When the semester began, Liu Chan, a migrant child in Beijing, pleaded with his teacher, ‘my grandfather could not pay the tuition fee. Could you please let me go to school first? He will pay it back soon …'[1] Owing to his rural household registration account, Liu has to pay the tuition fee in a migrant school in cities. This is only the tip of the iceberg. Migrant children, usually aged between six and fourteen, fall victim to rural-urban migration in China. They suffer from financial hardship, social isolation and, worst of all, limited access to free education that urban natives enjoy.

To make ends meet, rural dwellers leave behind drought-withered farmlands and flood into Chinese metropolises. In 2013, the migrant population reached 166 million, two times more than the population in the United Kingdom.[2] The actual figure is likely higher, as it is hard to count those living in frequent transition. Migration challenges traditional Chinese values of togetherness, leaving migrant families with a tough decision: to leave children behind or bring them to cities.

Leaving children behind proves to be dangerous. Left-behind children receive little guidance from their frail grandparents. Without due care, some children suffer from mental illnesses, physical abuse and sexual assaults. In Guizhou, five boys, aged nine to thirteen, were found dead in trash bins due to carbon monoxide poisoning. To keep warm, the boys took shelter in the bin and ‘lit a fire inside’.[3] When all these risks add up, 35 million rural workers, around 20 per cent of the migrant population, bring their children to the cities against all odds.

Chinese children are entitled to a nine-year, free education, but this is not so for migrant children. Hukou, the family registration system, dictates their rights to state benefits. Likened to ‘internal passports’, Hukou, part of the planned economy in the 1950s, divides residents into urban or rural populations. It bars peasants from settling permanently in urban centres. It controls where one can get the state services: education, social welfare and health care. Each province allots its education fund based on the number of its citizens, but not for those from other provinces.

Migrant children inherit their parents’ rural household registration. Without an urban account, they need to pay steep fines in addition to the school fees, and submit five rarely granted documents including, a temporary resident permit, rental contract and proof of employment to enrol in mainstream public schools.[4] Some resort to bribery and forgery. It is impossible to enrol in good urban schools, which could demand sponsorships amounting to 250,000 RMB per student (approximately40,300 US dollars or 27,000 pounds).[5] A migrant worker from Hunan groaned, ‘if only they could study back home. Schooling at my home province costs me almost nothing’.[6]

Simply put, migrant schools are their only choice. Since most migrant schools fail to obtain school licenses, they receive no government subsidy. They, unlike public schools, need to ask for academic fees. Parents have to pay for all aspects of schooling: books, stationery, tuition fees and the New Year decoration costs. Teachers’ passion for education cannot be translated into resourceful teaching. Wan Junjie, the principal of a migrant school in Chang Ping, Beijing, sighs saying ‘the teachers’ salaries have flipped over several times’, from 500 RMB ($80; £50) to 2,000  RMB ($300; £200), in ten years.[7] He had no choice but to raise the tuition fee.

Some schools have lower costs but the quality of education is subpar. Migrant schools in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in southwest China, ask for 1,300 RMB ($210; £141) for a school year. However, the teaching quality remains notoriously inferior. They sacrifice infrastructure expenses and teachers’ salaries to make the fees affordable.[8]

Xie Chaogang, like other migrants, struggles to keep his family afloat. Before dawn, Xie pedalled a pedicab to Chang Ping district in Beijing, knocking on every door to collect ‘almost everything’: newspapers, bottles, scraps, paper boxes and furniture. He managed to gather 30 kilograms of recyclables which came to a mere 4 RMB ($0.60; £0.40). Xie earns even less in winter. ‘Fewer people work in winter, and there are few constructions’, Xie frownes. Does he have any hopes? ‘Being able to raise the kids is good enough’, he smiles. He dares not to dream of a good education for his children.[9]

Meagre as the migrants’ income is, some migrant workers put almost every penny into their children’s education. In Beijing alone, more than 200,000 migrant children enrol in migrant schools. In Xie’s case, he will have to pay more than 1,100 RMB ($180; £120) in school fees for two children, for one semester.[10] He bemoans, ‘the school fee [in Beijing] is too high’.[11]

Even if migrant parents can afford the fee, no one can guarantee that the school will continue to run. Unlicensed migrant schools are subject to demolition. On a wintry morning, government trucks stormed into Zhao Shengjie’s school in Beijing West Fifth Ring Road. All tables and chairs were removed. Water and electricity were cut off. Only the bare ground remained.[12]

This is no single incident. Although the government promulgated a new urbanisation blueprint advancing the social services for migrants, improvements are restricted to smaller cities but not first-tier cities, such as Beijing, where most migrants live.[13] The problem loomed large when the Mainland authorities razed 24 migrant schools in Beijing.[14]

Those whose families overcome the difficulties are aware of their parents’ sacrifice. Ceng Shuai, a migrant child in Beijing, knows how hard his family works for such a rare chance. He vows, ‘I will study very hard. My parents toil every day to earn money’.[15]

Not everyone manages to leap over the financial hurdle. ‘It breaks my heart to see other children going to school happily . . . I could not afford the tuition fee’, Chen Qiguo’s father sobs. His son sits still, reading a book under a dim, 10-watt fluorescent. Qiguo does not know when his family can gather the money, if ever.[16]



[1] ‘Kaixue shijie de chenzhong huati: Nongmin gong zinu ruxue zhuangkuang diaocha 开学时节的沉重话题:农民工子女入学状况调查 [A Solemn Topic in School Season: A Survey on Schooling of Migrant Children]’, Xinhua News, 19 February 2004. http://news.xinhuanet.com/edu/2004-02/19/content_1322444.htm

[2] ‘Erlingyisannian quanguo nongmin gong jiance diaocha baogao 2013年全国农民工监测调查报告 [The National Monitoring Survey Report on Migrant Workers, 2013]’, National Bureau of Statistics of the People’s Republic of China, 12 May 2014. http://www.stats.gov.cn/tjsj/zxfb/201405/t20140512_551585.html

[3] Helen Gao, ‘China’s Left-Behind’, World Policy Journal (June 2013). http://www.worldpolicy.org/journal/summer2013/chinas-left-behind

[4] Lijia Zhang, ‘Lack of School Support for China’s Migrant Children a Crying Shame’, South China Morning Post, 15 September 2014. http://www.scmp.com/comment/article/1593106/lack-school-support-chinas-migrant-children-crying-shame

[5] Yang Zili 杨子立, ‘Ruhe baozhang nongmin gong zinu de yiwu jiaoyu——Jizong jiejue nongmin gong zinu jiaoyu wenti de moshi bijiao 如何保障农民工子女的义务教育——几种解决农民工子女教育问题的模式比较 [How to Ensure Free Education for Migrant Workers’ Children – A Comparison of Several Solutions for the Education Problem of Migrant Workers’ Children]’, Human Rights in China Biweekly. http://biweekly.hrichina.org/article/1197

[6] Li Junping 李君萍, ‘Piaoliu jiaoshi漂流教室 [Floating Classrooms]’, RTHK, 21 February 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Fvvzit800s

[7] Li, ‘Piaoliu’.

[8] Yang, ‘Ruhe’.

[9] Li, ‘Piaoliu’.

[10] In China, the one-child policy is strictly enforced to Han Chinese, the biggest ethnic group in China, living in urban areas. In rural areas, Han Chinese could request to have another child, provided that the first one is a girl.

[11] Li, ‘Piaoliu’.

[12] Chen Lutao and Lu Nuo 沈路涛和吕诺, ‘Mingtian de xuexiao zai nali? Yige nongmin gong zidi xuexiao de sici banqian 明天的学校在哪里?一个农民工子弟学校的4次搬迁 [Where Will Schools Be Tomorrow? Four Times Relocating a Migrant School]’, Xinhua News, 19 February 2004. http://news.xinhuanet.com/edu/2004-02/19/content_1322444.htm

[13] Kam Wing Chan, ‘Migrant Children are now Losing School Places in Large Cities’, South China Morning Post, 6 December 2014. http://www.scmp.com/comment/letters/article/1656785/migrant-children-are-now-losing-school-places-large-cities

[14] Zhang Nan 张楠, ‘Zhongguo mingong zinu yiwu reng que baozhang中国民工子女义务教育仍缺保障 [Chinese Migrant Children Still Lack the Protection of Free Education]’, Voice of America, 20 January 2012. http://www.voachinese.com/content/article-20120120-china-school-137744273/793208.html

[15] Li, ‘Piaoliu’.

[16] ‘Kaixue’.