Peoples of China

China’s Migrant Children

In contemporary China, the compulsory schooling of rural migrant children has emerged as one of the most pressing problems facing the Chinese educational system.1 Since the economic reform policies in 1978, the population of internal migrants moving to the cities in search of employment has increased at an unprecedented rate. In 2010, the migrant population was estimated to be 250 million.2 Since the late 1990s, family migration and the desire for permanent urban residency have fueled the burgeoning urban population of school-aged rural youth who are born in the city or migrate there at a young age. Recent numbers from the China Children and Teenagers’ Fund estimate there are 20 million rural migrant children 14 years old or under in China, comprising 13% of the total student population for compulsory education.3 In other words, one out of every ten school-aged children is a rural migrant child.

In response to the concern that this generation of migrant children will develop into China’s first urban underclass, the Chinese government has identified rural migrant children’s compulsory education as a key issue in the National Outline for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development (2010-2020). Since the emergence of the family migration phenomenon, restrictions under the hukou system4 have excluded migrant children from accessing public schools and other critical social services in the cities. Privately-run migrant schools thus emerged as a low-cost option for migrant children to obtain an education. However, these for-profit institutions lacked good infrastructure and hired inexperienced teachers, thus providing their students with a low quality education.5 Policymakers became concerned that this educational inequity would lead these youth to develop into an urban underclass and contribute to a rise in juvenile delinquency. Thus, beginning with the 1998 “Provisional Regulations on Schooling for Migrant Children,” the 2001 “Decisions on Reform and Development of Basic Education” and the 2003 “Instructions on Further Improving Compulsory Education Provision to Migrant Children in Urban Areas” policies, the Chinese government issued a series of reforms declaring the host cities’ responsibility to educate migrant children and migrant children’s right to compulsory schooling, particularly in public schools.6 The legislation of these policies encountered the resistance of host cities against spending local taxpayer finances on migrant children as well as the prejudice of local parents against schooling migrant youth with their children in public schools.

While national policy has explicitly declared migrant children’s access to compulsory schooling, many challenges face this disadvantaged population. First, migrant children in different cities continue to face difficulty in accessing schooling policies. Under China’s decentralized administration, city governments are responsible for implementing and funding national level policies. While national level policies dictate migrant children’s right to schooling, policy implementation depends upon political will at the local municipal level. Consequently, implementation varies greatly from city to city. In cities where implementation is strict, public schools require parents to submit formal documentsincluding ID cards, temporary living certificates and employment certificates. Rural migrant parents, however, are undocumented laborers who often have trouble providing these documents. Moreover, students in unlicensed migrant schools face an uncertain future as local governments can easily shutdown the schools without notice. For example, in 2011 and 2012, Beijing closed down migrant schools only weeks before the new academic term began, forcing parents to scramble in finding alternative schooling options for their children, some even sending their childrenwithout parental supervisionback to their hometowns to continue schooling.7 In contrast, migrant children in Shanghai face a relatively rosier situation. In 2010, Shanghai invested half a billion U.S. dollars into expanding public schools to provide for the enrollment of migrant children, integrating migrant schools into the government educational system and making compulsory schooling free.8

Another significant challenge is migrant children’s difficulty in obtaining a quality education. Currently, migrant children can access compulsory schooling in migrant schools or public schools. However, the education received in migrant schools is inferior compared to that in public schools. Research consistently concludes that public schools raise migrant children’s achievement compared to migrant schools.9 Unfortunately, gaining entry to public schools can still be challenging, sometimes requiring special connections (guanxi). For example, according to 2007 statistics released by the Beijing Municipal Education Commission, among the 400,000 school-age migrant children in Beijing, 63% are enrolled in public schools, 4.6% at private schools and 26% at unregistered migrant schools. The remaining 6.4% do not attend school.10 A poor academic foundation not only robs rural migrant children of a realistic chance of scoring high on the college entrance examination but also of socio-economic opportunities in the future.

Another challenge is migrant children’s inability to take the college exam. Recent national policy lifts the hukou restriction on migrant children’s right to take the college entrance examination. Children of migrant workers in Anhui, Heilongjiang and Jiangsu will be able to take the college exam in 2013 while those in Shandong, Fujian and Jiangxi are eligible in 2014. However, migrant youth in the cities where the largest population of migrant children resideBeijing, Shanghai and Guangzhoulag behind the smaller cities in implementing this policy.11 Parents of local youthparticularly in the large cities where the best national colleges are locatedstrongly protest the “opening” up of their cities for migrant children, fearing increased college enrollment competition. The inability of migrant children to take the college entrance exam not only negatively impacts migrant children but also urban teachers and principals. For students, the exclusion diminishes their motivation to study during their precollege years. For teachers and principals, migrant children’s exclusion from the school accountability system gives less incentive for school practitioners to invest in migrant youth to the same degree as local youth.12

While many challenges still face China in schooling rural migrant children, the road ahead is paved with opportunity to transform this disadvantaged population into agents for positive, creative change. Prayer for municipal and national policymakers seeking to resolve this sensitive issue is essential. Policymakers in big cities face particular difficulties in implementing national policy and require divine wisdom to act on behalf of the nation’s children, not simply to local allegiances.

Secondly, organizational partnerships are vital. Currently, vocational schools in the cities increasingly are a pathway that rural migrant youth are choosing. However, upon graduating with a vocational certificate, they face difficulty in finding employment. Businesses that are willing to partner with vocational schools who educate rural migrant youth are a strategic way to ensure the future socioeconomic mobility of this generation. Collaboration between businesses, government and NGOs is essential in providing rural migrant youth with schooling that gives them practical training for employment.

Moreover, for churches, Christian groups and individuals who seek to alleviate this social problem, partnering with quality NGOs (local and foreign) that already have existing projects with migrant schools and students is an option. As NGOs become more familiar with the needs of migrant youth in the community, their staff will be able to suggest strategic ways to invest a partner’s time, energy and material donations (including finances) to mutually benefit the children and their families, as well as the organization. However, given the politically sensitive climate on religion and migrant issues in China, it is advised that churches, Christian groups and individuals work directly with migrant families. Lastly, churches can also prayerfully consider moving their location to migrant communities. Churches located in migrant communities can serve as “salt and light” in an incarnational ministry that removes barriers of socioeconomic class and culture between church members and migrants.


1In China, compulsory schooling consists of nine years of primary education and junior secondary education. This article primarily focuses on compulsory schooling.

2Beibei, Ji and Song Shengxia. “Half a billion farmers seen going urban,” Global Times, Feb 25, 2010.

3If “left behind” children of migrant workers, who remain in the villages without parental care, are included in these statistics, the number rises to 30 million total migrant children in China, comprising 20% of the compulsory school-aged student population. “Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons from PISA for the United States,” OECD, 2011.

4In 1958, the Chinese Communist party established the hukou system to control rural-to-city migration by localizing resources to an individual’s urban or rural hukou residence. Since educational funds in host cities are based on the local hukou student population, non-local hukou students are excluded from urban schooling funds. Chan, Kam Wing and Li Zhang. “The Hukou System and Rural-Urban Migration in China: Processes and Changes.” The China Quarterly 160:818-855, 1999.

5Kwong, Julia. “The Integration of Migrant Children in Beijing Schools.” in Education and Social Change in China: Inequality in a Market Economy edited by G. A. Postiglione. Armonk, N.Y., 2006, pp. 163-178. M.E. Sharpe, Lu, Shaoqing and Shouli Zhang. “Urban/Rural Disparity and Migrant Children’s Education,” Chinese Education & Society 37:56-83, 2004.

6Standing Committee of the Tenth National People’s Congress. “Compulsory Education Law of the People’s Republic of China,” 2006.

7Jinsong, Liu. “Migrant schools closed in Chinese capital,” BBC News, Beijing, 2011. “Beijing Migrant Schools Closed,” Economic Observer, Beijing, 2012.

8Hewitt, Duncan; Mazumdar, Sudip; Margolis, Mac; and Overdorf, Jason. “Winning the Hard Ones: Success Stories from Tough Places,” Newsweek, Sept 20, 2010.

9Song, Yingquan; Prashant Loyalak, Jianguo Wei. “Does Going to Public Schools Matter for Migrant Children’s Academic Achievement in China?” China Institute for Educational Finance Research (CIEFR), 2010 and Peking University. Presentation at the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy workshop on Education for Migrant Children, Beijing, April 8, 2010.

10“Free classrooms scheduled for poor children,” Xinhua, Beijing, 2007.

11“Limits eased on migrants’ college exams,” Xinhua, 2012.

12Yiu, Lisa. Social organization of Chinese public schools, Forthcoming.

Image Credit: Gaylan Yeung

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Laura Peng

Laura Peng, who currently lives in Greater China, has visited a number of public and private migrant schools in China.View Full Bio