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Lu Ming: Educating 100m Chinese Children: A Burning Question

Alumni and Public Relations Office 2017-05-23

The migrant children that are being rejected by city dwellers today are the main force of urban labour and the main source for elderly support tomorrow. 


Currently, there are around 100 million children in China who are in need of better education. They are the source of workers to fuel China's future economic growths, and a support line for social care in today's rapidly aging society.

If well-educated, they will become valuable resources, if neglected however, they would only lose out in the modernisation process, worsening income inequality and bringing social insecurity. 


These 100 million children, consisting of over 60 million 'left-behind children' in the countryside, and more than 30 million migrant children in cities, account for a-third of all minors in China, and they urgently need to receive better education.

It's also worth noting that recent documents by China's Ministry of Civil Affairs categorise left-behind-children as rural minors under 16 whose parents are migrant workers or who have one migrant-worker parent and the other incapable of guardianship. Such categorisation drastically reduces the number of left-behind-children in China to under 10 million, but does not change the facts.


Educating rural left-behind-children and offspring of urban migrant workers have long been a issue of concern. And in the long run, only by letting those children receiving education in cities while living together with their parents would serve as a proper solution contributing to the country's economic and social development.

The reasons are obvious. First, aging population and low fertility rate in China's big cities means entry of migrant children can replenish urban labour supply in the future.

Second, better education those kids receive today means a stronger drive for sustainable economic and social development tomorrow.

Furthermore, due to scale effects, it's actually cheaper to let migrant children study in urban classrooms than invest to improve rural education quality, not to mention a whole range of soft skills required by service industries that are only available in cities.


Nevertheless, currently there are some misunderstandings preventing them from getting the much-needed education, which I'm here to clarify.

First, their parents, ie the migrant workers, are not causing burdens but making contributions in the city. They work in the city, and pay their taxes, social welfare fees and everything.

Moreover, many of those migrant workers who are not being accepted by the urban public service systems, have actually been living in cities for more than a decade, having stable jobs, and some even purchased properties. Migrant population accounts for more than half of the work force in China's first-tier cities, and the fact that they are able to secure sustained employment is proof of labour shortage in urban China.

In addition, letting migrant children attend schools in cities does not necessarily strain the education system. In reality, decreasing numbers of local-born school age students means it's more a question of willingness, not ability. Some might complain about the unsatisfactory education quality, sanitary standard and security conditions of private-run institutions dedicated to educate migrant kids. But the right answer to that is strengthening regulations and increasing investment, not simply shutting them off and forcing those kids either to be deprived of schooling, or to return back to their home villages.

A fourth factor is that many of those children being rejected by urban schools are actually urban-born or at least long-time dwellers. Refusing these children in the name of raising entrance standards and improving education quality, and forcing them to go back to a 'hometown' that they are not familiar at all, would only create more 'left-behind-children' and aggregate the problem.

Last but not least, excluding low-income migrants or pushing them aside won't solve big cities' ills, but raise living cost instead. As both those children and their migrant worker parents consume little resource in housing and commuting, sending them back will not ease the resource drain, but only intensify labour shortage, the cost of which will eventually be bear by the urbanites.


By analysing statistics from the Migrant Population Data Platform managed by China's National Health and Family Planning Commission, Wei Dongxia from Jinan University concluded that during 2011-2015, an average of 20% of migrant offspring under the age of eighteen live in China's four largest cities.

During her field research in a big migrant town in Anhui Province, Wu Yingyan, a reporter from ThePaper was told by the local education official that around 60% of the returning school-age kids are from Shanghai, and it has taken them a long time to adjust to rural life.

Recent published Report on Education for China's Migrant Children also noted that migrant kids returning back to the countryside commonly experience problems such as low grades, difficulties in social integration and changing life trajectories. And they are more prone to stress and bully from fellow students who never left, according to studies by Song Yingquan from Peking University.


Finally, I want to emphasise that solving the issue of left-behind-children and migrant kids is not only the responsibility of education and civil affairs departments, but something to be dealt with by the whole nation and the entire society.

On the national level, it is much more efficient to educate migrant students in cities than invest huge resources in improving their care in rural area.

In addition, fuelling economic growths and realising China Dream require continuous urbanisation, and forcing migrants and their children back is not helping, as the migrant children that are being rejected by city dwellers today are the main force of urban labour and the main source for elderly support tomorrow. 


Today's hard work will become tomorrow's gains, while the cost our negligence today will only be paid by our own children in the future.



This article (in Chinese) was originally published on May 22, 2017 by Caixin, a Beijing-based media group providing quality journalism on China's economy, markets, and policy.