On the dusty streets of the ramshackle village of Dongba on the eastern fringes of Beijing, one question has dominated conversation since the new school term started last week: "Have you found a new school for your kids?"
Since the Beijing government suddenly ordered the closure of four schools in the village in mid-August, the parents of some 2,000 students have been scrambling to find somewhere else for their children to study this semester. They're not alone: about 14,000 children in total have had to find new schools after the government shut down and in some cases tore down two dozen schools across the city this summer.
All of the closed schools shared one thing in common: their students were the children of migrant workers, the army of undocumented rural laborers who have flocked to Beijing over the past two decades to find work and profit from the city's economic boom. The rash of closures has prompted critics to accuse the government of discriminating against migrants as a way of forcing them out or to stanch the flow of even more coming from the countryside. Beijing has become increasingly worried about the size of its migrant population in recent years; the government estimates there are now 7 million migrants in the capital now, about 36% of the total population.
Migrants across China have long survived in legal limbo. The country's arcane household registration system (known as the hukou system) makes it virtually impossible for working-class migrants to register as official residents in big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. Without a residence permit, they have no access to local healthcare services or social welfare provisions, and can't enroll their children in local state-run schools. But Beijing and other cities still need cheap laborers to toil on their construction sites and infrastructure projects, so a thriving ecosystem of illegal schools has sprung up, catering almost exclusively to the children of migrant workers and operating entirely under the radar. It's a system of questionable legality, but one to which the government has for decades turned a blind eye.
At least, until now. This summer, the situation changed suddenly and without explanation in Beijing, according to staff at the schools. "My school opened in 1998 and apart from the SARS outbreak in 2003 we have never been asked to close before," says Liu Jigui, headmaster of the Yucai Elementary School, which used to cater to migrant children in Jiangtai village, outside Beijing's wealthy Chaoyang district. "But now we get a notice telling us that suddenly our school is not safe enough." Liu says he was never given a clear explanation why his school had to close. "They tell you this isn't up to grade, that isn't up to grade. If they don't want you to open the school, they will always find some reason."
Some of the schools were simply torn down over the summer parents who arrived to register their children for the new school year found only piles of rubble where the buildings once stood. "To be fair to the government, they tore down some of the schools, but maybe some of the schools should have been closed or torn down," says Jonathan Hursh, founder of the Beijing-based NGO, Compassion for Migrant Children. "But from time to time, the local government will just react without a lot of forethought about the consequences of these actions, both on the 14,000-plus migrant children who are affected and their parents, and the psychological and emotional aspects of the pressures."