanghai is not alone in dealing with this problem; first-tier cities across the country, such as Beijing, Tianjin and Guangzhou, face the same dilemma. A typical complaint is the disparity in education access between local and non-local residents from migrant families. Children usually move with their parents and go to schools where their family resides. According to current regulations, those students are not allowed to sit for the national college entrance examinations with local students. They have to go back to their hometown to take the exams. However, the curriculum content varies from place to place, putting waidiren at a major disadvantage compared to students who study where they are registered. With an increasing number of complaints about this unfair system, the central government last year urged local governments to work out feasible plans to solve the problem.

Shanghai became the first city in the country to introduce a residency permit grading system, set to take effect on July 1. The system provides a more transparent and reliable means of integrating non-locals into the city based on their merits and hard work, according to an economist with the city's development and reform commission.

Under the new system, children of non-locals who gain 120 points will be able to take the national college entrance examinations in Shanghai. Applicants can calculate their points based on their age, educational background, professional qualifications and their record of payment into the local social welfare system.

There are also clauses in case applicants commit crimes or violate the country's family planning policies.

I noticed that many of my non-local colleagues were excited by the news, but were careful to read through all the details. Although it won't please everyone, they agreed that it's a fair and transparent step in the right direction. I, myself a non-local who secured a Shanghai hukou under a different grading system a dozen years ago, also welcome the new policy. Shanghai prides itself on being an open and diverse city welcoming talents regardless of their origin. The introduction of this pioneering new policy is further proof of that claim.

However, my expatriate colleagues also wondered whether there will be a similar system for foreigners that have lived and worked in the city for a long period of time. They know that some special experts and experienced executives are eligible for a permanent residency that grants them certain benefits. But will there be integration incentives for ordinary workers? I can only hope that maybe in the near future there will be.

The country has been developing in an unpredictable way over the past several decades. Every year we witness numerous changes, and every few years we witness even greater changes. In the past, most people would keep the same job for their whole career; now it's common for people to hop between jobs frequently. In the past, most people would stay in their hometowns from birth to death; now more and more people migrate to new places. It's therefore illogical to stick to old doctrines.

A wise government should keep pace with the tidal wave of change. When there are new demands, there should be new solutions. Shanghai residents, both local and non-local, are happy to be living here. We should encourage them to stay.

The author is the managing editor of Global Times Metro Shanghai.