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China

A Battle In Beijing As Migrant Workers’ Schools Are Shuttered

Chinese authorities have closed schools attended by the children of illegal migrant workers in the over-populated suburbs of Beijing. Other such schools may be shut down too.

(Wootang01)
(Wootang01)
Brice Pedroletti

BEIJING - Yang Qin is furious. The sheer pettiness of cutting off a school's supply of water and electricity! The 64-year-old former teacher is the principal of the school in Dongba, an urban village in Beijing just east of the fourth peripheral ring road. His students are the kids of folks from poor rural provinces who come to toil in the megalopolis, and live by the tens of thousands in desperately over-crowded conditions on the capital's outskirts.

Many of the children at Yang Qin's school were born in Beijing, yet they still fall into the illegal immigrant category, and are thus not entitled to free public school education. Parents organized themselves to build the Dongba school in 2000 with funding provided by small business owners from the provinces.

There are now 1,300 students at the school, which provides both primary and secondary education. The school is on some commercial property rented from the municipality, with a lease that expires in 2013. The cost of attending amounts to the equivalent of 75 euros per semester.

Dongba, however, along with tens of other similar schools in Beijing, is threatened with demolition. Yang Qin received warnings all summer. He reads from one of them: "On July 27, we received orders from the Office for Education of this cantonto close the school on August 25." Exasperated, he explains: "They say that building construction, electrical wiring or fire prevention standards aren't up to snuff. But we have all the paperwork saying that it is!"

When electricity was cut off at the beginning of August, school heads rented generators so they could continue holding classes over the summer. Then the water supply was shut. As Dongba suppliers refused to service the school, water had to be brought in from another neighborhood.

This summer nearly 15 schools for migrant workers' kids closed – often, according to one expert, because their leases expired or because one school merged with another. The matter has raised quite a bit of attention in the local press, which made it possible for schools like Dongba to keep going. For the time being, anyway.

Official embarrassment is palpable. "Beijing's education bureau has never confirmed having authorized closure of these schools, and has always insisted that not a single child will go without an education. But I think they're mainly concerned with not being the next Ministry of Railways," says Tian Kun, referring to the shake-up that took place at the railway ministry after the July 23 train catastrophe in China.

Doing the dirty work

A Beijing lawyer, Tian founded an NGO that helps schools for migrant workers' children, and could face disbarment. "Nothing says that the city doesn't have some secret policy to close the schools in an attempt to reduce the number of migrants," he says. "But they're leaving the municipalities and the cantons to do the dirty work."

Meanwhile, Beijing's district offices of education have announced emergency measures to respond to the crisis affecting an estimated 150,000 children of migrant workers in the city.

The district of Chaoyang, for example, of which Dongba is a part, suggested a change of premises – moving the children to classrooms in old village public schools. These are undeniably well-maintained and well-designed. But parents complain that they are too far away, and would cost too much, including school lunches that cost 8 yuans (80 euro cents), twice the price they were paying at schools for migrant children.

"Education is the responsibility of the state," says Luo Liang, 44, the founder of a primary school for migrant workers' children in Jianxinzhuang, a village in the Daqing district located in the southern part of the capital. "All we did was to fill a need, at a time when the economy was in full-blown transition. If we hadn't, these kids would be illiterate." He came to Beijing from Henan when he was 29 years old, after the farming cooperative where he worked closed. He started out selling souvenirs. Later, his wife, a teacher, came to join him in the city.

With their savings and a loan from the Henan agricultural bank, they opened a school in 2005 for the children of migrant workers like themselves. It nearly closed the following year, during a first wave of demolitions. Luo Liang obtained further financing from relatives so that he could buy additional equipment for the school and acquire relevant certifications. He says the school fulfills virtually all conditions to be granted a private school license like some schools did in 2006. But the authorities refuse, even though the area's public schools would not have room for the thousand primary-level kids in his school.

When, in June, the local powers that told him to close shop or they would "remove all the tables and chairs' from the school, Luo didn't waver. He put photographs of an earlier visit by the village party secretary on display in the school yard. Parents signed a petition. In all he'd received three ultimatums, but no action had been taken. Then, local authorities threw in the towel – at least verbally. So on a big black board next to the school gate, Luo Liang wrote with a white chalk – September 1 – the date when classes would start again, and thanked "the media for their help." He can savor this mini-victory, but he knows the battle is far from being over.

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