China has pledged to help 100 million migrants gain urban household registration, or hukou, as part of an urbanization drive to have 45 percent of its registered population living in cities by 2020.
Over the next five years. the government will annually grant over 13 million migrants an urban hukou that will qualify them for social benefits of urban residents, according to a government plan released by the State Council on Tuesday.
It plans to relax household registration requirements in most cities for students from rural areas and migrant workers who have lived in a city for a long time, and will ensure the new hukou-holders have the same social benefits as their urban peers.
The announcement has inspired Wang Jun, 35, a construction worker in southwest China's metropolis of Chongqing.
"If I could get a hukou, my daughter would be able to further her studies here," said Wang, a native of Sichuan Province.
The new policy will accelerate urbanization and relieve social problems caused by children and elderly people left-behind in the countryside, said Kong Xiangzhi, deputy head of the school of agriculture and countryside development at Renmin University.
Meanwhile, the new city dwellers will be a driving force for domestic consumption and production, becoming an engine of China's growth amid the economic slowdown, Kong said.
Under the hukou regime, which dates back to the 1950s, migrants have limited access to health care, education and other social benefits outside their hometowns. Switching hukou can be extremely challenging.
The system has succeeded in preventing the emergence of shantytowns around China's cities but it comes at the cost of breaking up families and forcing migrants from the countryside to live humbly in urban areas.
The percentage of people living in cities and having local hukou stood at 39.9 percent at the end of 2015. The percentage of the entire population living in cities was 56.1 percent, taking into account of many migrants living in cities without the relevant local hukou.
Wang's nine-year-old daughter will have to return to her hometown after graduating from primary school in Chongqing, as hukou is a prerequisite for urban middle school education.
"The hukou system has long been blamed for the widening rural-urban gap and is deemed an injustice," said Dang Guoying, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
"China is getting close to world norms with the introduction of the plan, which standardizes and simplifies procedures for urban household registration," Dang said.
Big cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, are still advised to control their population using a points-based system to give priority to those with college degrees, steady jobs, higher tax payments and capabilities for innovation.
It is a daunting task for Zheng Qin, 27, an office clerk in Beijing, to get a Beijing hukou as he has to pay social insurances for at least seven years to get enough points to compete with others.
Beijing plans to cap its permanent population at 23 million by 2020, with the population in six core districts 15 percent less than 2014 levels.
In smaller cities it is a different scenario. Local governments encourage rural people to live in cities, with high incentives to push urbanization and cut housing inventories.
In Puyang City, central China's Henan Province, where the percentage of the population living in cities stands at 38.2, far lower than the national average, the government is wooing farmers with a 150 yuan (22.4 U.S. dollars) subsidy for every square meter of commercial apartments they buy in urban areas as well as preferential bank loans, a rare treatment for farmers in the past.
Farmers in Puyang can maintain their right to rural land use, even after they get an urban hukou, and are granted the same medical and educational benefits as their urban peers.
Wu Xiangqin, a local farmer who worked in a city as a construction worker for more than ten years, bought a three-bedroom apartment with a 300,000 yuan loan from a local bank and a 20,000 yuan refund from the government this year, realizing the family dream to become real city dwellers.
What worries Wu most is the sluggish construction industry as it is more difficult to find jobs now. Although housing prices in large Chinese cities witnessed a drastic hike in the past year, cutting inventory is still a tough job for smaller cities in central and western China.
Wu called for more government support in job creation and labor rights protection.