by Xinhua writer Gui Tao
BEIJING, Feb. 5 (Xinhua) -- Although Chinese may be born equal, when they perish, they may be different in terms of how much they are worth.
A decedent's status within the two-tiered "hukou" system, which is used to determine a given person's right to public services like education and housing based on where they are registered to live, also determines how much compensation will be paid by the government to the victim's family. Urban residents tend to secure much more money than rural residents.
This is the sad reality in a country where differentiated compensation has a legal basis.
The hukou system itself has been heavily criticized in recent years. The latest controversy comes following an expressway bridge collapse that occurred in central China's Henan Province last week.
Hours after media reports were issued claiming that compensation for each victim with a rural hukou would be 220,000 yuan (35,000 U.S. dollars) less than the amount their urban counterparts would receive, the local officials promised "a single standard" in calculating the compensation.
The pledge seems a compromise that came out of a high-pressure situation. Such compromises have become more common, although differentiated compensation is still the status quo in China.
It is unknown whether someone with a rural hukou will "die equal" in the next accident.
The difference in compensation has a legal basis that stems from a judicial interpretation on personal injury compensation issued by China's Supreme People's Court that came into effect in 2004.
It stipulates that compensation should be calculated based on the victim's estimated income for the 20 years following his death.
Income figures, however, differ depending on whether one is a resident of a well-off urban area or a destitute rural locale. One's hukou essentially acts as a determinant for the amount of compensation one's relatives can receive.
Debates over the policy's pros and cons have been going on for decades. Advocates say that differentiated compensation is justified, since people in the rural areas earn much less than their urban peers.
But opponents have accused the policy of being prejudiced against rural residents who have long been denied access to social welfare in cities and prevented from enjoying public services such as education, medical care, housing and employment, regardless of how long they may have lived or worked in the city.
The hukou system is quite out of place in today's China, which features much greater mobility than it did 55 years ago, when the system was set up.
It is unfair for someone with a rural hukou to lesser compensation despite toiling in the city for years. His "estimated income for the 20 years following his death" should be the same as his urban counterparts, even if they have a different hukou.
Identity- and entitlement-related differences between rural and urban citizens should be phased out.
In 2010, China's Electoral Law gave the country's rural residents the same voting rights as urban dwellers for the first time by adopting the same ratio of deputies to the represented population in elections of people's congress deputies.
The move represented a significant change regarding differentiated policies under the protection of the hukou system.
The system, which once effectively divided the population into the urban "haves" and the rural "have-nots," is sometimes manipulated by the haves to strengthen their vested interests.
The latest example is the case of Gong Ai'ai, a woman who made headlines after she was accused of purchasing multiple properties with forged identities. A subsequent investigation showed that Gong, who was detained by authorities this week, had four hukou, which is illegal in China.
The outdated hukou system needs reform. If it is too hard to start by providing the rural residents with equal social welfare and public services, start with giving them equal compensation.