A few days before the National People's Congress (NPC) and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) or 两会 "two sessions" began earlier this week, an interesting editorial was published in 13 newspapers across the country.
It called for a serious reform of the hukou system or household registration system. It is this antiquated system which is preventing major social progress in China, as those who migrate to the cities cannot get access to medical, education or employment benefits as these are all tied to their hukou in their hometown.
Migrant workers, formerly farmers, have been living in cities for more than 20 years and some have children born in these metropolises, but even their brood are still considered rural residents. It is these migrant workers who have literally built these cities and produced all the goods we buy today, and yet they are not given equal access to the same social benefits as urban residents.
The system has had a long history and for more on the background you can read it in this Asia Times Online article that dates back to 2007; ironically the three-year-old story still resonates today which means the government has not earnestly tried to change the hukou system. During Premier Wen Jiabao's work report a few days ago, he did not mention anything about reforms to the hukou system which means things are pretty much staying the same.
How can a socialist government boast having a "harmonious society" if people are not allowed to get what they have worked so hard for?
This is basically the gist of the editorial, saying that the registration system unfairly restricts the rights of the Chinese people to seek better lives outside their hometowns. "We believe in people born to be free and people possessing the right to migrate freely," the editorial said. "Abolishing this policy would enable the coming generations to enjoy the rights of freedom, democracy and equality endowed in the Constitution."
The simultaneous publication in 13 newspapers was a rare but strong statement to the government. But it quickly retaliated.
Hours after the editorial was posted, it mysteriously disappeared from Internet sites and now the apparent ring leader who initiated the editorial has been sacked from his job.
Zhang Hong, deputy editor in chief of the website of the Economic Observer was forced out of his job. He would not speak to The New York Times on Tuesday, but in a letter leaked to select media, Zhang wrote that after the editorial was published, "I was punished accordingly; other colleagues and media partners also felt repercussions." He added that the editorial had been "the product of a few editors working behind closed doors, only the impact it stirred up went beyond our first expectation."
Did Zhang, 36, know what could happen? He probably did and was prepared for it.
He now sees himself as an independent commentator and hopes to rejoin the Economic Observer at a later date.
In the meantime one cannot help but admire those who stick out their necks speaking the truth and knowing they will be punished severely.
As for the government, these small voices are pointing out the hypocrises they see; if you fix them, there will be no complaints. These people are not against the government -- they love their country and only want to see it become better.
Is that too much to ask of their government?