MIGRANT WORKERS IN CHINA
China is now experiencing the largest mass migration of people from the countryside to the city in history. An estimated 230 million Chinese (2010) —a number equivalent to two thirds the population of the United States four three times the number of people who emigrated to American from Europe over a century—have left the countryside and migrated to the cities in recent years. About 13 million new people join the legions every year. The number is expected to reach 250 million by 2012 and surpass 300 million and maybe reach 400 million by 2025.
According to 2010 census figures China's migrant population now numbers 221 million, or 16.5 percent of all citizens. A government report issued in 2011 said more than 100 million more farmers would move to urban areas over the next decade. Between 2000 and 2010 an estimated 116 million people from China's hinterlands migrated to the booming coastal cities in the hope of finding better lives.
Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “Known derisively as “waidi ren,” or outsiders, the migrants are the cut-rate muscle that makes it eminently affordable for better-off Chinese to dine out, hire full-time nannies and ride new subway lines in places like Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. According to the Beijing Bureau of Statistics, more than one-third of the capital’s 19.6 million residents are migrants from China’s rural hinterland, a figure that has grown by about 6 million just since 2000. “The middle class hates to see that kind of poverty, but they can’t live without their cheap labor,” said Kam Wing Chan, a professor at the University of Washington who studies China’s rural-migrant policies. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times August 29, 2011]
Many are farmers and farm workers made obsolete by modern farming practices and factory workers who have been laid off from inefficient state-run factories. They include men and women and couples with children. Men often get construction jobs while women work in cheap-labor factories. Most come from Sichuan, Hunan, Henan, Anhui and Jiangxi Provinces. A 60- year-old grandmother from Sichuan who was as laborer on a construction site in Shanghai told the Los Angeles Times, “If you’re willing to work, you can get a job here even is you’re old.”
The "floating population" is defined as people who live apart from their domicile as defined by China’s stringent hukou or household registration system. So many migrants leave their homes looking for work they overburden the rail system. In the Hunan province, 52 people were trampled to death in the late 1990s when 10,000 migrants were herded onto a freight train. To stem the flow of migrants, officials in Hunan and Sichuan have placed restrictions on the use of trains and buses by rural people.
Most migrant workers have traditionally gone to Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and the coastal cities but more are heading to the interior where new opportunities are opening up and there is less competition. In some cities, the migrants almost outnumber the residents. The small industrial city of Yiwu, for example, in Zhejiang Province, is home to 640,000 official residents and a migrant population of several hundred thousand. Up until recently the booming cities have been desperate for cheap labor while the countryside has experienced labor surpluses. The cities provide so much work they are sometimes called “factories without chimneys.”
Although they are a source of great social upheaval in the villages and cities migrant workers keep villages going that might otherwise die by providing relatives back home with money and they keep cities going by providing the cheap labor that fuels economic growth. Some have described the migration of workers in China as the largest peacetime movement of humanity ever, dwarfing the Irish and Italian migrations to America (the entire Irish migration to America between 1820 and 1930 was around 4.5 million people) and the fleeing of refugees from places like Afghanistan and Kosovo.
The migration is all the more extraordinary when one considers that the government has tried to restrict it. One young girl told National Geographic, “All the young people leave our village. I’m not going back. Many can’t even afford a bus ticket and hitchhike to Beijing." Overall, the Chinese government has tacitly supported migration as means of providing labor for factories and construction sites and for the long term goals of transforming China from a rural-based economy to a urban-based one. Some inland cities have started providing migrants with social security, including pensions and other insurance.
See Separate article: HARD TIMES, CONTROL, POLITICS AND MIGRANT WORKERS IN CHINA
Good Websites and Sources: China Labor Bulletin (Chinese government sources) china-labour.org ; 2009 New York Times article nytimes.com ; China Beat blog report thechinabeat.blogspot.com; Children of Migrant workers China Labor Bulletin ; Links in this Website: URBAN LIFE IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China
Urban Migration Patterns in China
Migrant workers looking for work A significant portion of China's urban dwellers are migrant workers. A national census published in April last year showed China counted more than 221 million migrants, and a government report released months later predicted that more than 100 million farmers would move to cities by 2020.According to recent census data, about 7 million migrants live in Beijing, making up roughly a third of the city's population. The labor of Beijing’s migrant workers has been essential to building the city. People with skilled jobs such as welders on high rises get paid $280 a month.
Fang Lizhi wrote in the New York Review of Books, “Beginning in the 1980s, tens of millions of migrant workers from the countryside crowded Chinese cities to sell their labor in construction, sanitation, and other menial tasks. They were the bedrock that made Deng’s “economic miracle” possible. But under the government’s “household registry” system, they technically remained rural residents and were denied the rights of urban residents. Their children—even children born in the cities—also lacked urban registry and thus were not allowed to go to school. [Source: Fang Lizhi, New York Review of Books, November 10, 2011]
The migrant work drive began in earnest in 1992, when China’s coastal economic powerhouses found they could not grow further without the government loosening travel restrictions to attract workers from all over China. So, more personal freedom to move around China was unleashed then. [Source: Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times, August 31, 2008]
Sociologists call the migration to the cities the "bright lights effect." In most cases village men head off to cities to find work, leaving their wives and children behind to raise the children and take care of their land. The men often get menial jobs and send the money back. After a man establishes himself in the city he is joined by his wife and children, then nephews and uncles and other extended family members, who in turn establish themselves and are joined by their families and extended families.
The poorest of the poor usually don't migrate to the cities or abroad, rather its people that can scrape together some extra money for the trip. Some people move to the cities to seek a better life. Other have been driven off their land as a result of soil depletion, erosion or disasters. Chinese sociologists say many families would rather brave the uncertainties and the difficulties of life in the cities than return to their rural hometowns, where opportunities are in short supply. "They're just moving from one place to another," one said. "Very, very few of them go home." These days fewer and fewer plan to return to their villages in retirement. M any younger migrants have little experience of farming, and believe their futures lie in towns. "[Urbanisation] is better than an economy without growth. But when you grow, you also have to provide services to [migrants] and not only use them as cheap labour Š You need children to move with their parents to cities and you need services for the left-behind elderly," Tao Ran, an expert on rural affairs at Renmin University, told the Guardian.
Migration to the cities has been described as “the most effective way for reducing the birthrate” and improving life. The poor generally have better access to education, health care, safe water, sanitation in the cities than they would in the countryside. The World Bank has called migration “a powerful force for poverty reduction.” In 2005, 200 million migrants around the world sent home $167 billion. That is twice the size of the world’s development spending, and up from $31 billion in 1990.
Every year, during the lunar New Year, 130 million workers return from China’s industrial cities to their homes in the countryside, Some have called this temporary shift in population the largest human migration in the world. See Film, Last Train Home
Many migrant workers — especially the younger, so-called second generation — are increasingly frustrated with the treatment they receive, and the issue has in some cases sparked violent unrest. In June 2011, three days of riots broke out in the southern province of Guangdong after rumours spread that police had beaten a street hawker to death and manhandled his pregnant wife.
Migrant Worker Trends as Revealed by the 2010 Census
According to the 2010 census, China’s "floating population"—as defined by people who live apart from their domicile as defined by China’s stringent hukou or household registration system— mushroomed from 144 million in 2000 to 261 million in 2010. Most of these are migrant workers from the heartland provinces who seek opportunities in manufacturing centers such as Guangdong and Shanghai. [Source: Willy Lam, China Brief, March 10, 2011]
Between 2000 and 2010 the eastern coast’s share of the population increased by 2.41 percent to reach 37.98 percent, while that of the western and central regions declined respectively by 1.11 percent and 1.08 percent to reach 27.04 percent and 26.76 percent. With 104.30 million people, Guangdong is now the country’s most populous province. That honor used to belong to Henan. With 94.02 million people, the central province has dropped to No. 3, behind coastal Shandong, which boasts a populace of 95.79 million.
The Chinese government made a great effort to count the migrant population in the 2010 census. Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “In an effort to tally China's staggering migrant population, estimated at more than 200 million, census takers are seeking to count people where they live, rather than at the homes where they have their hukous, or residency permits. Until a decade ago, people who had moved to big cities without permits could be arrested and deported. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times November 10, 2010]
Migrant Workers in China
There are more migrants workers in China than the entire workforce of the United States. The migrating laborers work for low pay, often under horrendous conditions, in factories, at construction sites, in mines and on railroads and roads. They work in restaurants, die in coal mines, make bricks, peddle bicycle to deliver coal and pick up trash. They follow jobs from city to city. One worker told the Times of London, “We do the dirtiest and hardest work and everyone despises us.”
On the migrants in Beijing, James Fallows wrote in The Atlantic Monthly, “Country people stand out in the urban crowd. Their hands and faces are more weathered, their clothes simpler and more ragged. Often they move about town lugging unwieldy bundles of bedding and belonging wrapped in plaid-patterned woven-plastic fabric that somehow has become the standard for such purposes in poor countries around the world.”
Describing one migrant construction worker in Beijing, Megan K. Stack and Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Li Guangqiang is not tall, but there is a bullish solidity to his body. In repose, his features fall into a wary stillness, and his eyes narrow as if he is perpetually on the lookout for a trick. But his smile is quick, spilling unexpected relaxation over his face. When he migrated to Beijing in 1995, he planned to stay only a few years. He'd make some cash and go home. But now he's addicted, not just to the money, but to the city itself. He describes his village as unsophisticated and dull. "I'll stay in Beijing until I'm 50," he declares.” [Source: Megan K. Stack and Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, February 20, 2011]
The writer Wang Shan has called China's migrants "an active volcano." Most of the migrants head to cities where there are factory jobs, thousand of construction sites and large public works projects—such as the new subway in Beijing and freeways in Shanghai. Around 7 to 10 million new migrants leave their villages for the cities every year. The migrants arrive by bus and by train in the cities, with the possessions crammed into red or blue plaid nylon sacks. In the cities they live in shanty towns, dormitories or public spaces--or sometimes right on the sidewalk. Tania Branigan wrote in The Guardian, “Wang Fang and her husband, Chen Shuangfu, arrived in the provincial capital, Guiyang, 10 years ago, with just 10 yuan in their pockets. Their hard, unappealing work — collecting and sorting rubbish for recycling — earns them as much as 20,000 yuan a year, compared with their 1,000 yuan income back home. But their rural hukou means they are not entitled to many services — and, since the hukou is inherited, neither are their sons. Schools do not receive extra funding for migrant pupils; many claim they are full, or charge hefty illicit fees. The couple have spent 50,000 yuan since their sons reached school age in "donations" to get them into a public school and illicit extra fees. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, October 2, 2011]
"I can't read or write; I can't even speak standard Mandarin well. We don't want our children to be like us," says Chen. Migrant workers build China's cities, clean their homes and clear their rubbish — but other residents "call us beggars and use dirty words," added Wang.
Migrant Workers in Shanghai
Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic, “Chen Dandan spends his days suspended hundreds of feet above downtown Shanghai, building one of the city's newest skyscrapers. What gives the 26-year-old migrant worker a sense of vertigo, though, is his daily walk home down Nanjing Road, the city's glitziest shopping street. In soiled, blue overalls and a yellow safety helmet, Chen gawks at a Gucci storefront. At a place called Tomorrow Square, he ogles a red Ferrari whose price tag equals about 80 years of his $3,500 annual income. "All these people may have money," he says, "but we are the ones who are building Shanghai." [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, March 2010]
As with its former growth spurts, the city's current boom would not be possible without an influx of foreign investment—and armies of migrant workers. Of Shanghai's 20 million people, a third are migrants without residency permits and some associated benefits. Many of these waidiren—outsiders—live in well-established communities, some with their own private schools to accommodate children whose unofficial status bars them from public education. Others, like Chen, form a floating population on the lowest rung of Shanghai society.
In Shanghai's early days most migrants became part of the culture, living in lilong and learning the local dialect. Today, in an era of easy travel and communication, such assimilation is rare. Chen has worked in Shanghai for two years, but he's never considered staying permanently—and he hasn't learned a word of Shanghainese. Most of his wages go to his family in nearby Jiangsu Province.
At the end of his walk down Nanjing Road, Chen heads into the workers' "dormitory"—plywood rooms on the third floor of an unfinished high-rise. Across the street is the 22-story Park Hotel, the tallest building in Asia when it went up in the early 1930s—and a symbol of Shanghai's earlier global pretensions. It too was built by migrant labor. Chen may not be welcome in Shanghai during Expo 2010. In those six hallowed months, construction will halt, and most contract workers will be sent home. But Chen will be back. "As long as Shanghai keeps growing," he says, "it will always need people like me."
Money Earned by Urban Migrants in China
Some migrants from Sichuan in Beijing earn around $50 a month sifting through garbage dumps for recyclable materials. Factory workers work 14 hour days, 7 days a week for between $40 and $120 a month (See Labor). Migrant construction laborers are paid around $1.25 a day, a wage that is pitiful by Western standards but much higher than what they can earn their home provinces. Some are promised wages of $1.72 a day but end up getting only 57 cents.
The average migrant earns $100 a month and sends about a third of it home. Families with at least one migrant worker are almost automatically lifted above the poverty level of $1 a day.
Migrants send home around $45 billion a year. Some send four fifths of their incomes to their families. This money is vital to keeping the rural economy going, allowing families to move into new, better homes, send their kids to school, and buy things like livestock, home additions, a plow or tractor, or a big-screen television. The phenomena is similar to that of migrants who go abroad to seek opportunity except that no borders are crossed. The money also helps get local and national governments skirt their responsibilities of providing villagers with social services.
Some workers do not know how much they get paid and go years without receiving any money. They work 12 hour days, seven days a week, and receive room and board in a cramped dormitory, daily rations of rice and noodles, and $12 a month in spending money, with money docked from their pay of they are sick. Some bosses arbitrarily declare work substandard and deduct money from their pay.
Often migrant workers are not paid until the job they are working on is completed or until they return to the work site after returning home for the New Year holiday. This practice is done so the worker’s don’t work for a month a then leave. But some employers abuse the arrangements and tell workers they will get paid after they work a few more weeks and repeatedly deny them their pay. There have been cases of workers working for two, three even ten years without getting paid. Even under these conditions new workers keep coming because opportunities in the villages are so limited.
Expectations among migrant workers are rising. Li Changping, a researcher and advocate for farmer’s rights, told Reuters, ‘These migrant workers carry expectations about building a home, getting married, having children, becoming successful, and there’s a real pressure from trying to keep up.
Lifestyle of Migrant Workers in China
Construction workers move around from job to job and live in squatter camps or on the sidewalks. Officially, they are supposed to have residency-status cards, which can sometimes be obtained by bribing officials, but most can't afford to do that ad live illegally without cards.
The long-term migrants settle into ethnic ghettos that have been described as "Chinatowns in China." Those that work on construction sites often live in cramped dormitories that in some cases have two or three men sleeping together on bunks in 10-meter-long rooms crammed with 40 men.
The migration for many is seasonal. The average migrant spends about eight months of the year away from home, returning to his village in spring and the fall to help plant and harvest crops. Everybody that can tries to return for the long New Year’s break Some workers are only able venture to their home villages once every two or three years. Sometimes they spend half of their two weeks off getting there and back in several-day, bunk-bed bus journeys.
Many of the migrant workers in Langzhou, a gritty industrial city in Gansu Province, are unmarried men with no families. Describing a group of them looking for work, Joshua Kublantzick, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Dressed in torn jeans and dirty shirts and carrying thermoses of tea, they push towards the exterior fence, jostling for the attention of a site manager who hands out short-term jobs...Finding no work they trade tea for large bottles of beer, which the gulp down. Many of them soon stumble in circles.”
Because many workers change their jobs or workplace frequently finding friends is hard. Many are very lonely and depend on their cell phones as lifelines to stay in touch with people back home.
Migrants can stay in basement rooms for as little as $42 a month. Some share beds with workers who work different shifts and sleep at different hours. Others sleep in “starlight hotels” in public parks when they have nowhere else to go. For those who are desperate chairs at Internet cafes can be had for $2 a night. In Beijing they are seen sprawled on the sidewalk eating their lunch, often a tin bowl of sheep-gut soup that they can bought for 14 cents from a vendor.
Many are poorly paid construction workers, cooks and security guards who have little choice but to settle in low-rent "migrant villages." Such villages are often built on cheap land that the government has designated for construction projects, making whole communities vulnerable to demolition on short notice. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times, November 6, 2011]
Many migrants have come to accept the constant threat of demolition as an unavoidable part of life in the capital and other cities."As soon as they want to expand the road, this place is gone," said Zhou Jun, a mechanic working just outside the gates of the community center in Heiqiao, pointing to a two-lane road a quarter of a mile from his shop.
Xia Ling, 32, said her family moved to Heiqiao two years ago after their last home in Beigao, another migrant village in suburban Beijing, was condemned to make way for a government project no one seems willing or able to describe. "The whole village was knocked down, including the school," she said, watching her 3-year-old daughter play by the center's basketball courts. "About 1,000 students had to just move on."
Migrant Workers and the Villages They Leave Behind
A study of 2,749 villages in 17 provinces found that 74 percent of them had no workers fit enough to travel and work as migrant workers. Once they have left many workers don’t want to return ever to their village to live. They find the idea that things change so little in their villages to be depressing and worry for their children because village schools are of lower quality than schools found in the cities.
Migrants workers who leave behind a spouse and children see them maybe once a year. Sometimes parents are gone for so long their young children don’t recognize them and recoil from them as if they were strangers. One mother told National Geographic as she was heading off in a bus to her distant job and her two-year-old daughter showed no emotion about her leaving, “It’s hard to bear. But there is no other way for us to give our daughter a future."
The trend seems to be a clear indication that money now has precedence over family in traditionally , family-oriented China. One villager in Henan Province told the Los Angeles Times, “In the countryside people pay more attention to economics than to emotions, feelings, family ties and all those sorts of things.”
Many migrants want to return to their villages some day. They are reluctant to get residence permits in the cities they work, and the pension and benefits that go along with them, even if it offered to them because they want to have access to their land back home. Some migrant who have worked in the cities for some time use their money to build fine houses in their home villages, outfit with refrigerators, washing machines and large screen televisions. These homes often stand among in village made up mostly of mud-walled huts.
Some migrants try to save enough money to pay for a wedding or open a small grocery store or clothes shop back home. One woman interviewed by Time earned $150 a month working as a maid in Beijing for 20 years and managed to pay for her son's wedding and buy a new farm and house in her village with flush toilets and running water. "I don't buy clothes or wear make-up," she told Time magazine, "so things are a bit easier at home.”
A few are clever, ambitious and hardworking enough to start businesses that grow and prosper with cheap labor that they themselves once provided. This is very rare. There are many obstacles the migrants have to overcome
Children of Migrant Workers in China
With parents gone searching for jobs many children are left behind to be brought up by grandparents or other relatives. The only time the children see their parents is when they return home over Chinese New Year holiday and even then often they don’t make it home because they are required to work at their factory or construction site.
These so called “left-behind” children number in the tens of millions and even hundreds of million because there are that many migrant workers in the cities. One 14-year-old who lived alone for a year after her father left for a construction job told the Los Angeles Times, “My parents are away making money so I can have a better life. But I don’t care about living a better life. I just want them to be home at my side.”
Children of migrant workers who live in villages and rarely see their parents often do poorly in school; and have discipline and psychological problems. One school principal told the Los Angeles Times, “Most of these students tend to become antisocial and introverted. But in times of conflict, they tend to explode and react in violent extremes.” A school counselor said, “These children are so sad. They have to learn early to fend for themselves. There’s one family where the grandparents are taking care of four children from three of their sons. All of them are away at work. At best they can make sure the kids are clothed and fed. But they can’t fill the emotional emptiness.”
Children of Migrant Workers in the Cities
According to figures available from the National Committee on Children and Women under the State Council, China has 20 million children of migrant workers living in the cities, struggling to integrate into urban life. Their lives have drawn much attention recently and inspired several works of fiction and non-fiction. [Source: Qiu Yijiao, China Daily, June 1 2010]
Xu Ling, a teacher in Zhangjiagang, a city in Jiangsu province, who has taught many migrant children and wrote a popular novel about them, told the China Daily, ‘Students from the countryside are very sensitive and fragile psychologically. They look strong and tough because they need to protect themselves in a new environment, but actually break down easily.” [Ibid]
Xu's novel Floating Flowers (Xiwang de Huaduo, Xiwang Publishing House, 2009), selected as one of the Top 10 children's literature works since 1949, draws generously on her experiences to present an intimate account of the lives of these children. The novel features a Grade 5 schoolboy Wang Di, who comes from a small town in the west and studies at a public primary school in a southern city. Wang's family has no fixed home and he suffers from inferiority while in the city. He feels shunned and misunderstood by the city kids. However, he perseveres and eventually gains confidence, becoming the class monitor and even forming a music band at the end of the novel. “ [Ibid]
Xu says their evasive eyes and timid voices reflect their worries and uncertainties about their new life in the city. ‘This is a special social phenomenon of our times. Migrant workers lead a tough life in the cities and their children also have to shoulder the burden,’ Xu says. ‘But they are only children and they need happiness and encouragement as they are growing up.” [Ibid]
Xu says children of migrant workers are easily satisfied, and once they have adjusted to their new surroundings, they are naturally frank, honest and generous. ‘They are generally happy when they have a sense of belonging and fulfillment. They are all talented children and what they need is recognition and approval.” [Ibid]
Migrant Schools in China
Under China's hukou, or residence registration system, migrant workers are not entitled to the same social benefits as city dwellers, including the right to enroll their children in free public schools. In Beijing, many migrant children attend unregulated "migrant schools," where tuition is high despite often underqualified teachers and overcrowded classrooms. "We'll take her wherever she can get a basic education," one migrant told the Los Angeles Times. "I don't want my daughter to work in a kitchen her whole life." [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times, November 6, 2011]
Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “Though the quality of education they offer may be questionable, private schools like Red Star are often the only option for the children of low-skilled migrant laborers, who for the most part are ineligible for the free public education available to legal Beijing residents.The challenges become even more heart-rending after middle school, when the children of migrants must either return to their parents’ hometown for high school —and thus live separated from their parents —or drop out. “It’s a cruel, unfair system that stops people from pursuing their dreams,” said Song Yingquan, a researcher at the Rural Education Action Project, an advocacy group. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times August 29, 2011]
There are about 20 million migrant children living in Chinese cities. Many of them attend migrant schools that have often been set up by the migrant workers themselves. These schools tend to be basic but are often manned by committed, decent-quality teachers. Generally they have lower fees than public schools. Some even have school buses. As of 2005, there were 293 migrant schools in Shanghai. As of 2007 there were about 200 migrant schools in Beijing with 90,000 children.
The first school for migrants to win government approval in Beijing was opened in 1993 by a teacher from a rural school who was shocked to find that many children of migrant workers were basically illiterate because their parents were too busy to help them and because they lacked residency status necessary to attend local schools.
One school was founded in some empty rooms at a market. Describing a classroom in this school Yusaku Yamame wrote in the Asahi Shimbum, “The 50-square-meter classroom with more than 80 students. Children read from their textbook in a loud voice: “A puppy, puppy runs slowly...” The teacher has difficulty even walking around the desks in the room
Migrant School Made of Shipping Containers
Reporting from Beijing Jonathan Kaiman wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Inside the shipping containers stacked like Lego blocks and painted bright, pastel colors, groups of middle-school students sat in newly renovated classrooms scribbling in notebooks and joking distractedly with their friends. Their classrooms at a 19-container community center in Heiqiao Village, a dusty sprawl in suburban Beijing, had survived a summer run of local government closures and demolitions of more than 30 schools. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times, November 6, 2011]
Compassion for Migrant Children, the nonprofit organization responsible for building the center in Heiqiao at a cost of about $150,000, is well acquainted with the sting of demolition. After more than two years in operation, one of the organization's centers was razed in 2009 to make way for an office complex, leaving families in the lurch.
Now the organization believes the shipping container setup in Heiqiao, which provides after-school programs for about 70 youths and has room to grow, can survive even if the surrounding village is marked for demolition, said Yin Chia, communications manager. The group plans to build dozens of additional centers. "We can just put the center on a truck and move with the community," she said, adding, "Donors are … very concerned about the sustainability of their donations. We can't be sustainable if we keep getting demolished."
Shutting Down Migrant Schools in China
In the summer of 2011 local governments closed and demolished more than 30 schools for migrant children in the Beijing area, affecting almost 15,000 youths. Officially, local authorities considered the schools that closed "unsafe" and "unhygienic." But some migrant education experts believe the closings were more likely a heavy-handed effort by district officials to get migrant families to move away. "The government has a bad name for these migrant workers — they call them the 'low-end population,' " said Song Yingquan, an expert on migrant education at Peking University. "They're trying to stop children from going to school in order to send parents back to their hometowns." [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times, November 6, 2011]
In 2006, the government mandated that public education must be provided to the children of migrant workers. Before then these children were barred from public schools. Once consequence of this decision has been the shutting down of migrant schools In Shanghai, 100 policemen and larger numbers of security agents officials showed up one day at the Jianying Hope School for migrant children and announced the school was closed and informed the 2,000 students and the teachers they would have to go home. One teacher told the New York Times, “They just showed up and closed the school while we were teaching. Children were crying, teachers were crying and people were very scared.” This took place even though there were no public schools for the children to go to.
In Guangzhou, the city government has bought out private schools and converted them to schools for migrant workers. Other cities such and Hangzhou have given technical and financial assistance to existing migrant schools.
In September 2006, authorities shut down 50 migrant schools in Beijing to discourage migrants form staying in Beijing during the Olympics. Shanghai has closed down the schools more gradually. In 2006 it closed 16 migrant schools out of a total of 293 and aimed to have 70 percent of the children of `migrant workers enrolled in public schools by 2010.
In January 2008, authorities in Shanghai said they planned to either take over or close down 240 illegal schools for migrants by 2010 and integrate the students into the regular school system.
Destruction of Rural Immigrant School in Beijing
Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “Xie Zhenqing spent 12 years transforming a collection of ramshackle houses into Red Star, a privately run, low-cost school for 1,400 children of migrants from poor rural areas. It took just a few hours this month for a government-dispatched demolition crew to turn the place into a jagged pile of bricks.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times August 29, 2011]
“What the government did to us is unconscionable,” Ms. Xie, Red Star’s principal, said angrily as parents of her students scrambled to find other arrangements before the start of the new school year on Thursday. “I’ll never work for a migrant school again.”
Red Star is one of 30 technically illegal private schools in Beijing that have been torn down or closed in recent weeks in an official campaign billed as a war against unsafe and unhygienic school buildings. In all, more than 30,000 students have lost their classrooms this summer. Advocates for the migrants warn that many of the capital’s 130 other unlicensed schools could be next.
Some observers see other motives behind the campaign, including the municipal government’s unceasing pursuit of land sales to fill its coffers. The site where Red Star once stood is already surrounded by a crop of expensive high-rise apartment towers and a new subway station. But school administrators, parents and many Beijingers view the bulldozing as nothing more than a roughshod exercise in population control.
Although education bureaucrats insist that the closings of the migrant schools in Beijing are a matter of safety, many parents raised questions about the timing and the lack of alternatives. Some parents, especially those whose children have been displaced more than once, admitted defeat and said they would either return to their hometowns or send their children back to be raised by relatives. “If officials don’t want our kids to be educated in the capital, then we should all go back to the places where we truly belong,” said a recyclables collector who sent his two school-age children back to Henan Province this month. “I don’t see why we should live here without dignity.”
Anger Over the Destruction of Rural Immigrant School in Beijing
More of the families, however, vowed to stick it out in Beijing. Two weeks ago, as devastated parents and their children gathered at the rubble of their former schools, local newspapers eagerly captured their despair. Compounding popular ire were news media reports about a government-affiliated charity that is spending more than $300 million to construct 1,000 schools in Africa.
The public backlash was immediate, prompting education officials in several districts to relax restrictions that bar nonresident students from enrolling in Beijing’s public schools. Still, many parents complained that the remedies were inadequate or elusive, and said that similar promises after a spate of school demolitions in 2006 proved to be hollow.
Li Haixin, 32, a math teacher at Red Star who sent her 6-year-old son to the school, said the boy was still shaken from seeing the desks, chairs and student art projects buried under a mound of broken masonry. Although she is now unemployed, Ms. Li said she would try to send him to a more expensive but legally registered private school, borrowing the money to pay the fees, rather than enroll him in a slapdash building that the authorities said would open as a replacement school for some of the students. “This is a ruse,” she said of the campaign against illegal schools. “Let’s face it, they just want to elbow us out of the city.”
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2012