Anger Over Migrant School Closures

Authorities in China's capital shut down schools serving the children of migrant workers.

migrantschools-305.jpg A parent protests outside a recently demolished school for migrant worker's children in Beijing, Aug. 16, 2011.

Authorities in Beijing are questioning a prominent rights lawyer who had been following the plight of thousands of migrant workers and their families after schools providing education for their children were demolished.

"I heard this morning that Xu Zhiyong was taken away for a cup of tea by the national security police at around 10:00 a.m.," fellow rights lawyer Peng Jian said on Thursday.

The phrase "to drink tea" usually means a questioning or interrogation session with state security police, which can last from a couple of hours to a couple of days.

"As of this afternoon, his wife still hadn't heard anything," Peng said. "We are guessing this has something to do with his concern for the demolition of schools for the children of migrant workers."

Thousands of migrant workers in outlying districts of China's capital are now struggling to find school placement for their children after city authorities ordered the closure of around 30 private schools, set up to provide a basic education for the children of migrant workers in Beijing.

A parent surnamed Huang whose son had attended the New Hope Primary School in western Beijing's Haidian district, said he had seen a number of police vehicles near the demolition site on Wednesday.

"[On Tuesday] I read about this online, and I went over to take a look [on Wednesday] morning," Huang said.

"I saw several police vehicles parked near the nearby intersection today," he said, adding that a number of parents had banded together to try to lodge a complaint about the demolition.

The move, which affects around 30 schools across Beijing, has left nearly 30,000 students with an uncertain future as the new school year begins.

Video footage of the demolished remains of the New Hope Primary School made its way around the Chinese Internet this week, along with angry scenes outside education offices as parents were refused access to enroll their children in state-run schools.

Many were caught off-guard by the demolition of the New Hope Primary School, in Haidian’s Dongsheng village, after they received the following text message from the principal:

"On Aug. 9, the Haidian district government and courts, according to their contract, demolished the school. The really worrying thing is the children's education. The government and education department have made no provision to reallocate places, and around 1,000 children look set to lose their school places entirely."

Property pressures

While the outlying districts of Daxing, Chaoyang, and Haidian have been home to migrant worker families for decades, these once less-desirable locations are now under pressure from property developers amid the relentless expansion of Beijing.

The district governments issued closure orders to the schools in June, citing illegal construction, illegal operation, and safety concerns.

Officials have promised via local media that no child will be left without a school place as a result, but the parents say they have heard such promises before.

In reality, they say, only a minority of families who are able to produce a full set of Beijing-related registration documents have a hope of securing a place in the capital.

In the eastern district of Chaoyang alone, an estimated 3,900 students now need a place, which will place an unrealistic burden on local schools, local media said.

At the former New Hope Primary School, only 70 parents have been able to gather the required “five documents” and apply for a place in the state system, while others have elected to send their children back to their town of registration, leaving 600 children with no immediate prospect of schooling.

One parent who had been waiting for hours outside the closed gates of the local education department to try to secure a place said: "How many families are waiting here? We have all paid money [for the application]. Why won't they let us in?"

"It doesn't seem to matter what documents we get," he said. "You think it's easy for rural residents to get stuff done?"

Sympathy for workers

Netizens reacted angrily to the video and reports posted online.

"Beijing's development happened through the blood and sweat of its migrant workers," wrote microblogger @hudiezaifei. "Did the officials build all those skyscrapers, bit by bit, by themselves?"

Another netizen commented: "China has built 1,000 New Hope Primary Schools in Africa in the past decade ... Maybe its own citizens will have to emigrate there before they will be able to experience the love of their Party and government."

An education department official in the southern city of Guangzhou said the province's policies are ahead of those in Beijing and Shanghai when it comes to providing services for migrant families who man the factories that fuel China's economic growth.

"Zhuhai had this same problem a few years back," the official said. "There used to be a lot of schools like this."

But he said the government in Guangdong had taken a different approach.

"We turned them into larger private schools with some investment from the government," the official said. "In that way, we managed to standardize them."

He said the policy had been accompanied by the building of new state-run schools.

"It's all about the total number of school places," the official said. "Only [later] did we close down the private schools that didn't pass inspection."

Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese service and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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