More Rights, but Less Space?--A Chinese Conundrum

08/12/2010 01:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

China's failure to provide adequate education for the marginalized children of migrant workers in urban centers is widely recognized as a major civil rights problem. These children have been largely excluded from their legal entitlement to "compulsory education" as a result of China's outdated household registration (hukou) system. So migrant families have had to turn to cheap private schools known as minban xuexiao, meaning "schools run by the people."

But what's little noticed is that that this terrible inequity also has a silver lining: the situation has provided a remarkable opportunity for the emergence of civil society in China. So efforts to bring reform to the education of migrant children are creating an unrecognized paradox.

Migrant schools have many obvious problems: they are underfunded, offer lower quality education than state-run municipal public schools, and, as evaluations by the Beijing-based Children's Legal Aid and Research Center have shown, often fail to meet basic safety standards. But they have flourished in cities like Beijing, where an estimated 300 such schools exist.

A report by Professor Han Jialing of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences described the emergence of these schools as revealing that "the educational system has no way to keep up with the transformation of China's social structure and the accompanying consequences." Importantly, these schools exist outside of the government's purview: fewer than 60 of the schools in Beijing even have official registration.

As a result, some scholars have argued that these schools are a symbol of limitations on government control, over both education and private interests in the country more generally. Migrant schools have become a growing emblem of China's emerging civil society -- and civil society is, as Robert D. Putnam and others have asserted, a critical component in liberalization and democratization.

But 2010 has witnessed the development of an ironic rights paradox. The educational inequality and injustice that migrant children face have prompted leading activists and liberal reformers to target this issue -- and they have had surprising success. Beijing recently announced a new policy that will facilitate the enrollment of migrant children in municipal schools, which Xu Zhiyong, perhaps the most prominent activist working on this issue, has predicted will mean the demise of the migrant schools. Taking this success on its own would seem to suggest a major step forward in the Chinese government's willingness to respond to the needs of its people by honoring their rights. But it may in fact signal an aggressive push against a uniquely robust component of China's nascent civil society.

With the new policy, the government succeeds in satisfying angry migrant families and placating activists with a seeming victory. But in the larger quest to promote civil rights in China, the new reform's ulterior consequence -- subsuming an active element of Chinese civil society -- cannot be ignored.

As the migrant schools disappear, taking along with them the central organizing mechanism for migrant worker communities, this potential source of systemic reform in China will also weaken. Migrant children will, at last, have better educational opportunities if the reforms are implemented well -- a separate matter, of course -- which would no doubt be an important achievement. But this short-term educational assimilation may challenge the long-term emergence of a vibrant, dynamic civil society in China.