Student Examines Plight of Urban Migrant Children in China

September 8, 2009
by Kate Hoagland

The plight of migrant Chinese children living in burgeoning urban areas in many ways exemplifies the momentous challenges facing the world’s most populous nation. China has traditionally denied public schooling to migrant children, most of whose families were drawn to the cities by economic opportunity, and only recently (in 1998) did it begin to allow the children access to for-profit city schools, most of which are operated by migrants themselves. But that access ends after middle school, as the government often prohibits migrants from entering high school in their adopted cities.

The effects and impacts of such a system – both on the children and on the nation’s larger social structures – is the focus of study by Holly Ming PhD 2009. Ming performed field work in Beijing and Shanghai in order to determine the fate of those youngsters who either stayed with their families and entered the job market, or returned home to continue their education.

“The present system of not allowing non-local middle school graduates to take high school entrance exams and enroll in local high schools obviously hurts individual students and their families. Beyond this individual burden, however, it ultimately represents a hefty price tag to the host cities and the country,” Ming says.

Ming argues that expanding educational opportunities for migrant children would futher China's political, economic and social evolution.

“Looking from a positive angle, with the right education and policies that encourage integration, second generation migrant students would act as the perfect rural-urban bridge to bring about a seamless urbanization process coinciding with China’s own rapid urbanization,” she argues. “In addition, expanding education opportunities for migrant children represents a unique opportunity for the Chinese leadership to further their current policy agenda of reforming the public service delivery system, moving from workplace-based welfare provisions to government-provided, means-tested programs with universal coverage.”

Ming’s dissertation outlines several proposed steps aimed at bringing migrant students back into mainstream society, thereby improving their prospects for economic success. For the near term, she proposes the development of a three-year vocational program for migrant children who have completed middle school. For the longer term, she proposes equalizing opportunities for migrant and local students system-wide.

“Throughout all time frames, I think it is important to promote multiculturalism and diversity in both school and the broader society to truly instill change,” Ming says.

Ming’s research was funded through the Shum Fellowship from the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies with support from the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation. Ash Institute Faculty Director Anthony Saich says Ming’s research feeds into the many complex discussions surrounding China’s future.

“China is an interesting example of a country in transition, experiencing a huge influx of rural migrant workers to its urban centers,” Saich says. “Over the next 15 years, over 200 million migrants are expected to move to the cities, increasing the overall urban population to 560 million. Such a growing population will no doubt strain social services and physical infrastructure if careful urban planning, financing, and key policies are not implemented. This research will help policymakers understand and analyze the options they have for integrating young people into the national and global economic infrastructure.”

The Ash Institute’s Asia Programs generate scholarly analysis of public policy challenges in the Asia region and seeks to enhance Asia’s capacity for good governance in the 21st century. Its China-related activities include various custom training programs offering local Chinese government officials extensive public administration and international development training.

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Migrant children in China.

Migrant children playing with their parents' livelihood – a three wheel cart – in a migrant neighborhood in Beijing.

Migrant children in China.

End of the school day at a Beijing migrant school.

photos by Holly Ming