“In Beijing, migrant workers children have their own special educational arrangements, they have their classes and even schools.” These words were spoken in 2011, as the Chinese government described its achievements in education in an official propaganda video. The background is a school called Huangzhuang school, one of the biggest schools for children of migrant workers in Shijingshan District, Beijing. Nearly 2,000 students receive their education here, ranging from kindergarten to high school.

Seven years later, that school will face its final destiny: being shut down by the local authority and demolished to make room for a new urban planning project. “The property lease for this school will be terminated, and some of its teachers and students will be moved to other schools,” the local official said.

But this school is not the only victim of Beijing’s citywide “urban rectification” campaign. Ten other schools were also demolished, and those students have to choose whether to leave Beijing, or stop attending school. In fact, the statistics revealed that since 2006, the number of such schools for children of migrant workers in Beijing has declined from over 300 to only 111 in 2018, and fifteen thousand students were forced to leave school, or return to their hometowns.

Education dilemma

Mega cities in China have attracted a large number of people from other regions. For workers, cities are desirable places to get more income. Since the Reform and Opening policy introduced in 1978, peasants chose to give up farming in villages and get into cities. In almost every city in China, you can easily find these migrant workers at construction sites, small restaurants and express delivery depots. They are the pillar of modern urban life, while it is worth pointing out that they were not allowed to have their hukou registered in cities where they are working, and were not welcomed by crowded mega cities.

In China, the hukou system is the inevitable topic if you want to start a chat about education (or anything else, for Chinese citizens). The hukou system was designed to confirm citizens’ residential status in China, and help in deciding the allocation of public services. If your child is eligible to receive compulsory education, he/she will be allocated to the nearest public primary and junior school in the vicinity of your residential address, and for high school or college entrance examination (aka Gaokao), you have to take these exams in the region where your hukou was registered.

This situation has created many problems. In China, general education expenditure as a percentage of GDP never surpassed 4% until 2012, while coastal regions were far more developed than inland provinces, and cities could provide better education and development conditions than rural areas, so the insufficient resources were concentrated in coastal provinces and cities. Furthermore, the admission quota for tertiary education was appallingly unevenly distributed across different regions. For some mega cities like Beijing and Shanghai, it is easier to get access to better universities than from other places.

Alternative choices

Since migrant workers have no eligibility to register their hukou in huge cities, their descendants consequently have no access to urban education systems. They are either left at their hometown, or stay with their parents in cities without available public education services. Although in cities there are some private schools that accept students without a hukou requirement, skyrocketing tuition fees made this choice unavailable for underpaid migrant workers. Under such circumstance, migrant workers began to organize their own private education institutions on the fringes of cities, hiring teachers and staff without receiving any forms of public funding. All their efforts were to create a places for their children to receive education while staying in cities with their parents. For parents, even if these schools are lousy and underinvested, at least their children have a place to study. For local authorities, it seems that their burden was relieved by these schools as well. However, another insurmountable obstacle is threatening these schools: rapid urbanization, and the consequent “depopulation campaigns” initiated by Chinese local governments.

For years, crowded urban environments have been criticized as the huge population density generated numerous problems. In a Chinese metropolis like Beijing, half of its residents have their hukou registered in other places, while some of these residents (most of them migrant workers) are categorized by local people as “uneducated” groups. In January 2018, Beijing local government launched a campaign to drive away migrant workers in the name of “improving citizens’ living experience.” During that time, the term “low-end population” first appeared in official document. These campaigns have triggered outrages across the internet, but these posts were quickly censored by authorities, and in state news media, you can hardly find any information about such campaigns.

Massive urban population has created considerable demand of real estate development, and for most of Chinese cities, land tax is the major source of revenue. To pay for heavy local debt burdens, regional governments have no idea what to do but to sell the right of use of state-owned land to real estate developers. The aforementioned Huangzhuang School is a significant example as the land owner refused to renew the lease, so they can retrieve the land and earn more money by demolishing the school and redeveloping it.

Facing these challenges, these underinvested, lousy and rusty schools were doomed to be demolished to make way for urban development. But even though the local education authorities have promised that these students could enroll in other public schools with no hukou restrictions, it is obvious that there were not sufficient places to accept all the students and some must go back to their hometowns. For those do get places, they will also have to move back to their hometowns in the future, unless they have their hukou changed to Beijing, or unless they have decided not to participate in college entrance examination.

“Children are the future of our motherland.” In China, almost everyone can recite this sentence, but in reality, it still takes times to design and implement a suitable education system, that can truly put this sentence into practice.