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June 28, 2017

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We need an education: China's migrant children

BEIJING--Fidgeting with his placard, six-year-old Fang Mingxing made an unlikely protester. But he was on the front line of a demonstration in China's capital, shouting: "I want to go to school."

He should be starting classes in Beijing this autumn, but has been denied a place along with thousands of other migrants' children, with some parents daring to confront Communist authorities through repeated protests outside government offices.

"I really like Stephen Hawking, but China has no one like him," said one parent, referring to the British theoretical physicist. "That's why I want my child to go to school."

Many of the demonstrators have built up businesses over 10 years or more, but now find themselves on the wrong end of China's latest development plan.

Migrants flowing from the poverty-stricken countryside to the cities have been the engine of China's decades-long economic boom, and now number 245 million according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

Once they move, though, the country's household registration, or "hukou," system denies them equal access to health, education and housing benefits.

With discontent festering, the ruling party has pledged to give migrants more equal rights.

But it has also vowed to limit the expansion of China's largest cities, in the face of chronic pollution and traffic gridlock.

Now migrants to Beijing — population 21 million — are increasingly finding their children barred from school, even if they have lived there for decades.

Parents and academics say the new restrictions are aimed at driving migrants out of the capital, as part of the national plan to divert urbanization into smaller cities.

"The government is not allowing our children to go to school," said Fang's mother Liu Xiaolan, 42. "They say, 'There are not enough resources here — you should go home.'"

But many insist the capital has become their home and they cannot leave.

"We have slaved our guts out in Beijing for 10 years. There's no way for us to return to the countryside," said Liu.

Medicine salesman Hou Tianwu added: "If we return home with our kids, we have to give up our careers."

'Strictly controlled'

Chinese law guarantees nine years of free, compulsory education for all citizens, and in recent years the largest cities have let migrants send their children to local schools even without a hukou, provided they produced as many as five supporting documents.

But for the coming academic year several Beijing districts are insisting both parents prove they live and work in the area before allocating a place — effectively barring commuters from educating their offspring.

Some authorities are demanding proof of social security payments — which may not be made by the employment agencies that many migrants work through — or even house ownership.

In some instances, parents say officials have bluntly told them that whatever documents they provide, their children will not be allowed to start school.

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