Children of white collar workers, college graduates denied education along with migrant laborers

Mr. Li digs the tunnels for Beijing’s subway system, but Beijing won’t let his daughter attend school. Mr. Li is one of the over 8 million people living in Beijing without a Beijing residence permit.

On October 12, they were among a group of parents of children without Beijing residence (hukou) who gathered outside a courtroom to support a fellow parent who had sued over access to education. News of the court date was censored after spreading online.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the hukou system has regulated where Chinese citizens can live and work and allowed for the government to have a great level of control over the economy and labor. While the system has been relaxed since the pre-reform days of a control economy, it still impacts access to public services, including education.

It’s not just temporary migrant workers, who provide much of the labor needed to build cities and keep them functioning, who are discriminated against. Some who have lived in Beijing for decades, including white collar workers and graduates of top universities, cannot enroll their children in local schools.

This could be a growing problem as the economy becomes more and more service-oriented and the population more and growing share of the population obtaining higher education and moving to cities to work. 36 percent of the population Beijing is composed of people without Beijing hukou, 41 percent of Shanghai, and over 50 percent of Shenzhen, the Special Economic Zone across from Hong Kong. In 2014, China introduced reforms that were supposed to make it easier for people with jobs and long-term residence in cities to get hukou. While that has helped people in many cities, major cities like Beijing and Shanghai had exemptions and were able to still kept tight restrictions on hukou.

In fact, Beijing actually went in the opposite direction, introducing harsher restrictions on access to education for children without hukou in 2014, according to an article in the Chinese version of Financial Times. The following year the number of non-hukou children enrolled in Beijing’s primary education system dropped from 50,107 to 31,426. Prior to 2014, non-hukou students could attend “temporary classes” in Beijing schools, take the high school graduation test in Beijing, and then go to their “hometown” to take the college entrance exam. Now, according to the parents interviewed by FT, that option isn’t available for most.

Instead, children either have to go to the ancestral hometown of their parents, a place they have never known; attend international schools with high tuitions; or wrangle admission into a school in a neighboring province. The article quotes one parent who sent her child to school near the Beijing border of Hebei province. A well-educated executive at an IT company bought hukou and an apartment in the neighboring municipality of Tianjin to the south, 35 minutes from Beijing by high-speed train, but now his wife lives apart from him to raise their daughter.

Mrs. Song, the wife of Mr. Li and mother of Nannan (pseudonyms the article used), said that when she went to her ancestral hometown to inquire about sending Nannan there for education, she found only three students attending the village school, and the local leader admonished parents against the practice of “left behind children” on the grounds that doing so “creates criminals.”

Nannan said to the reporter that she would rather quit school and “become a hooligan.” For many, that is the result. 27 percent of non-hukou children never graduate from any high school, according to FT, and just 16 percent graduate from a Beijing high school.

Has the clampdown had any effect on discouraging migrant population growth to the crowded city, one of its main rationales? There is mixed evidence. The number of non-hukou residents of Beijing decreased slightly from 2014 to 2015 (as did Shanghai’s non-hukou population that year) after increasing by 75 percent between 2006 and 2010. But it might not be causing those who already live in Beijing to “return” to their ancestral hometowns. After Beijing shut down 23 migrant schools in 2011, Beijing University PhD Song Yingquan tracked the impact on families affected. Just 8 percent of the over 300 students interviewed who had their schools closed went “home.” 13 percent of the over 1,300 migrant students in a control group, whose schools remained open, went to their ancestral hometowns over the same time frame.

The article from the Chinese language Financial Times was shared widely across the Chinese internet.

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