Some people call it China's apartheid. Han Chun, a farmer's daughter from south China, knows it as the "hukou", a system of social control that classes people as rural or urban residents, and obliges them to live and work only in their permanent residence.
The day Mrs Han landed a Beijing man as her husband should have been the luckiest of her life. But four years on, she is losing faith. "After so much hassle, I no longer consider myself lucky," she says in despair over her fruitless fight to clear her name of a crippling social stigma: she is a peasant.
Mrs Han does not suffer rude stares or insults on Beijing's streets, for she passes as a city woman these days. But looks alone cannot change her status in the hukou book of household registration. The hukou divides China into rural and urban worlds, and discriminates against 900 million farmers in favour of 400 million city dwellers.
Despite her marriage to a permanent Beijing resident, Mrs Han, 26, can obtain only a temporary residence permit, and could be ejected from the city during periodic police crackdowns against migrant workers. To educate her young daughter will require double the normal school fees, as city authorities consider her a peasant like her mother, even though she was born in the Chinese capital.
Yet when Mrs Han returned to her home village in Anhui province to register two-year-old Han Ye, she discovered her name had been deleted from local records.
"We don't belong to the city," she cried, "but we don't even belong to our hometown. We are now a 'black household'."
Relief may finally be on the horizon, however, as the Chinese government considers long-overdue reform of this unpopular relic of the planned economy. A senior official from the Ministry of Public Security, the chief regulator of residency policy, confirmed to The Independent on Sunday in a recent interview that top policy-makers are reviewing drafts for change. "Even we acknowledge that the whole hukou package, controlling education, employment, marriage and so on, is too heavy," he said, on condition of anonymity.
Several pilot projects are under way throughout China to experiment with a less rigid version of a system designed to restrict population flow and keep peasants tied to the land. The State Council, effectively China's Cabinet, has received draft proposals from the Ministry of Public Security and is seeking opinions from the other concerned ministries, including civil affairs, finance and personnel.
Campaigners for change include Lu Xueyi, a professor of sociology at the Academy of Social Sciences and a member of the National People's Congress, China's parliament. "Many of the peasants' sufferings are caused by the hukou system," Lu says. "Moreover, it has become a major hurdle to economic development."
At the annual NPC session in March, Lu submitted a proposal for reform. "Changing this 'one country, two systems' policy requires a set of sensible laws, and the transition should be gradual," he says. "But this reform, a second liberation for the peasants in my view, simply cannot be put off any longer."
After their first "liberation" in 1949, the Communist leader Mao Tse-tung lauded the peasants' honesty, simplicity and ability to "eat bitterness". He sorely tested that last trait when one of his worst follies, the Great Leap Forward, caused a famine that killed up to 30 million people. Amid that leap, Mao, in 1958, instigated the hukou system.
Restrictions on internal migration were eased in the Eighties but the 120 million peasants who have since quit the land remain stuck at the margins of urban society. Urban Chinese blame their uncouth cousins for everything from rising crime to unemployment, and city governments impose discriminatory rules.
Teacher Li Sumei is no stranger to discrimination. She founded the Xingzhi Migrant School in a Beijing vegetable patch in 1994, after fellow migrants begged her to help their children. "The hukou system causes a vicious circle," Miss Li said. "Because of the restrictions, migrants normally can't get good jobs and make good money, so they can't send their children to proper schools."
Xingzhi has grown from nine pupils to 2,000, but size is no protection. By July, Miss Li must relocate the school for the fifth time in its short history. The city government refuses to legalise any migrant schools, leaving her at the mercy of local officials and developers.
"We'll keep going," Miss Li said. "Without education, our children will have more reason to feel inferior."Reuse content