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National People's Congress: China's New Leadership Change and Hukou Policy Reform

JURIST Guest Columnist Qiwei Chen, an LL.M. candidate from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law Class of 2013, discusses China's new leaders election and the current disputes on hukou, the household registration system...

On March 17, 2013, the National People's Congress (NPC), the highest state body and the unicameral legislative house in China, and the People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), whose members represent various defined groups of society, ended their annual meeting in Beijing, China. The NPC and the CPPCC are the two most important political and legal meetings in China. The NPC meets for about two weeks each year at the same time as the CPPCC, usually in the spring. The NPC meets annually in March and is attended by more than 3,000 local delegates elected by the people. The combined sessions have been known as the "two meetings" in China.

It is worth noting that the NPC is not only a legal meeting in China, but also the main legislative body of China (the unicameral parliament). The Constitution of People's Republic of China has vested the NPC with great lawmaking powers. It has the power to revise the constitution and create major legal codes. Delegates of the NPC are from different fields and have different backgrounds. These delegates can make suggestions or give opinions on legislation. After the NPC meeting, the NPC Legislative Affairs Committee is the key group that is responsible for law drafting. Apart from this, the NPC also enacts laws and makes "decisions". Decisions may contain legal norms in the form of amendments or supplements to laws.

Furthermore, Article 79 of the PRC Constitution grants the NPC the power to elect the president and the vice president and to approve the appointment of the prime minister of the state council. This year's NPC was assigned a significant mission: to elect three of the new top leaders in China. Coincidentally, all of these leaders hold law-related degrees. President Xi Jinping earned a Ph.D. in laws from Tsinghua University. Premier Li Keqiang obtained his LL.B. from Peking University. Vice President Li Yuanchao obtained his doctoral degree in law from the Central Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. In the past, most of the top governmental officials were scientists. For example, former Chinese President Hu Jintao was a hydraulic engineer before he became a politician. Likewise, former prime minister, Wen Jiabao, was a geomechanical engineer. This trend shows China's past national policy to encourage young people to study science, mathematics or engineering in college. Great emphasis was placed on science and technology as fundamental parts of the socio-economic development of the country as well as for national prestige. Such a goal resulted in China's de-emphasizing other areas, including legal education and the legal profession. This resulted in many defects rooted in the Chinese legal system that were always neglected in the past. Now that top leaders have legal backgrounds, the Chinese legal system will undergo reform in the near future.

Another important feature of this year's NPC session was that the Chinese hukou system needs to be deeply reformed as soon as possible. The hukou system is basically a household registration system, employed by the Chinese government as the oldest tool of population control. The local government has the right to make local hukou policies. They can issue a hukou booklet per family, recording all the information of each family members, such as names, birth dates, permanent addresses, martial status, education, death dates and other essential details. Also, the hukou booklet identifies the village, town or city to which each family member belongs. A child's hukou is determined by his or her parents' hukou rather than the child's birthplace. For example, if both parents' hukou are in city X, then the child's hukou is in X even if he or she is born in Shanghai. If one of the parent's hukou is in Shanghai while the other is in X, then the child can choose between the two. The hukou system is critically important in China because of the large number of people engaged in rural-urban migration. The 1954 PRC Constitution guaranteed citizens' right of free residential choice and migration. However, in the 1975 PRC Constitution, this article was deleted and was never recovered in any other version of the PRC Constitutions or amendments.

Also, the Chinese government uses the hukou system to identify citizen's education, employment and social welfare rights by where people belong. People enjoy social benefit based on the address in your hukou booklet. For example, if your address in your hukou booklet is Shanghai, China, then you have a Shanghai citizenship. You may enjoy the social benefit given by Shanghai government. People from underdeveloped areas in China always want to move to the big cities like Shanghai. However, it is hard for them to transfer their hukou from their original place to Shanghai because the Shanghai government is concerned about the limited land, education and job resources. It made strict hukou policies to avoid overpopulation.

The hukou system not only restricts people's fundamental right of free migration, but also determines whether people have equally access to social services. It is notorious for creating a dual economic structure dividing people into urban and countryside status. Urban people and countryside people enjoy different social benefits even in the same province. For instance, children of countryside people cannot go to schools in urban areas. Even if countryside people domicile in city, they cannot enjoy the medical insurance, unemployment insurance or retirement pension as city people do because they lack a city hukou. The hukou system constructs a solid wall between the city and countryside in China. It prevents the free flow of population, impeding the economic and social development in the country.

As usual, the premier delivered Report on the Work of the Government in the NPC session. This year's report was the last one in premier Wen's 10-year term. He called for efforts to advance urbanization "actively yet prudently" by speeding up reform of the hukou system:

Urbanization is a historic task in China's modernization drive, and urbanization and agricultural modernization complement each other. To advance urbanization, the government should register eligible rural workers as permanent urban residents in an orderly manner, and expand the coverage of basic public services in urban areas to migrant workers and other permanent residents.
The Chinese government is trying to use the NPC's annual session as an opportunity to demonstrate the government's view on crucial legislative reforms to improve human rights protections. I truly hope that the new government leaders will deepen legal form and make people live better in China.

Qiwei Chen's legal experience includes internships with All Bright Law Offices and the Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau.

Suggested citation: Qiwei Chen, 2013 National People's Congress of China: China's New Leadership Change and Hukou Policy Reform , JURIST - Dateline, Apr. 17, 2013, http://jurist.org/dateline/2013/04/qiwei-chen-china-reform.php

This article was prepared for publication by Fangxing Li, an assistant editor for JURIST's student commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to him at studentcommentary@jurist.org

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.

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