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Against the Storm

Three Chinese peasant children amidst the largest population shift in world history

The migrants are hated because they are an ignorant and dirty people, they are carriers of disease; they increase the necessity for police and the tax bill for schooling in a community. They are never allowed to feel at home in the communities that demand their services. Wherever they stop they try to put the children in school. It may be that the children will be in school for as much as a month before they are moved to another locality. But they still start the older children off to school, but the ragged little things will not go; they hide in ditches or wander off by themselves until it is time to go back to the tent, because they are scorned in the school. It should be understood that the old methods of repression, of starvation wages, of jailing, beating and intimidation are not going to work. These are American people.

The struggles of displaced people transcend history and geography. The preceding story was told in the San Francisco news in 1936 and more fully developed in John Steinbecks classic, The Grapes of Wrath as 150,000 migrant Americans left the economically depressed dust bowls of Oklahoma with the promise of employment in California. Yet the exact same aches are occurring today in the hearts of an even larger population in the Peoples Republic of China.

Today, Chinas rural-to-urban migration phenomenon is on a scale that boggles the mind. Imagine every American west of the Mississippi moving to Canada since the time that Deng Xiao Ping made his infamous visit to the south of China in 1992. Thats right, in that amount of time, 150 million people have relocated from Chinas rural areas to its midsize or mega cities. (There are now 176 cities with one million or more people.) But, as the saying goes, You aint seen nothin yet.

Chinas government officially predicts that the migrant community will double by the year 2015. The social implications and the impact upon the Christian community are nothing short of breathtaking as the gravitational pull of Chinas cities is irresistible. Like water moving toward the lowest surface, Chinas countryside peasants have flowed en masse toward the urban centers in search of a livelihood and a piece of Chinas new prosperity. Having no other option, villagers leave their ancestral lands where their home is familiar, where their children have friends and, in the case of millions, where the gospel was first embraced.

While the displaced sometimes travel alone, the majority of floaters migrate with their families. Often, one or both parents will venture ahead to a city in order to find work, leaving their children in the care of relatives or friends. Once they have found some sort of employment and any kind of housing, they will bring the rest of the family along.

The government estimates that twenty million children have migrated to the cities with their families. This is understandably a life-altering move for these kids. Even a move from one village to another would be an adjustment. The contrast sharpens when the elements of dialect differences, pace of life increase, mobility, economic needs and, a new issue, education for the children, are added.

How do parents arrange education for their children in this complex, urban puzzle? Following are three stories of migrant families who brought their children to Beijing and struggle against the storm.

The Child without a Face

It is not difficult to spot Xiao Li. She spends her days running between stalls and roaming the alleys in a makeshift outdoor produce market that services two large residential complexes in the northwest corner of Beijing.

It is not so easy to make eye contact with this diminutive, Chinese lass. During a rare moment when she is not looking away, you might see that Li has a constellation of small black flecks embedded along the right side of her face. Her self-consciousness is obviously a direct result. Li received her unwelcome tattoo when she was six years old and her family had been in Beijing for three months. Like all of Chinas northern residents who do not live in apartment housing, Li’s family has a small coal-burning stove, essential for heating and cooking. Sometimes, small pockets of air that are trapped in the cheap coal will heat and explode from pressure. Li was unfortunate enough to have been looking into the stove when this happened. Upon rushing the little girl directly to the nearest medical clinic, Li’s parents were distraught to find that they would need residence permits for anything other than minimum first aid care. Not having even temporary workers permits, they were forced to concede to a bottle of antiseptic and some salve.

While efforts have been made to reform educational policies regarding migrant children, most families still cannot receive adequate health care. According to the July 13, 2004 issue of the China Daily, many children suffer from anemia, rickets and serious malnutrition.

Xiao Li does not worry about classmates teasing her about her face; she does not go to school. Neither does her brother. In spite of a government regulation requiring all children between the ages of six and fourteen to attend school, an estimated twenty percent of all migrant children do not go to classes. The regulation is a difficult one to enforce. Migrant workers are absent from their home villages, and many are undocumented in the places where they live and work.


Han Guo Sheng eagerly awaits the end of class. As school lets out, he quickly gathers his things and makes for the classroom door. As he crosses the campus, he hears other boys forming teams for the daily after-school basketball game. Han frowns. He loves basketball. The exertion would feel wonderful after a long day of sitting in class, but he will not play. He knows what would happen if he tried. It has happened before. These Beijing kids are relentless. They will make fun of his shirt. They will tease him because of his accent. Worst of all, they will probably talk about his parents.

Han does not tell his parents when these things happenthat is, when he sees them. His mother leaves every morning at 3:00 A.M. to pick up a fresh fruit delivery and then take it to the early morning market. His father is out collecting recyclable scrap metal until way past twilight. He knows how much his parents have paid for him to go to this school—every semester they pay. He knows because he has heard them talk. He knows they pay 900 yuan more than the other kids’ parents pay. He wishes his parents would just let him go to one of the migrant schools that the other kids on his street go to. At least there he would not be so different.

However, his parents have enormous hopes for him. He senses how much they want from him. They certainly do not want him to be a farmer. In fact, he has asked them before, Why can’t I go to one of the migrant schools? No, his father always replies. The teachers there are stupid. They are not real teachers. They have not gone to college. So Han goes to Public School Number 63 every morning. He tries to talk like the Beijing kids talk. He uses the same slang and he shows interest in the same things. But, somehow, he just cannot seem to fit in.

Until very recently, migrant children were charged extra fees by public schools. These fees were unregulated and undocumented. While money is no longer a restrictive factor in most public schools, there is still the issue of prejudice and proximity to the schools. Most migrant workers live a considerable distance from the public schools.

Grown at Twelve

Qu Long Fei is twelve years old and lives alone. His dwelling is a small shack made from corrugated metal sheets tied together with odd scraps of string, wire, and torn fabric. His only source of heat in the winter months, a small coal burning stove, ventilates directly into his room. Every day, Qu wakes up early to walk the four miles to school. He is a good student, his teachers say, but he is often tired. Qu studies by the light of one small dim bulb. Sometimes, when it rains, the bulb shorts out.

Qu’s parents live about forty miles away from him on the outskirts of Beijing. They are hired farmers; a land owner hires them to tend his crops. They would love to live closer to the city, especially to be with their eldest son, but this job opportunity is just too good to pass up. In order to see them, Qu takes three different buses on the weekend. When he gets there, he is usually required to help them catch up on their work load.

The school that Qu attends is a school for migrant children. There are about one thousand children who attend this school which has only existed for three years. In those three years, the school has had to move twice. The third location, where the school is now situated, is rented from a coal processing plant. Already, the school’s headmaster has been threatened that he must leave.

Qu is hopeful for the future. When asked, he says that he wants to be a politician. He really wants to effect change. Unfortunately, the young man’s chances at ever reaching higher education are pretty slim. In fact, high school is a long shot. Junior high schools are about as far as migrant children are able to go.

There are over three hundred schools for migrant children in Beijing alone. Less than ten of them actually meet Beijing city educational standards leaving the rest to operate without legitimate status. Despite the fact that these schools are meeting a massive educational need, the government provides zero subsidy for starting the schools or maintaining them. This means that every headmaster has to borrow money from friends and relatives to secure a property lease.

These schools are humble and crowded at best, destitute and hazardous at worst. The schools have usually been started by former village teachers, headmasters and entrepreneurial countryside business menpeople with a heart for the children from their hometowns. Migrant schools are frequently criticized for their lack of equipment—from the playground to the classroom. Most often, the tables and chairs that the schools use have been discarded from public schools.

Despite new government regulations ordering public schools to eliminate extra fees that they have been charging migrant families, enrollment in most of Beijing’s migrant schools increased in September 2004, bringing the student population to approximately 150,000 children with as many in the public school system. On the one hand, with pressure from local authorities to restrict their existence due to poor educational quality and, on the other hand, with pressure from legitimate city developers to clear out and make room for more modern developments as the 2008 Beijing Olympics approach, the schools are in a pressure cooker for survival.

The demographic shift is seismic in scope. The social implications are staggering. The educational needs for an estimated 35 million children who will accompany 250 million adults to Chinas metropolises in the next ten years are just the tip of the iceberg. Of greater significance are the ramifications of hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of rural Christians exiting the countryside with an estimated ten million disenfranchised peasants annually for the next decade.

The questions remain. Will those who have embraced the faith in China’s impoverished villages now bring the treasure of their spiritual wealth to the cities amidst the storm, or will the red coals of his stirring be cooled by the beguiling winds of materialism? Will the children from households of faith be nurtured to love the Lord their God, and their neighbors as themselves, or will only the urban economies experience revival? May God grant these believers courage to be bearers of light. The stakes could not be higher as China is on the verge of superpower status in the 21st century.

Image credit: DSC_0593 by Philip McMaster via Flickr.

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Mark Wendling

Mark Wendling lived in Beijing for five years and currently serves as a staff member of the Thornston Educational Fund.View Full Bio