Shenzhen’s residence card offers little new for migrant workers

04 November 2008

Shenzhen’s new residence card (juzhuzheng居住证) has been heralded in the official Chinese media as an important step towards reform of the household registration (hukou户口) system and the elimination of discrimination against migrant workers.

Initial signs indicate however that the new “green card,” introduced in August this year, is little more than a collection of existing rights and privileges bundled into a shiny new package. The green card is essentially a cosmetic exercise that does not significantly improve the lives of migrant workers. The only group the new card will benefit is the Shenzhen Public Security Bureau. By including much more data in the new card, such as marital status, family planning records, employment records, insurance records, address, and criminal records, the police hope it will make surveillance and management of the city’s vast migrant population more efficient.

According to official data, in 2007 Shenzhen had about 2.1 million local residents, and another 6.5 million migrant workers registered with a temporary residence card. Yet, according to the city’s family planning bureau, Shenzhen has in total about 12 million migrant workers, suggesting that half of all migrant workers in the special economic zone are unregistered.

Shenzhen’s “temporary residence card” (zanzhuzheng暂住证) system had been in place for 24 years. Legally, any individual who stayed in Shenzhen for more than seven days was required to register with the police and apply for a temporary residence card. Those who failed to present their temporary residence card upon request were subject to a fine. However, since the application procedure was complicated and time-consuming, many migrant workers never bothered. The incentive to register was reduced further in 2003 with the abolition of the city’s infamous forced repatriation policy.

Application for the new card is voluntary, but to encourage take-up the government has streamlined procedures and made the application form available on the internet. The government cites the main advantages of the new card for migrant workers as being that: it removes the perceived stigma of “temporary” resident, it is valid for ten years, rather than the previous two years, and can also be used as a social insurance card.

The Shenzhen government has claimed that the new card gives migrant workers the same rights and privileges as urban residents. This is simply not true. The hukou system has not been abolished, and those lucky enough to have an urban hukou still enjoy many more benefits than migrant workers, specifically in terms of healthcare their children’ education, and their right to political participation. The new card system has been piloted in the Yantian district of Shenzhen since May 2007 but in over a year there has been little visible improvement in the rights of migrants. Indeed, many of the new card’s touted privileges, such as contraception advice and services, vaccinations for infants and children, evaluation of professional qualifications, participation in labour competitions, application for driver’s license and vehicle registration have been in place for the last few years. On the other hand, the key issues of schooling and healthcare insurance are not mentioned in the list of privileges and remain serious problems.

Shenzhen Residence Card holders privileges at a glance
Free employment referral services, the right to participate in training sessions organized by the government, take part in labour competitions, and be evaluated for professional qualifications.
Entitlement to public housing and schooling, according to government policies and regulations; priority in applying for permanent residency.
Free contraceptive advice and services and free vaccination of children.
Register a vehicle and apply for a driver’s license and apply for transportation concessions (for eligible applicants).
Participate in community management according to government regulations;
Leave and re-enter Shenzhen, visit Hong Kong and Macau.

The Shenzhen government has often stated that the children of residence card holders will enjoy the same educational rights as locals. However, migrants are currently paying up to three times as much as locals for their children’s education in “temporary student fees” (jiedufei 借读费). In the spring of 2008, Shenzhen abolished the collection of miscellaneous fees and textbook fees for local children in compulsory education. However, only migrant children who met a long list of criteria qualified for such largesse. There are about 800,000 primary and middle school students in Shenzhen. It is estimated that about 600,000 students have benefited from this new policy, of which 340,000 are migrant children. Based on these figures, only 63 percent of city’s 540,000 migrant children in compulsory education qualify for the new policy, while in the factory district of Longgang only 21 percent of migrant children meet the criteria. And it is precisely those children who do not qualify for the new subsidies, those whose parents are not in stable employment, that need them most. In the fall semester of 2008, schools were still charging miscellaneous fees, and migrant children still had to pay additional temporary student fees and textbook fees.

Health insurance not covered

The soaring cost of healthcare is probably the most pressing concern of ordinary Chinese people today. The minimum wage in Shenzhen is 1,000 yuan a month but a single out-patient visit in the city can cost between 80 yuan and 180 yuan. Shenzhen set up a comprehensive medical insurance scheme in 1996 but the participation of migrant workers has been limited. To encourage a greater take-up, in 2005 Shenzhen established a dedicated health insurance scheme for migrant workers. Although the premium for migrant workers’ medical insurance is lower than for urban residents, by mid-2007, only about one-third of migrant workers (4.1 million) had joined the scheme.

Neither of these healthcare insurance schemes covers pre-natal care or abortion costs. Migrant women have to rely on unregistered clinics or home births; as such the maternal death rate for migrant workers is about three to seven times that of local women. It was only in November 2007 that the Shenzhen government started to think about including migrant workers in its birth insurance coverage but no concrete policies have been implemented and the much vaunted green card does nothing to help.

In June 2007, the Shenzhen government set up a health insurance scheme for children with serious illnesses; however, just like in the education system, only a small proportion of migrant children, those whose parents have been members of the social security scheme for a year or more, are eligible. The Shenzhen government predicted that more than 700,000 children would be covered by this scheme. However, according to official data, there are 1.53 million children below the age of 18 in Shenzhen with either permanent or temporary residency. And given that only half of migrant workers are registered, the proportion of migrant children eligible for the scheme is probably less than 25 percent.

Despite the Shenzhen authorities claim that the new residence card system helps to break down the barriers between locals and the migrant population, it is still extremely difficult to get a Shenzhen hukou. The Shenzhen government wants to create a hi-tech hub with a “high quality” population and specifically limits urban residence to professionals with high incomes and high educational levels. Indeed, the proportion of permanent residents with a university education increased from just eight percent in 2000 to over 15 percent in 2007.

Population management is the key

Population management has always been an important function of the hukou system, and the new card is specifically designed to enhance this function. Crime and social unrest are commonplace in Shenzhen, and the authorities have launched a wide range of law and order initiatives to combat the problem, including the installation of over 200,000 surveillance cameras since 2003.

Over 90 percent of all crimes in Shenzhen are committed by migrants, and the new card is seen by the police as a more effective means of targeting and controlling the migrant population. Especially now, with factory closures and mass lay-offs leading to increased social tension and potential violence, the authorities may feel justified in seeking to tighten social control.

Although registration is now voluntary, it will become increasing difficult to function in Shenzhen without the new card. Only residence card holders can sign rental agreements longer than three months, and landlords are obliged to report changes in tenancy to the police. More importantly, the (increased) personal data contained in the residence card can be transferred to other governmental departments and financial institutions.

Abuse of power is widespread in China and there are concerns that the new card could lead to the erosion of civil liberties, particularly the protection of individual privacy. In June, for example, there were reports of Shenzhen police targeting surveillance cameras on the homes of ordinary residents for their own personal gratification; to photograph women in the shower.

Liu Kaiming, head of the Institute of Contemporary Observation in Shenzhen, has pointed out that: “The differences [in the rights of migrant workers] between the temporary residence card and the residence card are minimal…its role in population management and social control is much more prominent.”

Shenzhen is not the first city to abolish temporary residence cards. Shenyang abolished its temporary residence card system in 2003 only to reinstate it in 2005, while Shanghai has both residence cards and temporary residence cards. However, Shenzhen is most important city in this regard because of its extremely high proportion of migrants and its traditional role as testing ground for new social and economic policies. If the scheme is pronounced a success in Shenzhen it could be extended to other cities in China.

CLB is concerned however that the success of the new residence card will be judged not on its ability to end discrimination but on its ability to more effectively manage the migrant worker population.

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