Resistance to reformSometimes changes that leaders assume to be popular hit reefs of unexpected resistance.
Reform’s big taboo
Some 250m people have moved from the countryside to cities, the greatest migration in history. Millions live in dormitories or doss down where they can. Most have no formal contracts with their employers, and are denied access to urban public services such as subsidised education and health care. As the country’s growth slows, the Communist Party hopes migrants will play an even bigger role in boosting the economy, not just by toiling in factories, but by joining the middle class and spending their new wealth. So it is looking for ways to improve their lot.
For several years, Chongqing’s efforts to achieve this have gone further than anywhere else in the country… As elsewhere in China, the urban population has been growing fast thanks to a rapid influx of migrants. To manage this better, Chongqing persuaded the central government nine years ago to let it test out new ways of handling the newcomers and of making good use of the land they leave behind…
[T]he municipality’s government touted what admirers called the “Chongqing model”. This involved three main initiatives. First, the government said it would build 40m square metres of housing in the decade to 2020 for rent to the urban poor…
Next, the government said it would give full urban status to 10m migrants, meaning they would get access to subsidised urban health care and education (typically, these services are available only in the place of one’s household registration, or hukou—usually the place of birth of one’s mother or father). Third, the government announced changes to the urban-planning system to allow land left behind by migrants to be traded for use in building new houses and offices. That was a breakthrough in a country that still officially disapproves of selling farmers’ property…
But the municipality has not fulfilled its promises. Only about 15m square metres of public housing have been built…
Another problem has been that many migrants still feel a strong sense of attachment to their rural land, even after they move into the cities. This is because of the entitlement they enjoy by law, as people from the countryside, to farm a family plot and to use a piece of land for their housing. Most farmers jealously guard that right: they see it as a form of insurance should they fail to make ends meet in the cities. Many farmers are reluctant to apply for urban hukou because they fear it would mean having to give up these rights.
Through no fault of Chongqing’s, distribution of urban hukou has thus fallen far short of the target of 10m…
Recently, there has been a bit of belated encouragement from on high. In January… President Xi… paid a visit to Chongqing… It was the first by a Chinese president since the municipality’s reforms began, and was widely interpreted as a sign of his endorsement of Chongqing’s effort... [Xi did not] express full-throated support for the reforms. Mr Xi likely fears that promoting them may impose crippling financial burdens on local governments and unleash yet more uncontrollable social forces. He may be a leader of enormous power, but he is afraid to use it to make the changes China most needs.
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