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In another country, it might have been regarded as a very unremarkable act: a group of newspapers printing an editorial calling for the government to reconsider a particularly unpopular piece of legislation.

But when 13 Chinese newspapers moved together to print an editorial calling for reform of the country's hukou household registration system, the open challenge from the country's normally docile domestic media was deemed a step too far by authorities in Beijing.

The editorials were printed last week on the eve of the National People's Congress, the once-a-year gathering of China's rubber-stamp parliament, and stirred passionate debate online, most of it highly critical of the registration regime that is sometimes compared to a government-imposed caste system.

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Step-by-predictable-step, the government's countermeasures were deployed. First, the editorial in question disappeared from websites of the newspapers that published it. Online discussions were closed down. Then, senior editors from the 13 papers received an unpleasant warning from the Propaganda Department of the ruling Communist Party.

Finally, the person who confessed to co-authoring the offending editorial - Zhang Hong, a previously unknown deputy editor at the Economic Observer, a Beijing-based weekly - was ousted from his job. The message was delivered, the messenger dispatched with.

"After the joint editorial was published, the reactions to it went far beyond what we initially anticipated, so to speak," Mr. Zhang said in a letter posted on the website of the Wall Street Journal. "After this incident, I was punished accordingly; other colleagues and media partners also felt repercussions."

Introduced in 1958 to prevent peasants from flooding the cities during the famine induced by Mao's failed Great Leap Forward, the hukou still serves as a barrier to permanent settlement for the millions of residents who come from poor villages to the booming cities in search of work.

"China has suffered for a long time under the hukou system!" the initial editorials read. "We believe in people born to be free and people possessing the right to migrate freely."

Mr. Zhang, who said he is now an "independent commentator," said the joint editorial was inspired by a global effort last year that saw 56 newspapers around the world - including the Economic Observer - publish a joint editorial on the need for international co-operation to fight climate change.

Despite his dismissal, Mr. Zhang used his letter to repeat the criticisms of the hukou system, which is blamed for helping to widen the rural-urban divide. Chinese citizens can receive social benefits such as education, old-age pensions and health care only in the region of their birth.

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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