Authorities in the Chinese capital have banned students whose home isn't registered in Beijing from signing up to sit the all-important university entrance exam, sparking an outcry among migrant worker communities, many of which have been based in the city for years.
A directive issued by the municipal government sparked an outcry this week, sending worried parents to petition the authorities in a bid to revoke the ban, which they say will jeopardize their children's future.
"If they don't have a registration document [for Beijing] by Dec. 5, then they will have to go back to their hometowns to sit the test," said a parent from the northeastern province of Heilongjiang.
"They told the kids last week," he said.
A second migrant worker parent said families had been given very little time to arrange things for their children.
"We only saw this on the [government] website [on Wednesday]," the parent said. "They just posted an item really sneakily."
While the children of migrant workers will be allowed to sit college entrance exams in the eastern provinces of Anhui and Jiangsu, as well as northeastern Heilongjiang, if their parents work there, Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing have much tighter rules.
Migrant workers who move to towns and cities to seek work in factories are often treated as unwelcome interlopers, and enjoy much less access to public services like education, welfare payments and health care than those who are registered as already living in the town.
Under the "hukou" registration system which dates back to the Mao era of collective farming and a planned economy, every household accesses services from its place of registration, posing huge social problems for China's hundreds of millions of migrant workers and their families.
A group of around 20 parents on Thursday sent a petition to Beijing's educational affairs committee, asking it to clarify the issue, but had received no reply.
Beijing-based rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong, who himself lacks a Beijing "hukou," said government policy was clearly unfair, as many migrant workers had been living in the capital for years.
"A lot of migrants are already working in Beijing without a registration document, and they have been here for many years now," Xu said. "Their kids were born and raised in Beijing, and they shouldn't be forced to live apart from their parents."
He said Beijing should extend the same rights to non-registered resident children as to those registered in the city.
"This is very unequal, and it affects around 200 million people, who are either in this situation, or whose children are," Xu said.
Hu Xingdou, of Beijing's University of Science and Technology, who has also lived for years in the capital without a registration, said that Beijing in particular was under huge pressure to accommodate all who wanted to live there.
"There are simply too many people who want to sit the test in Beijing," Hu said. But he added: "Obviously what they're doing now isn't appropriate."
"If foreign nationals and people from Hong Kong and Macau can sit the niversity entrance exam in Beijing, then this policy is in fact discriminating against Chinese from other provinces," he said.
China has nearly 20 million rural children aged under 14 who have followed their migrant-worker parents to cities, official media reported, citing figures from the China Children and Teenagers’ Fund.
The Chinese mainland’s 32 provincial-level authorities were required in August to submit plans on allowing migrants' children to sit the test away from their hometowns before the end of the year, Xinhua news agency reported.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Ho Shan for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.