05/01/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Evolving Laws but Stagnant Realities for Shanghai's Migrants

Not surprisingly, the existence of the 200,000 or so children of migrant workers living in Shanghai is far from easy. But the lives of children whose parents could not take them to the cities is oftentimes even more heart wrenching. The story of one girl in particular shows the struggle migrants face as they try to balance the demands of family, education, and their livelihoods.

Xiao Li, as we'll call her, is from Anhui, one of the poorest provinces in all of China that is just a few hundred kilometers from prosperous Shanghai. Her parents work in Shanghai to support the family back in Anhui. But Xiao Li rarely sees her parents as Xiao Li lives with her grandparents in order to attend school. Because of household registration policies, children are only entitled to attend classes in the location where they are legally registered to live. Thus Xiao Li must attend classes in Anhui even though her parents have lived and worked in Shanghai her entire life.

Living with grandparents provinces away was a recipe for disaster. Although Xiao Li emerged from primary school relatively unscathed, as she matured and attended middle school, the relationship with her grandparents disintegrated completely. At wits end, her traditional and austere grandparents beat her when she misbehaved, much to the fury of her mother in Shanghai. However, her mother was miles away and there was nothing for her to do if she wanted her daughter to continue to receive an education.

But thanks to a recent policy shift in Shanghai, Li's mother gained another option -- enrolling Xiao Li in public school here. The Shanghai's public schools just last year began permitting and subsidizing the education of the children of migrant workers who can document their legal status. However, like so many other issues in China, the rules on the books and the real situation are oftentimes two completely different things. When Xiao Li's mother approached a local school to register her daughter, the principal stated that they were full (even subsequent research on my part revealed this not to be the case). Other schools nearby said the same thing. When she sought out the educational bureau's assistance, they simply pushed her case further and further into bureaucratic morass.

By the time Li's mother eventually did find a school, it was already one month into the semester and her daughter, were she to enroll, was already too far behind. Also, because her daughter was in 8th grade, she could only take one semester of classes before her legally allowable 9 years of education would run out (9th grade is usually spent in the home provinces preparing for the high school entrance exams). Thus, after this struggle, Xiao Li's mother had succeeded yet failed. While her daughter could attend school, it would be far away from her mother's apartment, in a school that she would likely fall behind in, and one that she could only attend for one semester. Thus, although she technically could take advantage of the newly reformed law allowing migrants to enter the schools, in actuality, the circumstances of her life made taking advantage of the opportunity impossible. Today, Xiao Li remains in Anhui with her grandparents.

While obviously the laws regarding education in Shanghai have become more progressive, the attitudes and the processes involved with education in the city remain parochial and territorial (a topic itself worth another essay). Thus, while the laws have certainly changed for the better, in actuality, so many obstacles remain for migrants in the cities that even these well-intentioned reforms cannot meaningfully affect change. Xiao Li's case is a sure sign that changing the laws can only do so much. Changing attitudes as well as policy implementation are both vital should any of these reforms be effective. To be sure, these changes are to be applauded, but if they are not supplemented with deeper, more genuine shifts in Shanghai, the impetus driving change in Shanghai will likely stall and be lost, sinking the hope of any improvement for China's migrants.