Millions of migrant workers moved to Chinese cities seeking opportunity, but their children are falling through the cracks of the nation’s education system.
Private schools such as Xingzhi Migrant School in Beijing offer lower costs, but also substandard equipment and inexperienced teachers.
BEIJING, China — Part II of II
In the small village Du Zhan is from, students study on stools inches above the dirt floor in a school with no adornments apart from the simple portraits of Communist luminaries hanging side by side in the teachers’ meeting room. Sixty of the school’s 100 students pay tuition and fees of $17 a month; the 40 poorest cannot afford that and attend for free.
In the Beijing public high school Du Zhan dreams of attending, students learn from some of the best teachers China has to offer, in classrooms equipped with state-of-the-art computers and labs, alongside peers destined for the Chinese elite.
Both schools are inaccessible to Du, 15. She is too poor for one, too proud and ambitious for the other.
Like millions of Chinese children whose parents abandoned subsistence farming for better opportunities in the booming cities, Du is lost in the nation’s education system.
Over the last several years, more than 150 million migrant workers like Du’s parents have moved to the cities for construction, factory and other bottom-rung jobs. Although China has eased the residency rules that once prevented peasants from leaving their farms, it has not figured out how to adequately educate the millions of children on the move with their parents. This leaves the children with the same poor schooling and prospects.
Migrant workers have fueled the booming economy in the world’s most populous nation and boosted China into the top tier of global trading powers. But the dilemma facing students such as Du Zhan serves as a symbol of China’s gaping inequalities.
In 2005 alone, there were 80,000 mass protests recorded in China, many of them over a lack of access to education, jobs and health care. The same year, the average per capita income in the rural area Du is from was $367, compared with $1,340 in China’s cities. Unless China can create an education system that allows for more physical and social mobility, experts say, it risks not only its continued economic growth, but also its social stability.
The numbers are staggering – and so is the chasm that splits the nation into an uneasy coexistence of First World and Third World societies. Beijing alone has an estimated 4 million migrant workers. Thousands of their children cannot, or will not, attend the public schools. This in a country where education is widely perceived as the best – and often only – road to a prosperous future. Families will go to great lengths to scrape together the money for fees to send their kids to school.
Moreover, a glut of university graduates has made it harder than ever for those who make it through college to find jobs.
“The young migrant children do not compare themselves to the past but to the people around them,” said Yi Benyao, the co-director of a private school for migrant students in Beijing.
His fear is that “if (the opportunities) they see around them cannot be realized as they grow up, they will be discontent and try to rebel through violence.”
A greater burden
To get her son into seventh grade at a good Beijing public middle school this fall, migrant Zhu Sanying said she forked over an “enrollment fee” of $1,900. Zhu, a house cleaner, says legal Beijing residents pay no enrollment fee. For Zhu, $1,900 is the equivalent of one year’s salary, but that’s only if she takes so many cleaning jobs she hardly has time left over to spend with her three sons.
Officials in cities like Beijing have charged the children of the migrants extra fees if they want to attend the public schools, according to educators. The reason is that under China’s residency rules, students are supposed to attend school in their parents’ hometown.
Over the past few years, some Chinese cities, including Beijing, have tried to eliminate the extra public school fees for migrant students. But experts and families say the public schools lack the space for all the migrants. Moreover, they report that some schools continue to charge more fees than the migrants can afford, and that migrant children face discrimination in the public schools.
“The urban governments think that if they solve the problems for some migrant children, it will attract more and more migrants,” Yi said. “They fear taking on a greater and greater burden.”
And once a migrant student reaches Du’s age and prepares to start high school, she must return to her parents’ hometown, with or without her parents, to continue on a college-bound track. The rules require students to take the university entrance exam in their home village, and the city high schools often use different textbooks from the rural ones.
This has led to a new breed of school. A vast network of inexpensive private schools – many of them underground, makeshift and illegal – has emerged in China’s cities to serve the migrant children. Du Zhan began attending one of these schools in Beijing when she was in third grade. It is called the Xingzhi Migrant School and is headed by Yi and his wife, Li Shumei. Xingzhi stops after the ninth grade, though, meaning Du must find a new school for next fall.
She has sent a letter to one of the top public high schools in Beijing, asking for a chance to apply along with Beijing students. “My intention was not for them to lower their standards, but to at least give me the chance to apply,” Du said. “I am happy here in Beijing. I’ve been here for several years, and am quite adjusted.”
Du Zhan, 15, has attended the Xingzhi Migrant School since her parents moved to Beijing six years ago in search of a better future.
Anything but stable
Since the early 1990s, nearly 300 private schools like Xingzhi have emerged in Beijing, according to leaders in the migrant community. The schools are far from economically stable. Their future, like the nation’s, is uncertain.
He Jin, a program officer at the Ford Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports causes worldwide, has supported pilot efforts to improve education for migrant children in Beijing. He said the schools “are simple because they often don’t have anything – no books, no desks, no chairs.”
Xingzhi has more resources than many of the migrant schools. And unlike most of them, the government recognizes it as legitimate thanks to its promotional efforts.
Li opened Xingzhi 12 years ago after moving to Beijing. She is from the same region as Du Zhan’s family, one of China’s poorest. Once Li had settled in Beijing, she found the children of her relatives idle since they could not afford the fees of the public schools.
Although the school quickly grew, it has perpetually been on the move. In 2004, the elementary school portion relocated three times in one semester alone. This fall, officials ordered the middle school Du attends out to make room for a program for disabled students. “Our most severe problem is instability,” Li said.
As the first cold weather hit Beijing late this fall, students and teachers had to pack up their belongings, carry them down six flights of stairs and trek to a more remote location. Lavish new high-rise apartments surround the modest campus they left behind. On the more humble concrete walls on campus, graffiti advertised numbers migrant workers could call for fake identification cards.
In class on one of their last days in the old building, the students listened to readings about ancient Greece. The teacher described how in Sparta, parents would sometimes abandon their weaker babies, and kids were sent away from home as young as age 7 for intense military training. A few of the students tuned out the lesson, either sleeping or distractedly cutting their fingernails. But most students, including Du, listened intently. When one boy wouldn’t stop interrupting the class, she lightly rapped him on the back.
“The students in the public schools have better facilities and equipment, but they take those conditions for granted,” Du said. “But in our school most of the students cherish the opportunity to be here. To some extent, there will always be a distance between the migrants and the local residents.”
Return to hometown looms
Many of Du’s friends at Xingzhi left Beijing over the last couple of years to prepare for high school in their parents’ hometowns. Du writes them letters, but seldom hears back.
Du’s mother and father, who work as a janitor in a Beijing public school and an illegal taxi driver, say they would rather their daughter attend trade school or even drop out than return to their village in the Henan province.
“I have gone to a lot of effort to bring my child out from the rural area to the city, and don’t want her to return,” said Du’s mother, Zhou Yun Feng. “She has adjusted to life here, and I don’t want her to move back because maybe she cannot adjust to that life.”
Zhou brought her daughter to Beijing seven years ago largely because she thought the schools would be better.
She remembers that in her own school “the conditions were very, very poor. The floor was just the earth, and we put together the earth and stones to make desks.”
Du’s uncle still lives in Nan Zhang Wan village, where the family comes from. When a journalist visited him there in November, he spoke mainly of those who had left: His son, who completed six years of education and now works in a furniture factory in a city; his daughter, who finished only three years of school and soon would marry a man in another village.
In the nearby town of Tang He, townspeople said many of the adults in the village have HIV or AIDS. A group of the men were infected by dirty needles when they sold their blood to an area hospital for money a few years ago, and the virus quickly spread through the village.
Du Zhan went home to the village once, a few years ago. Everything was “strange,” she said. “I felt familiar with some people’s faces, and thought they might have given me care in the past, but could not really recognize them.”
Yet back in Beijing, one of Du’s teachers said she worries what will happen to the energetic teenager if she does not go back home for high school. “It’s very possible that she can’t go to university if she stays here,” said Dong Yu Ling, the teacher.
Du plans to keep writing to the public high school in Beijing, hoping for an answer.
And on one morning shortly before Xingzhi moved to its new location on the fringe of town, Du joked lightly with her friends, making plans for living arrangements at the new campus. She was anxious about the results of a recent round of midterm exams, but oblivious to the fact that Xingzhi and the migrant students – in being forced to move to a more remote location – were being marginalized yet again.
Du’s mother said she still believes that bringing her daughter to Beijing was the best option. But she worries more about her daughter’s future than she used to.
“Of course we don’t want to send her to Henan” for high school, the mother said. “She’s been here for so many years it’s not easy for her to get used to her hometown. But we feel so sorry for our daughter. After many years of hard work, we couldn’t make enough money to give her a better education.”