Parents face dilemma as hereditary registration system limits access to urban services
Tania Branigan in Beijing
Monday 15 March 2010
Hu Zhongping dreams that one day his young sons may go to university and escape his life of casual manual labour. The aspiration seems increasingly unrealistic. Right now, he would settle for them going to school.
Chinese children are entitled to a state education, but not all of them get one. And the tens of millions born to migrant workers like Hu are among the most vulnerable, owing to a registration system that divides the country's citizens into rural and urban dwellers, and dictates their rights accordingly.
Despite spending more than half his life in Beijing, Hu does not enjoy the same access to health, education and social services as his neighbours. And because the hukou – registration – is inherited, neither do his children.
"I wish my kids could go to a state school," says Hu. "Parents always wish their children could receive a better education."
The contradictions of the hukou system, designed for a 1950s planned economy, become more painful with every year of China's development. About 140 million rural migrants are now working in the cities, where average incomes are more than three times than those of the countryside. Migrants have fuelled the country's spectacular growth but not reaped the benefits. And once they become parents, they face an unpalatable choice.
Fifty-eight million children are left behind in the countryside by parents who hope that relatives will raise them lovingly. Another 19 million remain in the cities – where they are, in effect, second-class citizens. Both groups have poorer academic performance and more behavioural problems than their peers.
At present, Hu's eight-year-old twins, Xiaonan and Xiaobei, are studying in the family's cramped one-room apartment, under the guidance of their mother, who left school at 16.
"You need connections to get your kids in [to state school] if you are from other places, and making those connections costs too much money," says Hu. "We can't afford it."
State schools receive no funding for migrant pupils, so often claim to be full. Others charge illicit "donations" of as much as 6,000 yuan (£590) a term, said Zhang Zhiquan, from the Friends of Migrant Workers group. That is more than Hu's entire income for the period.
Many families do not qualify anyway, because they lack the right documents. Scrap collectors and street vendors have no employment contracts.
That leaves more than a third of migrant children in Beijing – and far more in other cities – dependent on private schools, which usually charge about 600 yuan a term. Until a few weeks ago, the Hu twins were among these pupils. But their school is one of 30 facing demolition as part of urban development plans. Up to 10,000 children in Beijing will be affected.
The education department in Chaoyang district – where most affected schools are based – has said it will help all pupils, increasing capacity at nearby primaries and aiding approved private schools to find new locations.
But hundreds have already been sent back to the countryside by parents. Others – including Xiaonan and Xiaobei – have yet to find new places. Activists fear that some may fall out of schooling altogether; a study cited by the China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based group campaigning for workers' rights, said about 6% of migrant children have never attended school.
The demolitions have highlighted the precarious, makeshift nature of much migrant schooling. At worst, children can end up in low quality, profit-driven institutions that are little more than holding pens. At best, they rely on individuals such as Ma Ruigang, headmaster of another school on the demolition list. A migrant himself, he founded the Blue Sky primary school after friends asked him to help educate their children.
It's a spartan site with few facilities, but the teachers are dedicated. Neatly turned out children are chanting from their textbooks as he pokes his head into their classroom. "What sort of country will it be if these children are on the streets instead of in school?" he asks, nodding at his charges.
"Since the children have come with their parents, and their parents are supporting the development of Beijing, their education is a very big issue. It's not only an issue for their families, but also for the government and nation."
Authorities are not indifferent to the problem. Chaoyang officials donate equipment to the school, and have promised compensation so it can reopen on a site nearby.
But critics say both local and national efforts scratch the surface."The Chinese government has introduced a raft of policies, laws and regulations [to benefit migrant children]," pointed out a recent report by China Labour Bulletin.
"Rural policies have lacked the human and financial resources needed to effectively implement them, while migrant children in the cities still face institutional discrimination based on the [hukou].
"The only long-term solution is wide-ranging and systematic reform of the social welfare system and abolition of the hukou system."
No one expects that to happen soon, but demands for change are mounting. Thirteen newspapers recently published a rare joint appeal for wholesale reform – though they were quickly slapped down by propaganda authorities, who scrubbed the editorial from websites.
The government has promised an overhaul, but fears drastic changes could lead to migrants flooding cities, putting an unmanageable strain on services and housing and potentially leading to unrest.
The hukou also helps authorities to track individuals. And extending services in cities will require massive amounts of extra funding. Others warn that migrants could sign away their rights to farmland too quickly, leaving them with nothing to fall back on if life in the city proves too tough.
But many say the government's current plan – allowing rural dwellers to register in smaller urban centres – will do nothing for tens of millions who crossed the country to work in the biggest cities.
Another generation of their children will grow up with big ambitions, but only slender prospects.