School Shutdowns Take Aim at China’s Migrant Worker Children

By Isabella Tianzi Cai

Shut out of school, migrant children study on the street in Cui Zi'en's "We Are the... of Communism"

Recently, both The New York Times and The Economist reported on the sudden closing down of dozens of unlicensed schools for migrant children on safety grounds in Beijing. This round of forced closures has been the largest in scale since a similar campaign to demolish migrants’ schools in Beijing in 2006, which was regarded and criticized for making way for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. How do such government ordinances affect the teachers and children whose work and education face abrupt termination? Cui Zi’en‘s documentary We are the . . . of Communism (2006), which follows a group of pupils and their teachers from Yuanhai Elementary School of Beijing in the aftermath of its shutdown, offers some clues to begin thinking about this matter.

(2006), which follows a group of pupils and their teachers from Yuanhai Elementary School of Beijing in the aftermath of its shutdown, offers some clues to begin thinking about this matter.

Although different justifications are used for the government’s decision to close down unlicensed schools – to face lift Beijing, to protect the children’s safety, to push some migrant workers out of the capital, and so on and so forth, the fate of the children from Yuanhai Elementary School is similar to that of Dongba Experimental School profiled in the September 3rd issue of The Economist and Red Star Elementary School in the August 29 article of The New York Times. Parented by migrant workers, who do not have legal Beijing residence, these children are not allowed to enroll in local public schools. To make matters worse, because the parents earn a meagre living by working as cheap menial labor, they can hardly afford the city’s rich reserve of legally registered private schools either. Given the country’s nine-year compulsory education policy, the parents’ only other alternative, besides sending the children back to their birthplaces, is to enroll them in unlicensed but affordable elementary and middle schools, which are said to have sprung up in hundreds in Beijing during the most recent decade.

But how did these unlicensed schools get constructed in the first place? When school buildings shot up from the ground, some of which were eye-catchingly three- to five-story tall, local authorities should have noticed them, not to mention checking their licenses. If they fail to do so, they should not escape the blame and use someone else as the scapegoat. To demolish a building after it has been erected not only wastes resources but also pollutes the environment. And as the title of Wang Jiuliang’s important new documentary suggests, Beijing is already besieged by waste. Tearing down unlicensed schools could discourage migrant workers from bringing their children to the capital on the one hand, but on the other, it is only a temporary solution for a long-term problem.

That is probably why the government tries to justify the shutdown on safety grounds, as it has been criticized for the death of thousands of schoolchildren in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. However, the irony is that the government reacted to the public outcry against their handling the education of migrant children by opening up a few replacement schools in slapdash buildings, whose lackluster conditions hardly impressed parents either. Although the official answer to the parents is centered on the safety and hygiene of the school buildings, the help that the government offers seems at best a half-hearted gesture.

Without schooling, majority of the migrant children will probably return to where they come from. If they stay, like the ones that Cui captures in his documentary, they will be lucky to find one or two devoted teachers who want to teach them for free. As the documentary states near the end: “There is no Yuanhai school anymore, but we are still there. As long as there are students and teachers, there is a school. We want to study, and no one can stop us.” Both the teachers and the children sound undeterred.

However, this kind of humanitarian arrangement will not last without financial support from outside sources because teaching materials cost money. Without these resources, the streets are the classroom for these children in Beijing.

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