WHEN the case of “Snowflake Boy” Wang Fuman (pic) went viral in China – and worldwide – last month, it drew attention to the plight of China’s 61 million “left behind” children, whose parents work in faraway cities.
Wang, who was left in the care of his grandmother while his migrant worker father worked in Kunming, had to trek for an hour in the freezing cold to get to his school in remote Yunnan.
But there is another growing group of children whose needs have been neglected amid the country’s economic boom – liu dong er tong or migrant minors, children who follow their migrant worker parents to the big cities.
It is estimated that there are now 36 million migrant minors aged under 18. But while they grow up in urban environments like Beijing, most migrant children quickly learn that the cities do not consider them one of their own.
This is why Fang Mei, 40, forks out some 3,000 yuan (RM1,852) each semester so that her son Yuchen, nine, can attend Tongxin Primary, a school for migrant children. This is despite the school’s bare-bones facilities and non-standardised curriculum.
“We don’t have a choice. I’ve worked in Beijing since I was 18 and I still can’t get things like a local shebao (social insurance) to send him to a public school,” says the children’s clothes seller from Hebei province.
“Even if this school isn’t as good, it still beats leaving him back in Hebei by himself.”
But research has shown that migrants like Fang are caught in a no-win situation.
A comprehensive 2013 study of more than 300 migrant and public schools in Beijing and rural schools in Shaanxi province found that, on average, the rural school had twice as many well-qualified teachers as a Beijing migrant school.
And despite being in a much wealthier place, Beijing’s migrant schools had fewer resources – such as computers and clinics – than their rural Shaanxi counterparts. These handicaps affect the academic performance of the migrant students.
The central government is deeply aware of the risks the next generation of undereducated migrant children would pose to China’s prosperity – and social stability.
In 2016, it announced a plan to issue urban hukou documents to 100 million rural-registered Chinese living in the cities by 2020. Another measure it has taken is to allow more migrant children to sit for the gaokao (national college entrance exam) in the cities they reside in. But local resistance is holding up the reforms.
While a handful of provinces such as Guangdong have relaxed restrictions on public school enrolment and gaokao eligibility, others like Beijing have tightened theirs in recent years.
Even if reforms are implemented overnight to give migrant children the same access to quality education as their city-born peers, another deep-seated problem still remains – unequal access to its best universities.
Many of China’s top universities such as Tsinghua and Fudan are located in Beijing and Shanghai, which reserve a significant number of spots for locally born students and impose quotas – and higher cut-off scores – for students from other provinces.
An attempt in 2016 by the Ministry of Education to get leading universities to admit more students from poorer provinces was met with protests in more than two dozen cities and the plan was aborted.
So, with the Beijing authorities intensifying a campaign to reduce the number of migrants in the city following a deadly fire in Daxing district last November, some are considering returning home for good.
“In 2008 it was ‘Beijing welcomes you’, but in 2018 the city doesn’t really want us here any more,” says Fang.
“Going back to Hebei might not be so bad. It will be much easier to take care of my parents, while also keeping an eye on my son’s studies.” — The Straits Times/Asia News Network.