- The Washington Times - Friday, July 14, 2000

BEIJING The Chinese national flag above Peach Garden School cast a long shadow on the muddy ground as darkness neared. Li Jianru, 13, the daughter of migrant workers from Hebei province, lingered with friends in their ramshackle classroom.

A peek into her home just a minute away makes it obvious why the fifth-grader spends all her spare time at school. The tiny room in northwest Beijing contains little but her parents' bed, shared with Jianru's younger brother, and her own bed, with a torn curtain separating the two.

Several migrant families occupy this run-down courtyard rented from a farmer family. Some recycle rubbish. Others, like Jianru's parents, hawk crafts at a nearby market.

All are grateful for the dirty jobs increasingly spurned by China's city dwellers, but it is a far cry from the glittering capital Jianru dreamed of when her parents left their ancestral village to seek work and a better life.

Initially left behind in Hebei with her grandmother, Jianru longed to see Tiananmen Square, the skyscrapers, bustling streets and other incredible sights of China's capital.

"I couldn't bear to live without my children," explained Qiao Jiping, Jianru's mother. "But I couldn't just let them hang around without schooling."

The 2,000-yuan enrollment fee about $242 to enter a state school postponed plans to reunite the family, until Mrs. Qiao heard about Peach Garden School. Founded specifically for migrant children, the school charges only 300 yuan, or $36, per semester.

Migrants play key role

"I am so grateful," Mrs. Qiao said, although Jianru remains less impressed by the Beijing she found. She has visited Tiananmen Square once, but overall, "It's not as much fun as I expected."

At least Jianru has a school to attend. Access to education is one of the severest obstacles facing the migrant workers who are transforming China's cities.

This floating population of up to 100 million is a key factor in the country's transition from a rural to an urban society and from an agricultural to an industrial economy.

Sending up to 50 percent of their earnings home, migrants play an important role in spreading wealth down to the villages. Yet they are still treated like second-class citizens by a system so discriminatory that it has been likened to apartheid.

Deng Xiaoping abolished Maoist restrictions on internal travel in the early 1980s, but social mobility in China remains inhibited by a residence-permit system tying health, housing and education to state-enterprise employment.

Before 1996, migrant children were not even permitted to attend state schools, despite the constitutional requirement of mandatory education.

After the Ministry of Education finally accepted responsibility for migrant children, state schools reluctantly opened their doors and charged high fees that few migrants can afford.

Private schools sprout up

Private schools for migrants have been clashing with the authorities ever since.

Zhang Ailing, 36, the founder of Peach Garden School, is an accidental convert to the cause. A migrant from Shandong province, she came to Beijing to work as an accountant in a relative's company.

In early 1997, she saw a television documentary detailing the plight of Xinzhi migrant school, built on a vegetable patch in Beijing's Fengtai district. Mrs. Zhang was so moved, she volunteered to work there.

It was a baptism of fire. On her very first day as a teacher, as she stood nervously in front of her class, policemen arrived to demand that the school be shut down.

Mrs. Zhang went with Xinzhi's principal to plead with the local government to let the school teach children.

Thanks to media exposure and the efforts of some delegates to the National People's Congress, the national government decided in May 1998 that the education of migrant children should mainly rely on state schools, but could be supplemented by other forms of schools.

How this regulation is implemented was left to the discretion of local authorities. To date, only a handful of cities such as Wuhan and Guiyang have granted legal status to private schools for migrants. The Spring Bud School in Wuhan, with over 2,000 pupils enrolled, is the largest in the country.

Smaller Xinzhi also flourished, thanks to rising demand.

Bureaucrats make trouble

Mrs. Zhang decided to open her own school after studying various migrant neighborhoods. "I was horrified to see women hawking pirated computer software, followed by their school-aged children as old as 9 or 10," she said.

She chose Beijing's Sijiqing area because of its large migrant community.

Starting with 59 pupils the first month, she now has more than 300, divided into six grades and crowded around wobbly wooden desks that Mrs. Zhang salvaged from a state school dump.

Despite a complete lack of financial aid, she tries to provide quality teaching, using the same curriculum as state schools. Peach Garden School offers 15 courses from English to computer studies. But its unofficial status, in a country still hidebound by bureaucracy, ensures a succession of troubles.

Some children living far from the school commute daily by bus. But to obtain a discount like children at state schools, Peach Garden School has to apply with an official stamp, which it is not allowed to obtain.

"They are all children, so why do they have to be treated so differently?" asked Mrs. Zhang.

For more than a year, she was unable to offer any pupil the red scarf of a Young Pioneer a symbol of distinction until the Youth League of Beijing Normal University (BNU) took Peach Garden School under its wing in November 1999.

"Of course, the school's legal status is my biggest worry," said Mrs. Zhang. "But no one can say I violate the country's constitution. Every child has a right to education."

Teachers' credentials vary

Bai Wenyu, a researcher with a Ford Foundation project on the education of migrant children, has visited 114 migrant schools in Beijing over the last two years. With enrollments ranging from just 9 pupils to more than 1,000, about half of these schools were established in the more tolerant environment of 1998.

"Before my research began, I didn't even know such a thing as migrant schools existed," said the 29-year-old BNU postgraduate student. Mr. Bai estimates there are 200 to 300 private schools for migrants in Beijing. The number is still growing to accommodate more than 100,000 migrant children between the ages of 7 and 15.

Education levels among migrant-school founders vary a lot. Mr. Bai encountered both extremes, from a Beijing University master's degree holder to an illiterate peasant.

"I never went to school myself because my family was too poor" explained Chen Fuyao, previously a foreman at a Beijing construction site. He never had a quilt to sleep under as a boy, but could only cover himself with straw.

"The main reason I set up Jingyuchen primary school was that I couldn't afford to send my two children to school here, but I wanted them to get some education," said Mr. Chen.

The more schools Mr. Bai saw, the more sympathy he felt for disadvantaged children.

"It would be extremely unfair if the government really decided to ban migrant schools and force these children into expensive local schools. I know how hard it is for their parents to make a living here," he said.

Impact of segregation feared

As municipal governments move to restrict further the kind of jobs that migrants can "take" from city residents, many remain stuck in low-end jobs, such as garbage collection. Chinese newspapers have likened the squalor of migrant areas to the 19th-century London portrayed in the novels of Charles Dickens.

For some Chinese observers, legalizing migrant schools is not enough. What worries them more is the long-term negative impact of segregation, under which the children of migrants may never grow out of their "slum culture."

"It is effectively apartheid," said Zuo Xuejin, a senior professor at Shanghai's Academy of Social Sciences. "We laugh at America's racial discrimination, but how can we create a new system of apartheid in the 21st century in Communist China, where everyone is supposed to be equal?"

A drop in Shanghai's birthrate has left many schools with declining enrollments, yet some charge high fees or even refuse migrant children. Mr. Zuo has written to Shanghai's education authority urging that all schools open their doors to everyone.

"If they have to charge, the government should set a standard, affordable fee," he said. "We should educate parents who don't want their children to sit in the same class as migrant children that it is in their own interest to have a mixed class."

Urban children affected, too

He argues that segregation will increase urban children's sense of superiority over their migrant cousins. Their outlook will be narrowed by exposure only to their own type, and with no concept of how hard life can be.

Some Chinese analysts note striking similarities between discriminatory policies practiced in the United States early in the 20th century and China's treatment of its peasantry now.

Victor Yuan, president of the market research firm Horizon, first raised the idea in a 1995 report on internal organization among migrant workers.

"It is so unhealthy to live such a segregated life," said Mr. Yuan. "One negative effect is to foster hostile feelings between locals and migrants."

Nicknamed "the migrants' spokesman," Mr. Yuan said his advocacy of migrants' rights stems from being an outsider, too, born to peasants in Jiangsu province.

Convinced that migrants represent an important force for social progress, Mr. Yuan has conducted a project sponsored by the Ford Foundation since mid-1997 to promote better understanding and communication between urbanites and migrants.

At Datun Xiang, just north of Beijing's Asian Games village, about a third of the 4,000 residents were migrant workers mostly garbage collectors or hawkers. Horizon staff stationed in the area produced monthly newsletters and organized community activities like tea parties or children's games. Slowly, both sides overcame their caution and began to participate.

Blamed for increasing crime

However, after three major crackdowns by the local government, few original migrant families remained in the same community. Some were driven back to their home provinces, while others found refuge elsewhere in Beijing.

"It's something beyond our control," said Mr. Yuan. "Yet it was still a meaningful experiment." When migrants are blamed for increasing crime rates in China's cities, Mr. Yuan acknowledged they sometimes steal manhole covers or even destroy public property like public phones. But he contends that if they feel part of the community, they are less likely to commit such crimes.

The Horizon research uncovered psychological problems among migrant children, such as depression, low self-esteem and anti-social behavior. Mr. Yuan suggests the problems stem from losing the beauty and space of country living without the compensation of urban facilities.

With poor living conditions, little attention from busy parents, and rubbish dumps for playgrounds, the children of migrants from the hinterlands are highly unkempt in appearance. Children from urban families enjoy a richer material life, and are often warned by their parents to stay away from dirty children.

Trying to discourage influx

While children are sensitive to such discrimination, Mr. Yuan also noticed how well they served as bridges between adults during community activities. Naturally, not all government officials support such projects.

If more local communities and schools are open and welcoming, some officials fear even more peasants will be attracted to the cities. The "floating population," a convenient scapegoat for all social ills, is sometimes described as "a powder keg waiting to explode."

Prosperous cities like Beijing and Shanghai have drafted new rules prohibiting migrant workers from any but the simplest jobs. Little wonder that local governments have been slow to upgrade the legal status of migrant schools.

In the face of inequality, China's uprooted peasants return to their greatest asset the will to survive.

Anhui migrant Li Cuilin and her husband run a wholesale business selling noodles from their small home warehouse behind Beijing's west railway station.

"With only a few years' education, what else can we do?" asked Mrs. Li. Rising before dawn to start work, she is kept going by the determination to send her 7-year-old son to a good state school. "We can tighten our belts and eat less."

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