China's Explosive Illegal (Im)migration Problem

08/18/2010 03:02 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The United States isn't alone in its current debates and worries about illegal immigration -- and in China today, another form of "illegal immigration" is fast becoming one of most important issues confronting the Chinese government. This debate centers on the status of the country's 200 million migrant workers, Chinese citizens who move illegally from the countryside to the cities, looking for work. They live in violation of the official household registration (hukou) system, while the low-cost labor they provide fuels China's economic miracle.

The major difference, of course, between these migrants and the immigrants at the center of recent American controversies is that migrant workers are Chinese citizens. But you wouldn't know it from the way they are treated. Migrant workers in China, while rarely sent home, have been marginalized for years. They are excluded from full access to social services like education for their children and live unstable, risky lives, which sometimes verge on wholesale oppression. Recent reports from Beijing described the revival of a "sealed management" policy targeted at reducing crime from migrant neighborhoods, "effectively putting migrants on nighttime lockdown."

"Sealed management" is a chillingly concrete example of the frequent negative treatment of China's migrant workers, which includes "sealing" off equal access to education and upward mobility and "managing" the migrant population without addressing the most essential issues they face. But forces in Chinese society are also pushing for positive reforms. As with illegal immigrants in the United States, migrants are gaining rights in some areas even as they are losing out in others.

The education of migrant workers' children offers a particularly resonant example of these contradictions. Many migrant families bring their children with them to the cities, hoping that they, too, will benefit from greater opportunities. But once they arrive, they have been facing a morass of problematic options. According to law last revised in 2002, China guarantees "compulsory education" (yiwu jiaoyu) to all citizens for nine years. But the government has devolved most implementation authority to local and regional administration. Public schools in Beijing have often had the authority to accept migrant children at their discretion, which almost always seems to mean exclusion. And when public schools have been willing to admit migrant children, they often charge fees that are too high for the low-income families to afford.

As a result, a civil society alternative emerged in the early 1990s: low-cost private schools targeted at migrant children (minban xuexiao). Average tuition for a semester at these schools is 300 RMB, or about $45. They are certainly affordable, but often fail to meet minimum educational and safety standards. And, like the migrants themselves, these schools often have no official status: activists fighting for migrant rights told me that of the approximately 300 migrant schools in Beijing, only 60 are registered.

Of course, "separate, unequal, but cheap" is a paltry doctrine that fails to justify the current system. In visiting migrant communities and talking with many migrant workers, I found frustration and discontent to be nearly universal. "Our children have no way to receive an equal education," one father told me. "To get your children the rights they're supposed to have, you need money, time, and good connections. What migrant worker has all that?"

Two schools of reformist thinking predominate: raise the standards of migrant schools, or eliminate the financial burden of public schools. To its credit, Beijing seems to be opting for the latter. Prominent rights activist Xu Zhiyong told me that he has been helping migrant parents to petition the city government with their grievances. In response, this year Beijing announced a reform that commits the city to removing public schools' barriers to entry. "This new reform will finally deal with the high cost for migrant children to attend public schools in Beijing," Xu said. "As a result, more and more migrant children will switch to public schools, and the migrant schools will begin to disappear."

But the problem of discrimination will not go away. One Beijing parent I spoke with, expressing a common viewpoint, complained loudly about the possibility of his only child going to school with the children of migrant workers, whom he thought would "definitely lower the quality of the classroom." He said, "These children will take the teacher's time and disrupt the classroom." Zhang Xuemei of the Children's Legal Aid and Research Center confirms that such prejudices are widespread. "Migrant children in public schools often feel poorly treated and unequal," she said. As a result, she expressed doubts that even this year's reforms will be the transformative change that Xu is working towards.

China is continuing to debate how to address the education of migrant workers' children, and the outcome remains unclear. What seems certain is that a "sealed management" approach, even as metaphor, will not do. China's urban centers need workers from the countryside to sustain China's economic growth. Providing greater educational opportunity for their children is just one aspect of broader challenges now facing Chinese society: dealing with growing socioeconomic inequality, improving the legal system, and assuring sustainable prosperity and social stability into the future. As the United States faces our own renewed debates over equality and inclusion, we would do well to recognize that the stakes for us are similarly large.