China's "black clinics" flourish as government debates health reform

Wed Mar 27, 2013 12:31am EDT
 
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By Hui Li and Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) - A one-room shack with a single, bare light bulb on a non-descript Beijing side street is 29-year-old Chinese migrant worker Zhang Xuefang's best recourse to medical care.

Not recognized as a Beijing resident, she does not qualify for cheaper healthcare at government hospitals, and her hometown is too far away to take advantage of medical subsidizes there.

Like millions of other migrant workers, Zhang, on whose labor China's economic boom depends, is forced into a seedy and unregulated world of back ally "black clinics" if she falls ill.

The issue highlights the two-tier nature of China's overburdened health care system and goes to the heart of a heated debate about how to reform the contentious "hukou" system of household registration, a cornerstone of government policy for decades which essentially legalizes discrimination between urban and rural residents.

The hukou system, which dates to 1958, has split China's 1.3 billion people along urban-rural lines, preventing many of the roughly 800 million Chinese who are registered as rural residents from settling in cities and enjoying basic urban welfare and services.

China's new government has vowed to change this divisive system with reforms aimed at sharing more equally the bounty of China's economic growth and consumption-led growth.

Newly-appointed Premier Li Keqiang vowed at his debut news conference earlier this month to press ahead with reforms to narrow China's urban-rural gap, including giving migrant labor more equal access to medical insurance.

No details have yet been announced, so black clinics will remain the affordable last resort for migrant workers.   Continued...

 
Pedestrians walk past a shop (L) providing Chinese dermatologic treatment at a street market on the outskirts of Beijing March 20, 2013. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon