A member of the security personnel stands on duty on an empty train platform inside a station on the Subway Line Number 1 in Beijing, China. Jason Lee/Reuters

As Beijing aims to cap population growth, it must contend with its outlying villages that are home to migrant workers who provide the city’s cheap labor.

On a typical weekday, Sun Ning walks to work, arriving at around 7:30 a.m. Sun is a zhuren—a teacher and an administrator akin to a vice-principal—at Nanqijia Village Experimental School, a private K-nine school for the children of migrant workers in a northern district of China’s capital city, Beijing. Sun, from rural Henan province about 400 miles to the south of Beijing, has been with the school from its start in 2005.

Nanqijia School is named for the urban village where it is situated. Like many other villages on the outskirts of the city, Nanqijia Village was once an outlying settlement. It was absorbed as Beijing expanded. On the periphery of the city and with unglamorous suburban origins, these urban villages are often home to large populations of migrants. Beijing has plans to rezone parts of some urban villages in order to take the land for a subway expansion, and raze others in an effort to encourage occupants to move elsewhere, lessening the strain on the city’s infrastructure. Thus, the future of the village and school is uncertain.

Sun has been with the school from its start in 2005. During the past few decades, China has experienced massive rural-to-urban migration, freeing many from destitute countryside poverty. But this rapid urbanization also left: deserted countryside villages where only the elderly remain, 228 million unhappy migrant workers in cities, 34.3 million migrant children who have accompanied their parents to urban centers, and the splintered families of 68.8 million “left-behind” children, who have stayed in rural areas with relatives or by themselves while their parents work elsewhere.

Over the course of this mass internal migration, China has played catch-up with its household registration system, hukou, which divides citizens between “urban” and “rural” residencies. While the hukou system has been evolving, change has been slow, and in most urban settings it works restrictively. For example, those who do not hold a hukou for their specific city of residence lack full access to public services like healthcare and education.

Children without a Beijing hukou need at least five “proofs” to attend a public primary school, including proof of guardians’ employment in Beijing, proof of actual residency in Beijing, household registration permit, tax slips, and others. Many migrant families cannot fulfill these five proofs—which is where for-profit migrant schools like Nanqijia come in. These private schools provide an alternative for struggling families. (The Chinese name for these schools translates to the descriptive, “schools for the children of laborers.”)

Migrant schools are of varying quality, and the majority only offer elementary school services; Nanqijia is unusual in that it offers middle-school grade levels, although enrollment in upper grades is  low. As migrant children aren’t allowed to take the high school entrance examination in cities where they don’t hold hukou, most will have to return to their home province to do so, as well as to attend high school there. Because of this, many parents would prefer to have their children prepare at a middle school in that province so that the curriculum will better match the exam they will take there.

Mr. and Mrs. Liu, grandparents of a fourth-grader at Nanqijia, are from Shaanxi in China’s northwest. Mrs. Liu said that, in her experience, migrant schools in Beijing offer a wider range of study, but that the schools back in their province offer deeper studies. This difference only compounds how migrant children, some of them born in the cities where their parents migrated to work, often struggle to adapt to the countryside when they have to move back.

While NGOs, both domestic and foreign, have long played a significant role in providing aid for migrant schools, the support NGOs can offer is still limited when it comes to daily needs and functions. The educators are the backbone of these schools, even though many of them are not well-educated themselves. Because of contractual instability and low pay, many migrant schools have difficulty finding and keeping teachers. Sun said their school has no trouble attracting students because it is reputable and has been around for so long. But the school struggles each year to find enough qualified teachers, and the difficulty of living in Beijing without a hukou means that just like many migrants, the teachers may have to leave the city and return to their home provinces.

“Beijing is very unique,” said Yingquan Song, an associate professor of education and economics at Peking University, who studies education for rural and migrant children in China. Compared to other fast-growing Chinese cities like Guangzhou or Shanghai, Beijing, as the capital, often has more stringent limitations. “The importance of having a hukou is really stressed here,” said Song.

Song pointed out that this isn’t new; there have been a number of turning points in policies directly affecting the status of migrants and their children. Migrant schools became non-licensable in 2006 as the city began to prioritize working towards a population cap. Tight population controls have shrunk the city in recent years. Now with approximately 21.5 million people, it aims for a cap of 23 million by 2020, citing the dangers that high density brings, including fire safety issues and high pollution levels. In 2018, Beijing turned its attention to 100 villages on its outskirts, rezoning and razing villages in an effort to encourage their occupants to move elsewhere, to work on fire safety in them, and combat overall population density.

A bus stop in Nanqijia Village. The villagers expect tremendous changes when the scheduled expansion of the Beijing subway system comes to Nanqijia. (Lavinia Liang/CityLab)

Nanqijia Village is one of the villages scheduled to be disrupted by a planned northern expansion of the Beijing subway system. The hope is that providing easy transit access to the city will encourage migrants to settle outside the capital area but still provide it with cheap labor. To date there has been neither a final decision nor a public timeline for the project, but the school is waiting, in limbo. Land usage in China is separated broadly into “privately”owned farmland and publicly owned land. Nanqijia is currently the former, but if rezoned, then taking apart the school at the heart of the village would only be a matter of when and how fast.

The staff and parents of Nanqijia School have already made their emotional preparations; they estimate that they have a solid two or three years. Liang, a fourth grade English teacher, says that the good thing about it is that they are all frank with each other about the school’s eventual shutdown, and discuss the matter openly in staff meetings. They only hope that the shuttering will be as smooth and painless as possible.

In late May, as the school year began to wind to a close, Nanqijia School prepared for their annual Children’s Day dance competition. In one of the school’s donated lending libraries, Sun took a break from the heat and sipped from his thermos of jasmine tea. In July, the school year will be over, and administrators will do an inventory of their returning teachers and students, all while some of their older students prepare for the big move back to the provinces to attend high school.

“At the end of every school year, I go to the public schools and collect the things they don’t want anymore,” said Sun. He patted two long gray desks with handy storage cabinets below. “I moved these here myself,” he said proudly. “It’s amazing how much stuff they don’t want that we can still use.”

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