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Educational Inequality and the Making of a New Urban Underclass


Visitors to China often remark at the speed with which cities, or large portions of cities, seem to suddenly appear. Pudong and Shenzhen have risen literally out of nothing to become urban showpieces and major financial centers. The "Bird's Nest" stadium that became the much heralded centerpiece of the 2008 Beijing Games was erected at unprecedented speed, along with dozens of other Olympic venues, several new subway lines, and major beautification projects across the city.

None of this would be possible were it not for hundreds of millions of migrant workers streaming into China's major urban centers. They are the silent, or at least unacknowledged, partners in China's rush to lead the way in global urbanization.

Not only are these urban migrants building the infrastructure of today's and tomorrow's cities; they have become integral to the very functioning of urban life. To them are relegated jobs most city dwellers would be unwilling to take themselves. Those who make it a bit higher up the social ladder find employment in the burgeoning service industry, waiting on tables, cooking, cleaning, or working in the homes of China's growing middle class. In the Pearl River and Yangtze delta regions tens of millions of young migrants labor on the world's factory floor, making the goods that have fueled China's meteoric economic growth for the past decade. Take away the migrants andas city dwellers are reminded every spring during Chinese New Yearthe city ceases to function.

Despite their central role in creating the China of today, most urban migrants enjoy very little of the wealth and prosperity they have helped make possible for others. Their presence is, at best, tolerated by city dwellers who acknowledge the need for them yet still look upon the migrants as out-of-place peasants.

They have few prospects of improving their lot because of the household registration (hukou) system which controls Chinese citizens' place of residence. This two-tier citizenship system, dating back to the 1950s, affects around 250 million people who represent the new Chinese underclass, exacerbating the gap between rich and poor in the cities. Since providing needed services would legitimize their presence in the cityup until now a legal gray areagovernment has been loath to guarantee migrants access to proper housing, healthcare, and education. New labor laws and a willingness in some quarters to provide long-term vocational training suggest that the business sector may play a more positive role in the future, but the migrants' employers have traditionally taken little responsibility for the migrants' welfare.

Of particular concern is the next generation. An estimated one in every ten school-age children China is a migrant. Together these migrant children compose 13% of China's compulsory education population, yet they have been conspicuously absent from public school classrooms. In a recent article on China's migrant children, researcher Laura Peng examines this dilemma and the respective roles of government, education, business, and the non-profit sector in meeting the challenge posed by these young migrants. Without a fundamental change to the policies affecting their educational opportunities, says Peng, this generation could represent China's next urban underclass. This legacy will outlive that of their parents, who built the cities in which their children now find themselves both at home and estranged.

Image credit: The Bird's Nest, by Mrs. eNil, via Flickr

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource.  Prior to assuming his current position, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding US director of China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio