How Urbanizing the Population Deepened China’s Rural-Urban Divide in Migrant Schooling

As China urbanizes, its system of household registration, hukou, continues to exacerbate social, economic and educational inequalities for rural migrant workers and their children.

Book Review of The Urbanization of People: The Politics of Development, Labor Markets, and Schooling in the Chinese City (Columbia 2022) by Eli Friedman

In the late 1950s, China introduced a system of household registration, or hukou, as a means to regulate population movement, with citizens assigned an official place of residence that is passed down from generation to generation, regardless of a person’s actual place of birth. As it is difficult to change hukou, and especially difficult for rural residents to obtain an urban hukou, the system exacerbates the uneven distribution of resources among urban and rural areas.

Rural hukou holders who take up jobs in cities, known as migrant workers, face numerous administrative hurdles to life in the city, and remain outside of official systems. An urban hukou is required to gain access to basic necessities in the city such as healthcare, pension funds and education, severely limiting opportunities for migrant workers and their families.

The Urbanization of People, Eli Friedman’s second work following on his study of state responses to labour unrest in China, is a sociological study centred on the experience of migrant worker families in Beijing. It navigates the public and private education system in light of state-created barriers to accessing stable employment, adequate housing, and other markers of “high-quality labour” that is desired in China’s cities.

In China, the migrant school exists outside the state’s public education system, mirroring how other public resources are withheld from migrant workers. What makes this notable from discriminatory practices and social conditions in other regions is that this system is wholly and openly by state design, systematically creating a division among and within the predominantly Han population.

Friedman’s numerous interviews with migrant worker parents of various backgrounds and means levels, and with migrant school teachers and administrators, reveal the difficult realities that generations of migrant workers face as a result of state-designed discrimination in access to public resources.

The book is expertly researched, and rich with both data and personal interviews. It will be of interest to a range of readers beyond the academic sphere and including those interested in development, the economy, and social studies in China and the region.


Public Education Denied for Migrant Children


Friedman’s research focuses on migrant education, and the obstacles migrant workers face in enrolling their children in public schools, revealing an “inverted welfare state” in which public resources are diverted away from those who need them most. Friedman sees the school as the “institution of social reproduction par excellence.” He refers to social reproduction in two regards: in Marxist terms, in which the social structures are reproduced across generations; and in terms of “class reproduction,” in which social domination of particular groups are maintained over time.

One pathway to public education is through obtaining an urban hukou. Chinese cities operate a points system based on a migrant worker’s educational attainment, payment into local insurance funds, and home ownership – all of which require a high level of economic and social capital. Without an urban hukou, migrant workers’ children can attend public schools in Beijing only if they can provide the “five permits,” 1 which includes a labour contract and proof of local housing, both of which are difficult for migrant workers to obtain due to many being employed in the informal economy and living in informal apartments.

When public education is not available to children of migrant families, parents resort to sending their children to unlicensed migrant schools. Such migrant schools usually lack resources and their teachers are severely underpaid and burdened with an extra level of emotional labour. Where migrant schools are also not an option, such as after the primary level, some families face the difficult decision of moving the family or sending children alone back to their place of hukou for schooling, which is damaging to upward student trajectory.

Friedman interviewed a parent named Dong Huanli, who said, “[I]f you go home, you don’t know what you’re going to do, and there’s no work. Then you have to gradually look for something to do… My daughter doesn’t want to leave [Beijing]… she says, ‘I want to be wherever you are.’ But we have to have her in school!”

Friedman describes the “just-in-time” approach in managing China’s largest cities’ populations according to their labour needs. This “just-in-time” concept means that governments control the amount and quality of labour inflows into the city in a dynamic and temporal manner.

Friedman focuses the book on Beijing, which saw closure and demolition of a number of migrant schools in just the last five years. These migrant schools rely predominantly on tuition fees to operate. They are severely under-resourced and lack essential programming. The buildings are in a dilapidated state, and the quality of teaching falls far short of that in public schools. Overworked and underpaid teachers lead to high turnover and further undermine the quality of teaching.

Friedman interviewed Teacher Zhang, who highlighted the challenges even when giving homework to migrant children: “If we give students a bit of homework, some parents cannot help them at all… the entire responsibility is put on the school and the bodies of teachers. I think that teachers like us are much more exhausted than public school teachers…”


Contradiction of Urban Population Management


At the same time as migrant workers are excluded from urban resources, cities are seeking solutions to fundamental population changes in recent years. This reveals a contradiction.

The Beijing government, for example, aims to ensure that those who settle in the city can contribute to the “optimization of the urban population,” which Friedman points out includes addressing the problem of an aging population in the city and its impact on the social welfare system, which could run out by 2035. Indeed, cities require more labour to sustain the welfare of local residents, but migrant workers are generally employed in precarious forms of work and do not contribute to social insurance funds.

To help ease the demographic crisis, China recently revised its family planning policy to allow married couples to have up to three children. But from the perspective of migrant workers, the lack of quality education available to their children means migrant children will face difficulties in upward social mobility and are unlikely to secure more formalized employment in which they would contribute to social security and have more children.

The current policies, which will affect future generations, are an impediment to China’s aspirations toward a consumption-led model of growth. China has been seeking to shift from an export economy to a consumption-based model, but, as Friedman describes, the state has been enacting “brutal and life-denying acts” against migrant workers, putting them in a life of perpetual precarity. Boosting domestic consumption cannot come before improving the livelihoods of the almost 300 million migrant workers, and, of course, reducing the rural-urban inequality in the country.

Still, China continues to be a relatively cheap labour force as part of its growth model, as seen by stagnant minimum wages amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Restrictions to migrant workers’ access to public services increase their costs of living in cities, and migrant workers and their children will continue to be caught in this vicious cycle.


Where is Hukou Heading?


Friedman’s analysis of the issues migrant workers face through the lens of education is timely, as it offers insights into and raises questions about recent government reforms and what can be expected in the future in terms of the country’s attempts at urbanizing its population and responding to the deepening levels of inequality.

Further, the implications of maintaining the hukou system domestically may have impacts on the region, as China wishes to enhance its economic growth and regional power. China can be expected to continue to tightly control its domestic population for labour purposes, exporting its workers to Chinese-owned development projects in the region and limiting its importation of regional labour.

However, maintaining the current system will continue to increase inequality, and proposals for hukou reform, if enacted, will face uneven implementation. At the same time, the gatekeeping of urban residency and public resources runs counter to the central government’s recent rhetoric of “common prosperity,” which aims to address the wealth gap and rising levels of inequality in the country.

Xi Jinping himself has asked businesses and entrepreneurs to help respond to the issue, and has launched crackdowns on businesses in the technology, education and entertainment sectors, before pivoting to a national focus on “stability” instead.

Under international human rights law, hukou is an unacceptable system of descent-based discrimination that the state has a responsibility to eliminate, particularly as it was created and is perpetuated by state design. Hukou is the crux of what has exacerbated inequality over decades in China, and Friedman points out that the central government recognizes the inequalities in its society and has a “desire to address the migrant question and advance the urbanization of people.”

Friedman’s book allows his readers to question how sustainable the hukou system is against rising inequality and the implications for social instability. But the “urban growth dilemma” is such a complicated issue from both a national policy and local implementation standpoint that Friedman does not advocate for abolishing hukou or propose other concrete solutions to the issues surrounding migrant workers, education, and access to public resources.

To solve these deeply-rooted problems, the entire narrative about high- and low-quality labour and populations needs an overhaul to break the cycle of disconnect between high level policies and local interests. And that must start with dignity and respect for all citizens and all types of labour.

  1. The “five permits” were instituted in 2004: 1. A labor contract; 2. Proof of local housing; 3. A temporary residence permit; 4. Proof of hukou for all family members; 5. Proof that children have no guardians in their place of hukou.

Elaine Lu is a labour activist and writer. Her interests include labour rights and civil society in China and Southeast Asia. Her writing has been published in New Politics, Labor Notes and ChinaFile.

Caitlin E. Schultz is an editor at China Labour Bulletin in Hong Kong and has a variety of experience in the public interest space in China. She is a U.S.-trained lawyer with an LL.M. in international legal studies from New York University School of Law. Her writing has been published in Hong Kong Free Press and ChinaFile.