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Privately run migrant schools in Beijing

February 24, 2003

Vital community resources existing on sufferance


Private schools play an essential role for the children and parents of migrant communities in China. Here Hou Wenzhuo describes the daily struggle of these schools to survive and provide education for a disadvantaged group of children. This article provides a personal look at migrant schools, the children that attend them and the challenges that must be overcome to ensure equality for all children in China.


Essayist Wang Dingding wrote “it is unquestionable that migrant schools are ethically right” and indeed they have played an essential, yet unappreciated, part in current Chinese society.

Privately run migrant schools have become common in all cities across China where huge numbers of migrants have no access to education. They are sometimes referred to as “shanty schools,” “sparrow schools,” “simplified schools,” or “folk schools” due to their poor quality and marginalized situation. The services they provide require constant struggle and tireless perseverance.

Migrant schools provide education where the government has failed to do so. Lack of political will to address the welfare of rural migrants has left an entire generation of migrant children without access to an education. The creation of migrant schools has filled this gap left by the government.

These schools have managed to provide affordable education for poverty-stricken rural and migrant children, and their services have helped in preventing child labor and illiteracy. They do not just perform the role of education, however. Migrant schools also function as informal social welfare institutions. They offer shelter for street children and migrant children who have been neglected or abandoned by parents, and they look after children who do not have the proper papers or who are “out of plan” because their births are “illegal” according to the population policy.

In many respects, migrant schools can be seen as community centers. They facilitate family reunion and provide a channel through which migrants can help themselves and each other. They also bring together migrants from all regions and ethnic backgrounds, helping them to integrate into city life. Most important of all, however, they accord children of both sexes the same access to an education.


The old social welfare system in the countryside collapsed after the start of economic reform. The task of organizing and paying for rural education was largely left to the peasants themselves. However, many rural governments have increasingly been collecting large sums in fees or taxes in the name of “sponsoring education” because of the lack of central government funding. These factors created distrust and dissatisfaction towards the public village schools, and therefore spurred the growth of rural private education. This is yet another demonstration of the initiative and creativity of rural people in China faced with the almost complete withdrawal of the state.

For years, rural private education has flourished in many villages in northern China, in provinces such as Henan, Hebei and Shanxi, without attracting much attention. Because of their remoteness, the media seldom report much about this sector, and the existing reports present only a small piece of a major change in rural China. Zhu Daojing, principal of Zhihong School in Beijing, told me that in Xinyang in Henan Province, private education has been so successful that sometimes it has virtually replaced the village schools becoming the major channel for providing education.

Thus in a sense the private schools considered here are an extension of a trend in the rural areas into the cities. Several principals in the private migrant schools in Beijing come from Xinyang. Both in rural and urban areas, private education can be seen as a way in which poor peasants are liberating themselves and challenging the authorities’ power to decide on what is best for them.

Moreover, if given the conditions to develop further, such schools have great potential to contribute a variety of benefits: freedom of choice and greater accountability to parents, and a better understanding between everyone involved. Still, however, there is a great deal of scope for improving standards and diversification to meet the needs of migrant children.

In addition, the schools can be a channel through which migrant communities can communicate their concerns, as one united voice. The development of such a collective voice makes it more possible to address the social discrimination and maltreatment of migrant children.


Migrant children are everywhere in Beijing. In Dazhongsi in Haidian District, a major market for vegetable distribution in Beijing, migrant workers and their children gather to sell vegetables, often starting their work as early as 2:00am. In wealthy areas of Beijing, such as the Sanlitun bars that cater both to foreigners and trendy young local people, children can be seen selling flowers the whole night through from the 5:00pm to 5:00am. In the busy streets of Beijing they can be found carrying buckets of water to wash cars. In the train stations they can be found lying helpless and abandoned.

Despite the fact that they seem to be everywhere, they are effectively invisible children, at least as far as officialdom is concerned. Their existence is not acknowledged or reflected in government plans, nor in the national educational agenda. Their presence is not reflected in various national and local statistical reports, which are supposed to provide accurate reports on the situation in China. In the words of a famous Chinese writer, Wang Xiaobo, they are the “silent majority.”


Economically speaking, migrant schools offer many advantages over public schools. The costs charged to migrant children in public schools are unreasonably high. These schools charge migrant children extra fees such as jiedu fei (temporary schooling fee) which amounts to approximately 600 yuan for a school term and zanzhu fei (school sponsoring fee), a fee set by schools themselves, which ranges from a few hundred to over 10,000 yuan. In addition to this, the public schools charge for books, facilities and other miscellaneous fees (such as for uniforms, tutoring, class activities, etc.). These amounts are completely unaffordable considering that the average migrant family of three to four earns less than 1,000 yuan per month. By comparison, the cost of migrant schools is generally no more than between 300 and 400 yuan for a school term.

However, the reasons migrant parents choose these private schools for their children go beyond mere economic factors. Migrant children face considerable cultural and social discrimination in public schools, including a lack of formal school registration, no right to be selected as honors students and no scholarship opportunities. Their school records and grades are not recorded, meaning, ultimately, that they are not counted as normal students. Their accents, non-urban style of dress and different behavior means that they are easily identifiable as different, and this sometimes results in bullying and discrimination by both their peers and teachers.
Migrant schools are much more welcoming to a broad range of children, regardless of background, than the public schools. A limited survey of a few dozen migrant schools found that most schools accepted orphans, abandoned children, street children and children who would otherwise not get support from anywhere else. For example, Xingzhi School, one of the earliest migrant schools established in Beijing, has students from all over China, creating an ethnic mix that is much more varied than that in most public schools in Beijing. Most schools also waive fees for such special groups of children. Zhang Xueling’s Xinghua School waives school fees for 60 out of 500 students, either because their families are too poor to pay or because they do not have any parents or guardians at all. At Xingzhi, the school waives school fees for five types of children—orphans, children of single parents, disabled children, children from multiple-child families and children who have come from natural disaster zones. There are about 30 such children in the school and they belong to seven different ethnic groups—Han, Manchu, Mongolian, Korean, Miao (Burmese) and Dawoer ethnicity.

Migrant schools have other advantages. Since busy migrant parents are often unable to look after their children after school, migrant schools have a variety of ways to help. Parents can pay the school fees on a monthly basis or postpone their payments; children can be transported to and from school by truck (not always in good condition); and teachers often stay late to look after children whose parents have to work. In fact, due to their informal and personal nature, the schools are much easier for parents to negotiate with or seek help from.

Migrant schools also help to facilitate migrant family reunions. Migrant workers who migrated alone, or in couples, often had to leave their children in their home villages with no one to care for them. Thus migrant schools function as a community center in cities that are often unfriendly towards migrant families. Migrant parents have also noted that migrant schools are of a better quality than the schools in their villages, although the conditions in both rural and migrant schools certainly are generally far below those in public urban schools.

The government has criticized migrant schools on a number of grounds: for their lack of qualified teachers, for problems of hygiene and safety and for their failure to meet with the standards required under relevant regulations. But many of these failings are due in large part to the government’s unwillingness to allow these schools the space and resources to develop. Another criticism levied is that private schools are basically profit driven. The truth of the matter, as proven by the schools in Beijing, is that competition for profit among the migrant schools has driven the schools to improve their quality, whereas the public education sector under the “socialist market economy” has become just another resource used by the authorities to gain an extra profit. For all the government’s criticism of the private education sector, public education bureaus, as with other government agencies under authoritarian states, are motivated primarily by possible monetary gain.


The legally ambiguous status of the private migrant schools means that they run the risk of being closed at any moment. In the past, they have relied primarily on the mercy of the local government to continue their operations. However, this is not always extended.

Huangzhuang School, where Xiao Xue was studying, was shut down when the Shijingshan District education bureau decided that they would establish their own middle school, which claimed to serve the needs of migrant children. Prior to the schools being shut down, Chen Enxian and Yi Benyao, the principals, sought my help. I recommended that they talk to various journalists and to some local representatives of the Beijing People’s Congress. Unfortunately, as the school did not have legal status, they were entitled to no legal protection and had no recourse to the law to protect the school. Although a few newspapers covered the incident and there was even talk of a meeting to negotiate, in the end the meeting that occurred, arranged by the Shijingshan education bureau, involved no actual negotiation. Chen and his colleagues were simply informed that their school had to be closed, with no further discussion.

As a result of the tenuous situation of the schools, at the end of July 2000, I invited a few representatives from private migrant schools in Beijing to discuss what could be done to improve the situation. The idea of a “Coalition of Migrant Schools” was accepted by all the schools with the understanding that although they were natural competitiors, the most urgent issue facing them was the legalization of their status. In fact, they also realized the importance of a certain degree of supervision of school quality.

However, given the sensitive political situation, everyone was aware that such a course of action was risky. We wanted to maintain a balance that would allow us to speak out but not in a way that irritated the government. Thus we decided that rather than setting up a coalition or union of private migrant schools, we would adopt the idea of advocating private migrant school teachers’ equal rights to celebrate National Teachers’ Day. In China, teachers enjoy a morally and socially prestigious position resulting from the cultural heritage of Confucianism. The declaration of equal rights for migrant school teachers would be a subtle way of stating that the schools, the teachers and the children deserved to be respected and treated equally to formal public schools.

Chen’s school was chosen as the location of the event. We invited a few renowned social activists in the education field and student volunteers from China Women’s University, People’s University and China Politics and Law University to write reports about the schools and their concerns. Journalists from domestic media were invited to the event to ensure that our voice, and the voice of migrant children, would be heard. Foreign media arrived at the event uninvited (we feared negative repercussions due to the Chinese government’s view that being shamed by the international media was a far more serious matter than being shamed by the media at home).

Despite all the efforts at subtlety, the night before the event, Chen Enxian received calls from the Shijingshan local education bureau, the Shijingshan District government and the Shijingshan police. He was told that he would “bear all of the consequences” if he did not halt the preparations for the event. To Chen this vague statement clearly implied a wide range of threats, from the closure of his school to the deportation of his family out of the city, even to possible arrest. Nonetheless, Chen would not allow himself to be intimidated and decided to take the risk of confronting the government.

The day proceeded without hindrance even though several plainclothes police showed up. Thankfully, Chen’s bravery was rewarded with permission from the government for the school to remain open.


But it appears that this one attempt was not enough to save other migrant schools. A distinct lack of will to resist pervaded the migrant schools, a result of self censorship due to intimidation rather than direct intervention by the government. The people running the schools were not united, but divided, as it was easy for the authorities to persuade some who had hopes of achieving proper legal status to stop any collective action to support the position of the schools in general.

The year 2001 became a nightmare for the migrant schools, due in part to this lack of cohesion or any collective strategy to fight for their survival. That year, several cities started shutting down migrant schools. In Fengtai District, Beijing, about 50 migrant schools were shut down. In China’s far south, Haikou City’s Zhendong District shut down 19 migrant schools. Five migrant schools were closed by Shaoxing County in Zhejiang Province. In Jiangsu Province, 41 such schools were either forced or “persuaded” to close. In the Changning district of Shanghai, dozens of migrant schools were shut down all at once. Even as far as in Xinjiang Autonomous Region, migrant schools have not been tolerated. Everywhere, local governments have followed a policy of closing down any unlicensed migrant school they discover.

Governments have employed many methods to force the closure of schools, some involving armed police. For example, in Fengtai United Security Squad guards (lianfangdui—these are a kind of irregular police hired on contracts by local police departments for particular law enforcement campaigns) were employed to block school gates to prevent children and parents from entering. The government has also used less coercive measures. These have included the forced eviction of migrant schools, during which buildings are either abandoned or demolished. Moreover, the government has issued arbitrary fines or penalties, such as refusing to supply the schools with electricity or water, and has at times arrested and detained school principals and teachers, and in some cases expelled them from the cities.

The larger policy implications of these closures is unknown. They could represent a concerted government attempt to counter the burgeoning migrant population’s self-protection initiatives and to suppress the development of a broader migrant workers movement. Or such closures could be viewed as being driven by “local protectionism” on an individual city level. Whatever the reason, this collective onslaught has been a tremendous blow to the whole migrant education community.


Recently I spoke with Zhang Xueling again. She was finally able to obtain a divorce, ending a long battle with her faithless husband. Free at last to devote all her energies to the children and the school, she was struck by disaster. The Fengtai Education Bureau required that her school be closed, forbidding her from continuing to provide education at Xinghua School. No amount of pleading with the representatives of the local People’s Congress, media exposure or appeals to the police and authorities was able to save the school.

In spite of the oppression, Zhang and the migrant parents were not defeated. Xinghua School went “underground.” She is still teaching—in fact, she teaches more children than she did before, with over 800 enrolled. She estimates that only 20 percent of migrant children from the schools closed in the Fengtai District ended up in public schools. Most went to other migrant schools, but many were also sent back to their hometowns or were completely deprived of an education .

The irony of the situation is that the Chinese government is now trying to take credit for literacy among migrant children, but in their own country they leave thousands of children without an education through the forced closure of migrant schools. In a report by the Beijing Education Bureau, the government claims that the problem of educating migrant childrens is resolved through “temporarily sitting in on classes in the public schools.” The government makes such statements despite the knowledge that the majority of migrant children receive their education not as a result of government efforts, but because of the initiative of migrant communities themselves.


Instead of condemnation, migrant schools should be given credit and recognition for their contributions in offering education to migrant children. The government sees the migrant peoples’ determination to provide an education for their children as a means of challenging government power. However, the potential benefits of keeping these schools running are far too important to be so easily dismissed. Given its inability or unwillingness to fulfill the obligation to provide an education for these children, the government should provide every support necessary to ensure that the private sector can fill this gap. Arbitrary closure of these schools not only damages government legitimacy, but also brings with it great harm to the long-term education of migrant children. To regain its lost legitimacy, the government should be more cooperative and respectful to migrant schools and the families that rely upon them.

The rights of migrant schools should be protected. The schools and the parents should not have to live in constant fear of what the future will hold. These socially important institutions should not have to hide from the authorities or resort to flattery and bribery to be allowed to provide such an essential service as education. The authoritarian style of closing schools should be stopped and replaced with a participatory dialogue with the parents to determine the needs and complaints of the community.

To achieve their rights, migrant schools should be allowed to defend their own existence. The fact that they are not legally recognized should not automatically mean that they are illegal schools. The schools should be able to use the Administrative Review Law and the Administrative Procedure Law to challenge and halt official efforts to harass or destroy them. The government’s deliberate refusal to give legal recognition to migrant schools in no way gives them the right to close the schools at will.

Also, the creation of a coalition or union of schools as a self protective mechanism is necessary for the sake of the development of the schools. Although at present it may not be possible to exist as a political entity, the schools could still establish themselves as an education exchange association where a pool of common, and at times conflicting, interests could facilitate the exchange of information, educational experiences and provide for a sharing of resources. As competitors and collaborators, the group would also function as an internal monitoring body, spurred on by healthy competition among schools.

The cooperation should extend to charity organizations, NGOs and volunteer organizations. While the schools have accumulated precious experience in maximizing the limited social resources available for migrant children, the other organizations have developed much expertise and creative strategies for addressing the needs of migrant children’s education. Cooperation between these groups and the government would create the most advantageous environment for the children’s education. It would facilitate the development of the potential of these institutions to meet the special needs of migrant children and the migrant community at large.


In an ideal situation, despite all the benefits of migrant schools, migrant children’s education should be primarily offered by the public schools in the areas where they reside. However, without fundamental changes in the hukou system this will be almost impossible. As long as the migrant workers’ freedom of movement, and their rights to work and reside in cities are not protected, their children can hardly attain equal rights to urban children to enter public schools.

Thus there is a need to turn to some intermediate alternatives. For example, several cities have issued standards by which to evaluate the quality of migrant schools, and several schools in Wuhan and Guangdong have actually been licensed under such systems. In the Pudong District of Shanghai, policies have been discussed to create legal measures meant to guarantee the quality of migrant schools. They have pointed to issues like impartiality, which they claim can be achieved by inviting independent education institutes to evaluate the quality of schools. They propose the establishment of criteria that would include the condition of the schools and their facilities, teacher credentials and courses offered. This type of local registration would allow schools to function legally and free from unreasonable interference. This in turn would allow for a greater investment into the quality of education and the educational facilities, thus potentially ensuring more sustainable provision for the education of migrant children.

Any type of restructuring of the currently chaotic situation of the migrant private schools would be possible only if there were a supportive, consistent and standardized policy with which to regulate and monitor schools. Policy makers should consider combining a number of existing small schools to form larger ones to ensure a reasonably good quality of education. Good policies governing the migrant schools would ensure productive competition between schools in a fair and legalized manner.

Another, more inventive idea has been proposed by some researchers at the Beijing Education Research Institute. It would involve the use of an “education coupons” system that would make the education system more flexible and accessible for migrant children. It would function as a means of funding education, with coupons to be distributed to each child, and which could be exchanged across provinces and rural/urban boundaries. This system could be a temporary compromise while the hukou system continues to exist, but as yet its feasibility and potential to resolve the larger problem is questionable.


In my latest phone conversation with Zhang Xueling, she told me that she was hopeful that her school would be legalized. After going underground, she was able to reestablish the school in the Xuanwu District where officials were sympathetic to the plight of the migrant children and believed that hosting a migrant school would bring honor to the district. She believes that Xinghua School will finally be recognized as a “school run by social forces”(she hui liliang banxue), and thus permitted under government regulations allowing for the establishment of private schools.

Although I am thrilled by her success, I am also saddened by the reality that these schools must be so dependent on the favors of certain authorities. I await the day when the existence of such schools will be declared as “constitutionally right and socially benevolent,” the day when society recognizes that the schools are deserving of respect and support. I await the day when the much-advocated “rule of law” will be used to protect the lives and well-being of migrant children. Finally, I await the day when children, like my own Xiao Xue, can find shelter in a school without fear and without prejudice, secure in the knowledge that, even when compared to the privileged urban children, they may be considered as equals.






Xinghua School was established by Zhang Xueling, a 38-year-old woman from a small rural village in Hebei Province. Xinghua, which means to “glorify or rejuvenate China,” is one of many migrant schools in Beijing and is located on the border of Fengtai District, at Sanluju. This is a prosperous urban “ghetto” of Beijing, an area filled with thousands of migrants from all over China. Xinghua is just one of over 50 migrant schools in the Fengtai District alone.

As a rural woman, bearing the burden of Confucian societal pressures, Zhang has overcome tremendous odds to establish this school. She first arrived in Beijing looking for her husband, only to discover that he was living with another woman. This, along with a previouly failed marriage, left her a single mother with no source of income. Despite being a graduate from a teachers college, Zhang was forced to take on menial jobs to survive. Prejudice against her as a rural woman in the city was intense, but despite all odds, her great compassion and reputation for taking orphans and abandoned children into her home led other migrants to encourage Zhang to found a school for migrant children.

Her estranged husband’s harassment ended Zhang’s first attempt to establish the school. The nuisance he created forced Zhang and her students to abandon the place they had found. She undertook the difficult task of finding another place to set up the school. As a result of the good will of a factory owner and a private college, Zhang and her children were able to rent a space in an abandoned factory on a month-to-month basis and were able to acquire hundreds of used chairs, desks and second hand computers. Unpaid volunteers formed the staff, helping with everything from administration and teaching, to driving trucks, and transporting children to and from school.

Today, the sheer number of children requiring schooling is so immense that Zhang has had to give up her bedroom within the school to make way for another class of students. (To accommodate such students she now sleeps on a bed made from four folding chairs.) Through Zhang’s determination, she has become living proof that a woman can succeed despite cultural discrimination.


Every day is a struggle for migrant schools and the children and parents they serve. As an example of the trials and tribulations, Zhang told me the story of an old migrant man she had met. He was homeless and destitute, and Zhang was shocked to find that the man carried his two daughters in baskets with him wherever he went. Moved by pity, Zhang allowed the girls to enroll in her school for free. This emotion, however, was not one shared by the government as far as the old man was concerned. In order to project the appropriate image, all homeless people, including the old man, were removed from the city before the 1999 celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the PRC’s founding began.

Prior to his deportation Zhang implored the police to allow the old man to stay, but this was met with a scornful response. Unable to prevent the man’s deportation, Zhang’s school has now taken full responsibility for the care and education of his two daughters.








On a pleasant spring afternoon in Beijing in April 2000, a little girl was brought to me by my student volunteer Ding. She had been found wandering aimlessly on Ding’s school campus. Her name was Xiao Xue and she was eight years old. Pretty and clever, Xiao Xue had managed to survive several years on the streets through skills she had learned there: stealing, lying and manipulation. Her childlike innocence conflicted with the shrewdness acquired from living on the streets. Since she had no home, I took her into my own. She called me “Mum.”

She was envious that other children were able to go to school. But, despite all my efforts, it was not possible to send Xiao Xue to a public school. Neither she nor I had a Beijing hukou—the proper residence card to make her legally acceptable in a public school. Added to this was the fact that schools were either unwilling to accept an orphan or required thousands of yuan, a price I could not afford.

Eventually, my professional connections in the migrant education field helped me to find a migrant school for Xiao Xue in the Shijingshan District. At the end of April, Xiao Xue was sent to Huangzhuang Primary School, a boarding school similar to other private migrant schools with poor facilities. The school was established in 1995 by Chen Enxian, a migrant from Henan Province. Although initially refusing to take any money for Xiao Xue’s education because she was an orphan, when I insisted Chen eventually accepted the small sum of 200 yuan to cover her school fees.

The news of her acceptance to the school sent Xiao Xue into a frenzy of excitement and the night before school I watched as she sang and danced with happiness. Attending school did not diminish her enthusiasm and her reactions to it were all positive.

Despite the lack of resources, by comparison with the public schools, the school demonstrated remarkable sympathy and a deep level of understanding of Xiao Xue and what she had been through. The teachers were caring but also knew when to be tough. Although the food and bathing facilities were, according to Xiao Xue, not as good as home, she told me that she had made friends with her schoolmates and teachers. When she came down with a fever, the school found a doctor and called me to arrange for her to stay at home to rest. As a busy woman and a completely inexperienced “mother,” I was grateful for their extensive help.

HOU WENZHUO is an activist from China.




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