There are promising pilot projects that attempt to tackle the urban-rural gulf. Cities such as Chongqing and Guangdong have been experimenting with limited hukou reform.
However, such programs are often tightly restricted and cover workers who have moved from country to town within a province. In many cases migrants have been wary of switching registration, fearing the compensation for lost land and home is insufficient to establish them in the city.
Chan said reforms needed to go deeper and to involve Beijing.
“Hukou reform has to be gradual, but it has to tackle the core of the issue,” the Washington professor says. “The core issue, for example, in Guangdong, is to gradually accept migrant workers from outside the province — the majority of the migrant workers — as equals.”
Wholesale hukou reform is an alarming prospect for officials, raising the specter of an expensive and uncontrollable surge to the cities. However, the alternative is an unbridgeable gap between town and country — with children such as Zhao Ai stranded in poverty as his urban peers romp ahead.