The Change in China’s Hukou Policy Hasn’t Solved the Education Gap for Beijing’s Migrant Children

Young Chinese children attend a kindergarten set up for migrant workers in Beijing Photograph by AFP via Getty Images

On July 30, China’s State Council announced plans to abolish the old residence registration permit—or hukou—that distinguished rural from urban households. The move was long overdue.

The hukou system was enacted in 1958 as away to limit movement between the countryside and cities. At that time, the Chinese Communist Party was explicitly anti-urban and antibusiness. After economic reform began in 1978, the hukou became increasingly anachronistic as millions of migrant workers left farms and villages for new jobs in factories and private companies in the cities. Yet they were penalized because, without local household registration papers, these migrants were denied access to public health care, education, and other social services.

The new system, however, will be only a partial fix. Discrepancies between rural and urban tax collection will gradually be phased out, but access to services will still be linked to location. While smaller cities may be willing to accept newly registered residents, the governments of China’s leading metropolises—including Beijing and Shanghai—are overburdened and still actively trying to discourage new residents (other than wealthy arrivals) from putting down roots.

Wang Xu, the principal of a private kindergarten he set up to educate the children of migrant workers in northern Beijing, recently found out the hard way that the change in the hukou policy doesn’t mean attitudes are softening in China’s capital. On Aug. 25, less than a month after the State Council announcement, the local government delivered letters to the parents of pupils about to start the fall semester informing them that the school would be closed for “safety reasons.”

The next day, hired thugs raided the school building, removing desks and chairs and slashing electrical wires, Wang told independent Caixin magazine. The parents, mostly migrant construction and restaurant workers, were not informed of any alternatives for schooling their children.

Nor is this case unique, as Caixin reports. Many similar small schools in Beijing that once served migrant families have been forced to close in recent months. Often the official reason given by local authorities is lack of compliance with fire and safety codes. Indeed, underfunded kindergartens set up as charities may have substandard facilities, but is shutting school gates without providing options really a humane solution?

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