The China Series: Rural-Urban “Apartheid”

The Rural-Urban “Apartheid”

by Anthony Ho

I was previously invited by local officials to teach a class of rural children for a charity event that was to offer a day of unconventional subjects ranging from English to drama classes. By the end of the school day, with all the children gathered in the assembly hall, the local officials began to read out a roster of surnames of selected children to receive government funding for school meals and transport.

According to a 2013 survey by the National Audit Office, roughly 100,300 students from 25,127 surveyed public schools had to walk at least 3 miles to get to school; for a group of children commuting to Xiniu Primary School in Yunnan Province, their trek to school and back during the winter would be through minus 5 temperatures.

Since 2008, rural students from economically disadvantaged families have been provided living aids at a level of ¥4 (4 pence) a day for primary school students (aged 6 to 11) and ¥5 (5 pence) a day for middle school students (aged 12 to 15). Under China’s Compulsory Education Law, which was revised in 2006 to have a larger impact on rural communities, from 2007 onwards, rural students nationwide were exempted from all school fees for nine years. In 2008, compulsory education in urban areas was also provided for free, apart from some miscellaneous fees that are set by both school authorities and local governments. In 2014, an initial investment of ¥31 billion from the central budget was used to improve the basic conditions of schools and the infrastructure of poverty-stricken areas in mainly central and western China.

Despite the milestones in educational reform in China, the problems that migrant children face within the educational system are still being entirely ignored.

You’re Not Welcome Here

A blog piece by Guowei, a 14-year-old eighth grader in Shanghai, aptly conveys the troubling predicament that all migrant children living in cities face in ninth grade, which is traditionally an important year of examinations to enter competitive high schools. Guowei wrote: “I am so troubled it’s killing me! What should I do? If I stay in Shanghai for ninth grade, I won’t be able to get into a high school when I return. But to return to my hometown… I do not want to return. All my friends are here and I do not want to leave them! I want to stay if possible. There are only two months left before grade eighth ends!”

All migrant children living in China’s cities face one of the most important decisions of their lives because of the incompatibility between the household registration, or hukou, system and the educational system. In brief, individuals are categorised and registered according to two parameters: a “rural” or “urban” citizen with an agricultural or non-agricultural status. So for a person from a rural town who moves to the city, he/she will automatically forgo rights to social welfare; local governments can welcome their residence and labour and simultaneously deny any obligation to provide public services in return. This system is hereditary, so children of migrant parents will also hold a rural hukou even if they were born in the city. In consequence, children like Guowei are legally barred from taking the public high school exam. The only way for migrant children to continue their education is to attend high schools in their hometowns where they are legally registered. This has created a dual-track education system between local and migrant children, which is marginalising the latter in terms of affecting academic performance and lowering aspirations.

On the other hand, for children who stay in the cities their education will come to abrupt end upon graduating from middle school and then onto finding widely accessible yet labour-intensive work at the age of 15 or 16. According to All-China Women’s Federation, the estimated number of migrant children living in China’s cities in 2010 was 35.8 million. It is estimated that only one third of migrant children go onto high school compared with 95 per cent of urban children. Guowei had chosen to stay in Shanghai and titled his following blog entry “Working Hard, Bound For Nowhere.”

Migrant students’ educational opportunities, or lack thereof, highlight the intricate relationship between hukou status, social service entitlement, and China’s educational system. The result is that the hukou system is being described as the central feature of China’s rural-urban “apartheid.”

The reality that migrant children face is not only extreme difficulty to attend high school but also limited access to even primary and middle school. Although the Compulsory Education Law stipulates nine years of free education for all children at the age of 6, the unequal access to education for migrant children illustrates the tension between central and local governments in Chinese governance.

Local governments find it politically unpopular and/or financially unfeasible to expand access to urban schooling. Until a decade ago, migrant children were denied access to public schooling. Despite many public schools now accepting migrant children, their enrolment is severely limited because of numerous document requirements and hefty miscellaneous fees set by school authorities. As a result, many attend private, profit-driven, low-quality schools for specifically migrant children. However, as many of these schools are unregulated, overcrowded and have poor facilities, many run the risk of being shut down. A report on 300 migrant schools in Beijing found that 63 were unlicensed and were to be immediately closed as in the case of Hongxing Primary School in 2011, which was demolished within hours of the closure being announced.

Since last year, China’s State Council announced that it would grant urban residence permits to 100 million migrants by 2020 – a huge number, but 174 million people will still be living in cities without official status. The reform is definitely a welcomed change that will benefit millions of migrants living in cities, however, will the children of recently turned urban citizens be now classed as an urban citizen and the generations after?