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Chinese Scholars and Activists Demand Equality for Migrant Workers in China

February 14, 2008

In an open letter dated February 15, 2008, Chinese scholars, reporters, democracy activists, writers, and lawyers inside and outside China appeal to the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress to establish equality for China's migrant workers. The letter (appended below) comes in the wake of serious hardship for migrant workers, who were unable to return home for Lunar New Year celebrations due to snow storms in southern China. It calls on the government to reform the household registration (hukou) system, which effectively relegates migrants to second-class citizens by restricting their access to education, housing, and services in urban areas after relocating from rural homes. Human Rights in China is providing this letter on behalf of the signatories.

The letter, signed by democracy activist Liu Xiaobo, Ding Zilin, representative of the Tiananmen Mothers, and writer Hu Ping, identifies the restrictions imposed on migrant workers by the hukou system as one of the key sources of hardship for those workers, and a reason why recent snow storms in southern China affected that population so harshly.

In its conclusion, the petition calls for "the end of the hukou system . . . Let rural residents become first-class citizens, let agricultural workers professionalize, and let the term 'rural peasant worker' become a term of the past."

For more information on migrant workers and the household registration system, please refer to the following resources:

HRIC Reports

Articles from Ren Yu Ren Quan (Chinese only)


An Appeal in the Aftermath of the Snowstorm Disaster:

Calling for Equality and an End to Second-Class Status
Make the term "Rural Peasant Worker" become a thing of the past
February 15, 2008

To the Delegates of the People's Congress and the Members of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Committee:

Greetings. During the recent snowstorms, no group in China was more affected than migrant workers. The snowstorms created an unprecedented level of chaos. Of course, severe snowstorms occur every year, worldwide; in every nation and every ethnic group, there are special holidays bringing together families. But it was only in China where snowstorms left tens of millions of people stranded and unable to return home.

China has an unparalleled number of migrant workers. Even by conservative estimates, the migrant worker population exceeds two hundred million, with over thirty million in the Pearl River Delta region alone. All these migrants return home to their families during the Chinese New Year holiday, creating a unique mass transportation problem for China. Due to the snowstorms and the obstruction of transportation lines this year, these workers were forced to endure the elements, facing starvation and hypothermia. Given that China has supposedly entered its prime, this episode is especially ironic.

"Nongmingong," or, "rural peasant worker," (migrant) is a new term that emerged in contemporary China, for which there is no correlating term outside of China. Generally, once rural residents enter a city, leaving behind the fields for other forms of labor, they are no longer considered rural residents, but become urban citizens, and are referred to simply as workers. However, China's enforcement of the household registration system which does not allow these migrants to change their registration status (hukou) presents problems; the system insists upon identifying them as rural residents. As a result, the term "nongmingong" arose to identify this particular group of people.

As everyone knows, freedom of movement is a fundamental human right. Sixty years ago, the United Nations set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that "Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State". During the period of the Republic of China, our countrymen enjoyed this freedom. This right was also respected for a period of time following the establishment of the People's Republic of China; the 1954 Constitution still included a provision on freedom of movement. Even so, shortly thereafter, the Chinese government implemented a series of policies inhibiting migration of the rural population. On January 9, 1958, Mao Zedong used his position as Party Chairman to issue the "Household Registration Ordinance," which was in clear violation of the Constitution. This regulation stipulated that "if citizens of rural areas desire to relocate to an urban area, they must provide proof of employment to the municipal labor department, or obtain approval for a long-term residency permit from the municipal household registration office." From this, the formal hukou system was thus established. Henceforth, China's rural residents, who constitute over 70% of the country’s population, were reduced to second-class citizens.

This year, 2008, is the thirtieth anniversary of Deng Xiaoping's Open Door Policy. We all know that the burdens of China's economic reforms have been shouldered by rural residents. When public property was returned to individual farmers during the Deng era, one could say that this was their first step towards freedom of choice. However, in the thirty years that have passed since, rural residents still find themselves locked into second-class status. There remains severe institutional bias against rural residents in the areas of the freedom of movement, lawful settlement, employment and educational opportunities. Not only is this a travesty of traditional Chinese culture, it is also a violation of fundamental universal values. Even under normal circumstances, these restrictions are an insult to the human dignity of rural residents. There have always been calls for an end to the hukou system from the masses and from academic circles, but the Chinese government has consistently refused to directly confront this issue. At every mention of reform in China, someone always brings up the current state of the nation as an excuse. However, the hukou system cannot be regarded as being part of the "current state of the nation." It is no more than a maladministration left over from Mao's era. Recently, it has been said that several local governments have been considering reform of the hukou system, while several cities have already launched pilot projects exploring this possibility. But the problem is: abolition of the hukou system would not be a new institutional concept, but simply a return to a previous system, so why would a pilot project be necessary? Abolition of the hukou system would be a significant event that impacts every Chinese citizen. What urban family in China does not have relatives living in the countryside? Everyone above a certain age has labored in the countryside, and should be quite familiar with the hardships that rural residents face. Is it actually possible that people still believe that rural residents are inherently second-class citizens? If we allow the hukou system to persist even one more day, that would mean allowing a few hundred million of our fellow citizens to endure one more day of suffering, one more day of shame, and would cause our own consciences to degrade another day.

At the convening of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress, we call for the end of the hukou system, beginning with the immediate abolition of the Household Registration Ordinance. Let rural residents become first-class citizens, let agricultural workers professionalize, and let "nongmingong" become a term of the past.

Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波(北京自由撰稿人)
Ding Zilin 丁子霖(北京教授)
Jiang Peikun 蒋培坤(北京 教授)
Jiang Qisheng 江棋生(北京 学者)
Zhang Zuhua 张祖桦(北京 宪政学者)
Ai Xiaoming 艾晓明(广州 教授)
Jiao Guobiao 焦国标(北京 学者)
Wei Se 唯 色(北京 作家)
Wang Lixiong 王力雄(北京 作家)
Zhang Yaojie 张耀杰(北京 学者)
Gao Yu 高 瑜(北京 记者)
Wang Xiaoshan 王小山(北京 记者)
Zan Aizong 昝爱宗(杭州记者)
Feng Zhenghu 冯正虎(上海 宪政学者)
Yang Kuanxing 杨宽兴(济南 自由撰稿人)
Liu Di 刘 荻(北京 自由撰稿人)
Teng Biao 滕 彪(北京 律师)
Li Boguang 李柏光(北京,律师)
Wen Kejian 温克坚(杭州自由撰稿人)
Zhao Dagong 赵达功(深圳 自由撰稿人)

Overseas 境外
Hu Ping 胡 平(美国 政论家)
Wang Dan 王丹(美国 89学运领袖)
Yang Jianli 杨建利(美国 学者)
Chen Kuide 陈奎德(美国 学者)
Zhang Weiguo 张伟国(美国 学者)
Sheng Xue 盛雪(加拿大 自由撰稿人)
Zhang Jing 张菁(美国 编辑)
Liu Guokai 刘国凯(美国 民运人士)
Chen Pokong 陈破空(美国 政论家)
Tang Yuanjun 唐元寯(美国 民运人士)
Zhang Lun 张 伦(法国 学者)
Qi Jiazhen 齐家贞(澳大利亚作家)
A Mu 阿 木(澳大利亚 自由撰稿人)
Lao Daiwei 老戴维(澳大利亚自由撰稿人)
Cai Chu 蔡 楚(美国 诗人)
Lü Jinghua 吕京花 (美国 人权工作者)

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