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Blogging Beijing

The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.

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February 7, 2008 2:31 PM

"We're proud of Beijing"

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Since winning the right to host the 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing has introduced 'Olympic Education' to more than 200 'model' schools (see 'Jump for Development' - posted January 10).

Thousands of teachers have been trained to extol cultural tolerance, hard work and exercise - to develop in their students a will to succeed not unlike that possessed by the world's greatest athletes. Hundreds of mini-Games have been held. Scores of foreign pen pals have corresponded with Chinese students and visited Beijing. Olympic Education, in many respects, has been a hit.

Beijing's model schools are theoretically responsible for spreading Olympism throughout the capital and all across China. Many have succeeded - Huajiadian Experimental Primary School for example, was recently recognized for an ongoing 'Hand in Hand' partnership.

With Huajiadian's help, students at a poor mountain school in Hebei province three hours away have formed their own (mock) International Olympic Committee (see 'Budding diplomats' - coming soon).

But west Beijing's Haowan* Primary School is not a model for Olympic Education. Nor has it partnered with one of the city's model schools. Haowan is a private school for the sons and daughters of migrant workers. Like other migrant schools, it offers classes to those children who can't attend public school.

"All of our students' parents are migrants," Haowan's principal, Zhou Leili*, told me. "They come from both smaller cities and from the countryside - mostly from the countryside."

China is now home to between 120 and 200 million rural-to-urban migrants - largely former farmers. Beijing's migrant population exceeds 5.4 million.

"I moved to Beijing four years ago," said a 24-year-old electrical worker from Henan province. "I miss my father, but I don't have enough money to visit my home."

Both country and city-dwellers are subject to China's household registration or hukou system. Although East Asian states have kept family registers for hundreds of years, the word hukou ('house-mouths') is today commonly associated with an apparatus of former Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong's design.

In 1958, all Chinese citizens were assigned residency permits that defined where they (and their descendants) were expected to work and live. Mao's hukou system was intended to ensure demographic stability and to keep Chinese farmers in their fields. It was also used to identify criminals and political dissidents.

The hukou system disadvantaged many of China's peasants. In general, their urbanite counterparts attended better schools, found better jobs and received better healthcare. After Mao's death in 1976, millions of farmers bolted - rather than watch China's reformed economy explode from the sidelines.

During the 1980s, municipal authorities clamped down on unregistered workers. In particular, 'custody and repatriation' regulations authorized police to detain and send home people with rural hukou permits living illegally in Chinese cities. But China's peasants remained very poor - the migration continued.

"Lives of poverty, untouched by China's boom" - New York Times

Every year, more rural Chinese find jobs in the country's rapidly developing cities. The hukou system has, more or less, collapsed. One third of Beijingers lack a Beijing hukou permit and they now form the backbone of urban society - serving as cooks, nannies, garbage collectors, peddlers, salespeople and construction workers.

"I've got a son and a son-in-law - they're both dagong (migrant workers) like me," a graying construction hand told me. We chatted inside a tiny office at the entrance to his site, where two brand-new subway lines will intersect. "My son-in-law lives in Guangzhou. My son's here in Beijing."

But steady jobs have not guaranteed for migrant workers equal rights or fair pay. More than half of Beijing's dagong, for instance, earn less than US$160 per month and live in poorly equipped rental dorms. According to government-sponsored media, 60 percent of the municipality's migrant children drop out before reaching high school due to financial problems.

"More than migrant workers" - China Daily

Beijing's migrants are blamed for crowding, pollution and crime. They may experience discrimination; many aren't regularly paid. In 2006, Beijing construction companies alone defaulted on US$200 million in wages.

I recently walked past a crowd of ragged, hard-hatted migrants standing outside my neighborhood police station. What are you waiting for? I asked them.

"We're going to get paid," one replied. He wouldn't elaborate further.

"The police aren't paying them - the police are making sure those workers' boss gives them a good deal," a woman selling fruit down the block explained to me.

Less than eight percent of Chinese migrant workers are satisfied with their lives, according to a 2007 study conducted by Shanghai's Fudan University. The survey, which polled 30,000 workers in major cities, found that 68 percent feel shunned by wealthy urbanites. More than 80 percent of workers polled reported working more than eight hours a day, 18 percent more than ten hours. And 55 percent admitted they receive fewer than two days off per month.

"Despite a decade of criticism, worker abuse continues in China" - International Herald Tribune

"I'm from the countryside," my graying friend explained. "In Henan I worked construction. My wife is back there, but I'm not going home for Spring Festival. It's too expensive. My job is ok - we get paid between 1500-2000 yuan (US$215-285) a month. In the countryside that's a great salary, but in Beijing it's not so great."

"The city folks treat us dagong pretty good," he said. "Some say we're less cultured because we're from the countryside, and I guess they're right. But we're building Beijing. That's what matters more than our suzhe ('civilization' or 'quality')."

Some migrant workers in Beijing have expressed fears that they will be forced to return home later this year. In 2006, behind closed doors, officials with Beijing's 2008 Environmental Construction Headquarters floated a plan to 'repatriate' unregistered workers for the duration of the Olympic Games.

When questioned publicly by local media, city leaders insisted that repatriation had been suggested but would not be implemented.

"No plan to remove migrant workers during Olympics" - Xinhua

But the BBC has reported that Chinese migrant workers must declare their political affiliation when applying for urban residency permits - a recent policy change which some international human rights groups have speculated reflects Beijing’s determination to keep the Games poverty and protest free.

Last month, the Guardian newspaper accused Liu Qi, Beijing's Olympic chief, of preparing to launch a 'social cleansing operation' prior to the Games. According to the Guardian and other media, migrant panhandlers, prostitutes and peddlers will be forced into holding centers this summer and then sent home.

"The problems of vagrants, beggars and unlicensed businesses must be solved before the Olympics," Liu Qi said, as quoted by the Beijing News.

"Beijing to evict 'undesirables' before Games" - Guardian

(Note: The Chinese government's media organ, Xinhua, ran a story praising the incorporation of migrants into legislative bodies late last year. According to the report, 28 of the 770 newly-selected deputies to the People's Congress of Beijing Municipality are 'workers,' compared to just 10 five years ago. There are now 13 'farmer' representatives as well. Migrant workers were elected in Beijing for the first time ever this year.)

"I started coming to Beijing three years ago," a middle-aged woman selling sweet potatoes on the street told me. "I drive a mianbao che (loaf of bread van) here from my village every few days. The trip back can take more than three hours."

"I live in Hebei province, in the countryside, in a village you won't find on the map," she said. "I'd like to keep coming during the Olympics, but I probably won't. The government may keep us out. In fact, I'm very afraid of the chengguan ('city guards' - responsible for low-level crime like unlicensed vending). I'm lucky I haven't been given trouble by them. They're in the right, of course - illegal stores like mine shouldn't exist. That's what the law says. But life is hard and I've had no choice."

"Because I always do business here and am very polite, so the people who live around here don't call the chengguan."

Twenty years ago, young adults peopled China's rural-to-urban migration. But yesterday's migrants have become today's city-dwellers and are raising children. Statistics released by the Beijing Municipal Education Commission (BMEC) show that roughly 400,000 school-age migrant children live in Beijing.


Until ten years ago, children from families without Beijing hukou permits were barred from attending public school. In 1998, China's central government granted migrant kids access to urban education.

However, many municipalities responded by boosting enrollment fees. Hundreds of ill-funded, shoestring schools - generally staffed by migrant adults - grew out of the slums ringing Beijing.

For nearly a decade, uncertainties legal and financial have hamstrung migrant education in China's capital city. Political opinion here seems to swing back and forth; migrant school shutdowns have more than once followed close on the heels of beneficent reforms.

"Some of our students have spent most of their lives here in Beijing," said Zhou, a Haowan teacher since 1999 who took over as principal in 2004. "Others have just arrived. We must account for a wide range of educational backgrounds. It's hard."

"To our advantage, we're flexible. We can add students throughout the semester, if necessary. But compared to Beijing's public schools, our classrooms are in poor condition."

In fact, Haowan's students are lucky. Of the 300 or so migrant schools currently operating in Beijing, roughly 250 are unregistered and illegal. But BMEC has licensed Haowan. According to Xinhua, only 58 migrant schools had received government authorization as of last year.

"Obtaining government authorization has kept our school from being shut down," Principal Zhou said. "Many schools aren't licensed because they aren't up to standard."

Reportedly, 63 percent of migrant children in Beijing attend public schools. About 26 percent attend unregistered schools. Only 5 percent attend registered private schools like Haowan. At least 6 percent receive no education at all.

"Migrant children are allowed to attend public schools, but there isn't enough room for all of them," said Zhou. "There's a quota and the quota is fairly low."

According to the Human Rights Watch, migrants are supposed to produce five separate certificates - a temporary residence permit, work permit, proof of residence, certificate from place of origin and household registration booklet - when enrolling their children in Beijing schools. Just 10 percent of Chinese migrant families possess all five documents, the U.S.-based organization has reported.

In 2006, Beijing embarked on an anti-migrant school initiative, citing safety concerns and poor teaching. More than 100 unregistered schools were slated for closure. At the time, city education officials promised that migrant children affected by the initiative would be absorbed into Beijing's public school system. They weren't. In all, about 50 schools were closed.

Afterwards, officials promised to give migrant schools a leg up. Haowan has begun to receive some government funding. Roughly 1,200 students attend the school.

"Things are much better now than when I started in 1999," said Zhou. "The government is paying more attention to our school. From buying coal, to fixing our electric circuits, to financing our 2005 remodel - the government has become increasingly involved. We've also upgraded our classroom facilities with help from the education committee."

As a licensed school, Haowan enjoys a number of important advantages. It's sponsor, a wealthy businessman, may freely solicit philanthropic donations. Haowan boasts 50 computers and a basketball hoop - amenities that, for most migrant schools, remain well out of reach.

"We have three ping-pong tables," Zhou said, smiling. "When class ends, all the boys rush outside and snatch them up. Our students really like to play."


Best of all, Haowan - founded in 1994 - has escaped the perpetual insecurity which defines migrant education in Beijing. Before it was licensed, Haowan closed down, moved and re-opened 14 times.

"We had to leave our last location because it was falling apart," said Zhou. "We were running the school out of an old industrial building."

It's unclear whether Haowan's legitimization means Beijing is headed for widespread educational reform. At any rate, the school has become valuable to local politicians - a shining example of their generosity. On Children's Day in 2004, Chinese Premier Wen Jiaobao visited with students from Haowan.

A photo of 'grandpa Wen' swarmed by students hangs in the school's chilly main office - where 30 teachers eat lunch, grade papers, and prepare. I asked one teacher whether she been able to speak with the great man.

"Nope," she replied. "I've been here for less than a year."

In March 2007, Wen pledged that his government would eliminate tuition fees for rural students. China's leaders have poured US$35.9 billion into rural education for 2006-2010; unable to provide for migrant children, Beijing would prefer to see them stay home.

"My kids went to school in Henan for free," said my friend the construction worker. "For free!"

"I moved to Beijing from Anhui province in 1998," a gentle cake vendor and father-of-two told me. "I don’t make much money. My sons went to school there."

Between 10 and 20 percent of Zhou's students go on to attend Beijing public middle schools. Most return to their hometowns, with or without their parents, after sixth grade.

If 'red tape' keeps some migrant workers from enrolling their children in Beijing schools, cost forms the greater barrier. Although the schools do not charge tuition - for city kids, a basic nine-year education is compulsory - parents are asked to help pay for books, transportation and meals. Some Beijing moms and dads pay more than US$5,000 per year.

A Haowan education is far less expensive. Zhou's teachers earn less than 1000 yuan (US$115) a month.

"We pay our teachers," Zhou said. "We pay our students' books and board. We pay other expenditures."

The school does charge tuition. In fact, many Haowan families are doing okay. In Beijing, they're the minority.

"She's 20 years old," an amiable mother told me, jabbing her thumb at the young woman cooking cabbage inside their magazine shop. "She went to high school in Henan, and then joined me and her dad in Beijing. We all work together from 7am-9pm. Except for clothes and food, the money we make goes to her brother. He's in college."

"Both of our sons live in the country," a phone-card stand owner from Hebei province said. "They don't go to school in Beijing. They'd get a better education here - their teachers aren't too cultured. But we can't afford it."

"Migrant kids in Beijing have to pay enrollment fees. Putting our boys through six grades here would cost us 12,000 yuan (US$1,750). We don't make much money. They'd love to live here. They miss us. But it's impossible. My parents take care of them."

I asked how long he and his wife had been in the city.

"Five years."

Did they live nearby?


Smiling, he glanced over his shoulder - at a slim, messy mattress laid down in the stand.

What about Beijing's migrant schools?

"They're all in the suburbs," he said.

Haowan is hemmed in by poverty - buried behind a garbage-strewn neighborhood 45 minutes by car from downtown Beijing. Yongcun* looks and feels like a village, exactly what it was ten years ago. It's dusty and windy. In Yongcun, greasy mutts lap bathwater out of rank, open sewers.

"Most of my neighbors are migrant workers, but I've lived here for 70 years," a friendly old woman told me. "Since our village has been incorporated, we've had nowhere to farm. My grandsons are 22 and 21. They don't have jobs, or culture, or education. They live upstairs."

To keep food on the table, she bundles scrap cardboard and sticks. There's a large field across the street. Lined with newly planted trees, it's off-limits for farming - part of Beijing's Olympic 'green belt.'

The world's fastest, most daring cyclists will congregate near Yongcun this year. Beijing's Laoshan Velodrome, Mountain Bike Course and BMX Field will each host Olympic events within walking distance of Haowan.

Yongcun's matriarch doesn't much care. "The Olympics haven't changed anything here," she said.

Zhou has adopted a different attitude.

"Our students have studied the ancient and modern Olympic Games," she said. "We've also held sports competitions to better understand Beijing 2008. As Chinese people - as Chinese elementary students, they should make some contribution."

I requested that 65 fourth-graders (one class) write, in English (see photos below), what they'd most like to do in 2008. Almost every student hoped to attend the Games. But will they?

"Probably not," Zhou said. "All they can do is study hard and share what they've learned with their parents - some of whom work in Beijing's service industry."

There's Olympic education, and there's Olympic Education. Zhou's school doesn't sparkle like Huajiadian. And yet...

Excited for August's Games? I asked three Haowan sixth-graders - migrants from Henan and Hebei.

"Of course," one of them replied. "We love basketball and soccer. The air has improved. It's China's first Olympics. We're so proud of Beijing."

(Note: *Names have been changed.)


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