In Chinese Cities, Migrants' Work Is Welcome. Their Children Are Not

Nov 16, 2017
Originally published on November 16, 2017 10:59 am

Tucked into a small side street in the Changping District just north of Beijing, a school stands out in bright, childlike colors — orange and green. Cheerful music plays between classes as students stream into the courtyard to play.

The school, like many in China, is for migrant children — serving those who are barred from Beijing's public schools. It is unlicensed and living a precarious existence, like many of the migrants themselves. Officials could order it to close at moment's notice. The principal asked us not to name it or its teachers for fear of drawing government attention.

"You can see this street — all of the buildings on the south side have been taken down," says Molly, a volunteer teacher who asked us not to use her full name. "And when school[s] close, they don't have a place to go."

Migrants in China have traveled to cities for work by the hundreds of millions, and while their work has powered much of China's swift development, their legal situation is in some ways similar to undocumented immigrants in the United States. Although they have not crossed an international border, their moves from the countryside to cities can put them on the wrong side of government rules and regulations.

They are not allowed to permanently relocate without providing extensive documentation and paying fees most can't afford. Even though some 8 million migrants live in and around Beijing alone, many don't have access to public services — including health care or education — because they are supposed to get them in their hometowns.

"All of the public schools are for local people," says Molly. "We call that the hukou."

Hukou is China's rigid household registration system, in which a person's residency is tied to the place where their family is from. Because it's difficult and expensive to gain residency in the city, many migrant students must enroll in private schools.

Periodically the government has cracked down on these schools as part of a widespread "urban rectification" program to control Beijing's booming population — which has soared to 21 million despite government discouragement — leaving students and teachers alike in limbo.

Some people who do have local hukou, like Molly, have mixed feelings about the crackdowns.

"I see more and more people coming into Beijing causing all the trouble here like traffic and air pollution," she says. "So the city's trying to get people to leave ... and I don't know if that's the right way, but I know it needs to be done."

Another teacher named Helen says through an interpreter that she was working at a migrant school nearby until earlier this fall, when the government ordered it to shutter. She and fifteen of her third-grade students had to transfer to the Changping school.

"All the teachers and students scattered and they need to find their own place," the interpreter says. "When they were expelled, she felt like the city is excluding the migrants."

Helen herself is a migrant, coming to Beijing from Inner Mongolia with her 10-year-old daughter. Despite the instability she says it's better to stay than go back to her hukou, because she has a better chance of finding work here.

Her daughter came with her to the new school. When asked what kind of future she wants for her daughter, Helen's voice cracks and her eyes mist, but she never breaks eye contact.

"She doesn't really hope her daughter becomes something — she hopes her daughter can be just happy," the interpreter says. "All she wants for her daughter is happiness. That's the priority."

Will she have opportunities to become happy in the future, a reporter asked?

"I think so," the interpreter says as Helen laughs. "Because she studies very hard."

Morning Edition editor Miranda Kennedy and Isabelle Li contributed to this report.

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Think of this next story as a tale of undocumented migrants. Americans are, of course, debating what to do about immigrants who came here illegally for work. And there's a similar story in China. Many people migrate within that country for work. And though they never cross a border, millions run up against a web of rules and restrictions. China welcomes their labor but resists letting quite so many live in ever-more-crowded cities.

In Beijing, a very crowded city, we visited a school where migrant children live out that contradiction. The school is built around a courtyard which fills with children each time there's a class break.


INSKEEP: Instead of a bell, the public address system plays "Music Box Dancer," an old hit song from the 1970s.



INSKEEP: Kids from age 5 to 14 sprint across the courtyard and burn some energy before they duck back into the classrooms. The classes are in a two-story building lined by outdoor walkways like an old roadside motel. It's a simple building. Some of the doors are missing knobs, but the walls are painted orange and green. And the teachers engage the students.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Chinese).


INSKEEP: One first grade teacher addressed the students with a wireless headset microphone like a rock star. There's something distinctive about the school, or rather, about its students. Every one of the several hundred students is from somewhere else.

MOLLY: This is a school for migrating kids, and it is a private school.

INSKEEP: Molly stood in the courtyard to explain. She's a volunteer who helps to teach a ninth-grade class. And like others in this story, we are not using her full name. The school where she works is not licensed, even though it operates in the open.

Why can't these children go to a public school?

MOLLY: All of the public schools are for local people. We call that hukou.

INSKEEP: Hukou - that word refers to China's household registration. If you're legally registered as a person from Beijing, you get local services. But if government records show you were born in some distant village, you are generally expected to remain there.

MOLLY: That's from like the family resources.

INSKEEP: You are permanently attached to the place where you were born?

MOLLY: Yeah. Not only attached to the place but also attached to the family where you're born. Like, once you got a hukou, all of your kids have the hukou.

INSKEEP: The thing is, people haven't stayed in place. China's economic rise drew hundreds of millions to cities for work in everything from factories to food carts, the largest migration in human history. An estimated 8 million migrants live around Beijing alone. The more prosperous can buy expensive residency permits, but the rest, without papers, have difficulty gaining admission to public schools and even to health insurance. Private schools fill some of the gaps. And the government sometimes moderates its policies. But as authorities redevelop North Beijing, they have abruptly closed some schools to tear them down.

What do you think about when you see that kind of demolition?

MOLLY: It's hard to say because for one side like myself, I'm on like a Beijing - like a local people. I live here like from childhood.


MOLLY: And I see like more and more people coming to Beijing cause all of the trouble here, like the traffic and all of other problems like whenever you've got too many people. For example, like the air pollution here. So the city is trying to get people to leave the city.

INSKEEP: Try to get people to go somewhere else and spread out.

MOLLY: Yeah. So that's their way. I don't know if that's the right way, but I know that that's a thing need to be done.

INSKEEP: Beijing authorities want to stop the city from growing larger than 23 million. The population is already getting close to that, which increases the pressure to make some people leave. And while it's not clear that officials are deliberately tearing down schools to expel migrants, the government would prefer that many migrants go home.

MOLLY: But while they doing that, of course, some people will lose their jobs or lose the place they live or their kids lose the place to be educated.

INSKEEP: Standing here in the schoolyard, what stands out really is that given that these are the children of migrant workers, they don't look that poor. They're well-dressed. They've got nice coats. They're very curious. Dozens of them gathering around us now.

They wear their coats in and out of the classroom, since it is common in China to find buildings that are barely heated. They bring lunch from home and eat standing up in the courtyard, washing their dishes afterward at a row of faucets. A community center at the school offers extra classes like dancing and art. The kids have reason to wonder how long it will all last, since some are refugees from other closed schools. During a lunch break, we met a teacher named Helen.

HELEN: (Speaking Chinese).

INSKEEP: She was teaching at a different school for migrants until September 3.

HELEN: (Through interpreter) So the school was closed because as a private school, there has to be examined all their licenses and everything else. And after they shut down, all those teachers and students scattered.

INSKEEP: She fled here, along with 15 3rd grade students.

HELEN: (Through interpreter) So nobody wants to be scattered. Nobody wants to change their place.

INSKEEP: As we talked, we learned that Helen, the teacher, is a migrant herself. She is from Inner Mongolia, a largely desert region north of Beijing, beyond the Great Wall.

Do you feel welcome here?

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: She had been feeling happy until the time when she had to be expelled out of the previous school.

INSKEEP: Now she insists she is happy again at the new school, though as she says it, she seems on the edge of tears. The students here include Helen's own 10-year-old daughter.

What kind of a future do you want for your daughter?

HELEN: (Speaking Chinese).

INSKEEP: "No particular career," she says, "I just want her to be happy."

Do you think that your daughter will have opportunities to be happy when she gets older?

HELEN: (Speaking Chinese).

INSKEEP: "Hopefully," she says, "because she studies hard at this school." We also asked if Helen thought the hukou system was fair and she seemed baffled by the question. She seemed to think of household registration rules like the weather. It simply is the way of China's government.


INSKEEP: As we stood in the courtyard, the music played again, the signal for children to race back to class. This time - Beethoven's "Fur Elise." At one point, we saw the principal across the courtyard. We asked to meet him, but he chose not to. He sent word to ask if we could avoid mentioning the school's name and we agreed. He didn't want to call too much attention to a school that is very much like the migrant children themselves - part of a society that both accepts and rejects them, tolerated until they're not, living a hidden existence in plain view.