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In Beijing, 40,000 students stranded

Adrienne Mong

Local authorities only offered an explanation to the neighborhood eight days after the New Hope School was demolished.

By Adrienne Mong and Bo Gu

BEIJING—With roughly two weeks to go before the start of the new academic year, Yang Hui and her cousin Yang Ying abruptly found themselves with no school to attend.

“They didn’t say anything,” said Yang Hui, a 15-year old who was expecting to start the ninth grade at the New Hope School in Beijing’s Haidian district.  “They said they wouldn’t demolish it, but then they did.”

With no warning, New Hope was torn down on August 10.  Only eight days later did official announcements go up on walls and wood poles around the site, saying the school was demolished because it was deemed unsafe.

But New Hope was also a school for the children of migrant workers and considered illegal despite the fact that roughly 1,000 students attended classes ranging from kindergarten to ninth grade.  The Yang cousins and their families are from Henan Province; their parents engage in small-time trade in Beijing and have lived in the city many years.

Schools for the children of migrant workers are being shut down and demolished across Beijing.  Thousands of students are affected, many of them stranded without a school to attend with the academic year just days away from beginning. NBC's Adrienne Mong reports.

The hukou
Through a rigorous and rigid household registration system designed to control the movement of China’s 1.3 billion people, the central government classifies all its citizens as either city dwellers or rural peasants.  The registration, also known in Chinese as hukou, determines not only a citizen’s residence but also what kind of social services individuals are eligible for.

It is extremely difficult to change one’s hukou although there are many ways, including marrying a person with a different registration status, applying for a new status through one’s job, or paying an enormous sum of money.

In Beijing, which has an estimated 5 million migrant workers, none of these people are allowed to obtain state-sponsored health care or schooling if their hukou is registered in their hometowns—which most likely it is.  As a result, their children—many of whom are born in the Chinese capital—can only attend privately-run and unapproved schools.

Twenty-four migrant schools in three districts across Beijing are being shut down, stranding some 40,000 students with only days before the new year begins.

The Yang cousins said they were able to find another migrant school on their own and have re-registered.  But more than half their fellow students at New Hope haven’t been so lucky.  “Many of them have gone back to their hometowns,” said Yang Hui.

Nearby, one family was packing up their belongings.  “We have to move, because we have to find a new school we can send our child to,” said the mother who did not want to be identified.

As the demolitions took place, local news coverage gathered steam, eventually forcing municipal authorities to provide some guidance on alternative schools for the parents.  Some officials even pledged no child would be left without a school, because of the shutdowns.

Adrienne Mong

The remains of the New Hope School, whose students were children of migrant workers.

“They assigned us to a new school,” said Zhang Jia Hu, another Henan native who has lived and worked as a garbage recycler in Beijing for six to seven years; his twin daughters were born in the capital.  “There was a notice, and I went over to the new school this morning to look it over.”

Zhang is also a lucky one.  There is no tuition at the new migrant school.

Popular resentment
News of the school demolitions and shutdowns spread quickly on the Internet, with many netizens voicing concern at the fate of so many children without schools.

“No respect to education,” wrote one person on Sina Weibo, a popular microblog.  “This is the biggest evil of this country.  The disaster brought by education is the reason of all disasters. The officials who caused the children to lose their schools should be sued.”

Another Sina Weibo user said, “To close a school is like opening a jail.”

Even a well-known presenter on Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV weighed in.  “The rights you are born with are eliminated,” said Yang Jinlin.

Education is a hot button topic in general in China, especially whenever the Chinese sense not enough attention or resources are dedicated to schooling their children. 

A charity project called “China-Africa Project Hope” has recently become the target of virulent public criticism.  The project, initiated by China Youth Development Foundation and World Eminent Chinese Business Association, promised to donate 1,000 schools in Africa within ten years.  (It has also come under public scrutiny because of allegations of misappropriation of funds by the head of the charity, but that’s another story entirely.)

Adrienne Mong

Where migrant workers from Henan live on the fringes of Haidian in western Beijing.

Wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs plan to spend $233 million altogether on these schools, with the first one breaking ground in Tanzania last March.  The project was slammed by netizens after news emerged of the migrant schools being demolished in Beijing. 

“Why can’t you take care of your own education problem?” asked one comment on Sina Weibo.  Another user said, “One of the recipient African countries, Kenya, actually spends 7 percent of its GPD on education. China, a country that spends less then 4 percent of its GDP on education, donates schools to a country that spends seven percent? I don’t understand…are they nuts?”

When China’s senior government officials—including Politburo members like Vice President Xi Jinping and Chongqing Party Chief Bo Xilai — send their children to top schools and universities in America and Europe, people are even more irritated.  A widespread joke online mocks the officials: “If next autumn all the top European and American schools want a meeting with the parents, the Communist Party’s 18th Congress will have to be put off.”

With additional research by Silver Siwei Wang.