Field Notes

China's migrant children dilemma

Whether they are left behind while their parents go to work in cities or they tag along as migrant minors, these kids face a distinct disadvantage.

Ten-year-old Chen Yuyang knows he got lucky.

A family friend's introduction got him into Louzizhuang Elementary, a city-approved public school in the north-eastern suburbs of Beijing. This allows the grade five pupil to benefit from China's nine years of free, compulsory education.

"I'm fortunate because at my school we have to pay only for our own meals, and my parents don't have to worry about school fees and other costs," said the Henan native, whose parents run a noodle stall in the Chinese capital.

"We get vaccination shots at the school clinic, and there are also other perks such as class excursions every semester."

But Yuyang is the exception at Picun, a village in the suburbs outside Beijing's Fifth Ring Road, that is mainly inhabited by blue-collar migrants.

SUB-PAR EDUCATION

The high-profile case of "Snowflake Boy" Wang Fuman, whose story went viral in China - and worldwide - last month, drew attention to the plight of China's 61 million "left-behind" children, whose parents work in faraway cities.

Since pictures of his head covered in frost from trekking an hour in the freezing cold to his school were posted online by his principal on Jan 8, his family and school in remote Yunnan have been flooded with offers of help.

Fuman, eight, and his 10-year-old sister Fumei were left in the care of their grandmother while his migrant worker father worked in Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan. The boy was feted by news media and even flown to Beijing for a three-day visit last month. The trip was sponsored by a Chinese Communist Party propaganda website, China Peace.

While the boy was clearly enjoying every minute of the attention, his father Wang Gangkui, was stoic about their circumstances. "Nothing will change. We will still be poor and his mother still won't contact us," he told China Daily. "People will soon forget about us; I wonder how long that will take."

China has in recent years started to pay more attention to migrant workers who play a big role in the country's economic transformation and continued growth. There is more awareness of the detrimental impact of parents leaving their children behind, often in the care of grandparents or distant relatives, while they work in the cities.

Apart from the estimated 60 million "left-behind" children in China, there is another growing group of children whose needs have been neglected amid the country's economic boom. They are known as liu dong er tong, or migrant minors, children who follow their migrant worker parents to the big cities.

The case of "Snowflake Boy" Wang Fuman, whose story went viral in China - and worldwide - last month, focused attention on the plight of China's 61 million "left-behind" children, whose parents work in faraway cities. A couple with their daughter in
A couple with their daughter in Picun, a village in the suburbs outside Beijing's Fifth Ring Road, mainly inhabited by blue-collar migrants. Unable to produce a Beijing hukou (household registration) or any other documents needed to gain entry into the local school system, an estimated four out of five migrant children from Picun and other villages attend legally grey private schools, without any of the perks that their Beijing-born peers take for granted, say experts. ST PHOTO: LIM YAN LIANG

The first national report on this issue released last year estimated that there are now 36 million migrant minors aged under 18, most of whom are destined to become the next generation of migrant labourers.

The Blue Book on Mobile Children Education in China noted that the number of migrant children who were born in the cities has almost doubled since 2010. More than one-third have lived at least five years in the city, and "have a strong desire to integrate".

"Although they are termed 'migrant children', they have never lived in their hometowns, and grew up under completely different environments compared to their parents," said the report.

But while they grow up in urban environments like Beijing, most migrant children quickly learn that the cities do not consider them one of their own.


The case of "Snowflake Boy" Wang Fuman, whose story went viral in China - and worldwide - last month, focused attention on the plight of China's 61 million "left-behind" children, whose parents work in faraway cities. PHOTO: WEIBO

Unable to produce a Beijing hukou (household registration) or any other documents needed to gain entry into the local school system, an estimated four out of five migrant children from Picun and other villages attend legally grey private schools, without any of the perks that their Beijing-born peers take for granted, say experts.

This is why Ms Fang Mei, 40, forks out some 3,000 yuan (S$630) each semester so that her son Yuchen, nine, can attend Tongxin Primary, a school for migrant children in Picun. This is despite the school's bare-bones facilities and non-standardised curriculum.

"We don't have a choice, I've worked in Beijing since I was 18 and I still can't get things like a local shebao (social insurance) to send him to a public school," said the seller of children's clothes from Hebei province.

"Even if this school isn't as good, it still beats leaving him back in Hebei by himself."

But research has shown that migrants like Ms Fang are caught in a no-win situation.

A comprehensive 2013 study of more than 300 migrant and public schools in Beijing and rural schools in Shaanxi province found that, on average, the rural school had twice as many well-qualified teachers as a Beijing migrant school.

Student-teacher ratios were also nearly 60 per cent higher in the migrant schools.

And despite being in a much wealthier place, Beijing's migrant schools had fewer resources - such as computers and clinics - than their rural Shaanxi counterparts.

Tongxin School, for instance, had to end its semester right after Christmas last year whereas the public schools in Beijing end their semester this month, right before Chinese New Year.

  • 36m 

    Estimated number of migrant minors - children that follow their parents to the big city - most of whom are destined to become the next generation of migrant labourers.

    61m 

    The number of "left-behind" children in China, referring to children whose parents work in faraway cities.

The reason? Tongxin School has no central heating to keep its students warm after a new ban on coal heating kicked in late last year.

Lead researcher Fang Lai with Stanford University's Rural Education Action Programme explains that the academic performance of migrant students worsens the longer they live in Beijing and attend migrant schools because of such handicaps. "Our analysis shows that migrant students who attend even the worst-performing Beijing public schools significantly outperform students in migrant schools," he said.

GLACIAL PACE OF REFORMS

The central government is deeply aware of the risks the next generation of undereducated migrant children would pose to China's prosperity - and social stability.

In 2016, it announced a plan to issue urban hukou documents to 100 million rural-registered Chinese living in the cities by 2020, a target it is on track to hit. It has also taken on board some of the common-sense solutions prescribed by the blue book, such as allowing more migrant children to sit the gaokao, or national college entrance exam, in the cities they reside in. But local resistance is holding up the reforms.

While a handful of provinces, such as Guangdong, have relaxed restrictions on public school enrolment and gaokao eligibility, others like Beijing have tightened theirs in recent years, showing up the limits of central government edicts on municipal policies.

"Local governments have discretion when it comes to implementing national education policy, and many rationalise exclusion with reasons like costs of financing,impact on the quality of local public schools, limited educational spaces and resources, and last but not least the protection of urban citizens' privileged access to top-quality schools," said Mr Mao Ding, an education researcher at McGill University.

Even if reforms are implemented overnight to give migrant children the same access to quality education as their city-born peers, another deep-seated problem still remains: unequal access to its best universities.

Many of China's top universities, such as Tsinghua and Fudan, are located in Beijing and Shanghai, which reserve a significant number of spots for locally born students and impose quotas - and higher cut-off scores - for students from other provinces.

Peking University and Tsinghua University, for instance, together take in about 84 out of every 10,000 Beijing students who take the gaokao each year, but just three out of every 10,000 candidates from Henan. An attempt in 2016 by the Ministry of Education to get leading universities to admit more students from poorer provinces was met with protests in more than two dozen cities, and the plan was aborted.

Provinces like Henan long ago adapted by creating highly demanding education systems that are in many ways more rigorous than in Beijing, said Mr Chen Jianguo, Yuyang's father.

This is why Henan consistently ranks second, after the capital, in terms of the number of students it sends to both Peking and Tsinghua.

But this creates another set of problems for migrant students, who often return to their hometowns for high school and to take the gaokao. Having attended poorly resourced migrant schools in the cities, most have difficulty adapting to the more intensive school system back home, said Mr Chen.

With the Beijing authorities intensifying a campaign to reduce the number of migrants in the city following a deadly fire in Daxing district last November, Mr Chen and Ms Fang are considering returning home for good.

"In 2008 it was 'Beijing welcomes you', but in 2018 the city doesn't really want us here any more," said Ms Fang.

"Going back to Hebei might not be so bad. It will be much easier to take care of my parents, while also keeping an eye on my son's studies."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 03, 2018, with the headline 'China's migrant children dilemma'. Print Edition | Subscribe