Urban Nomads in Beijing

By Shalan Billault-Lee, Leah Pagan, and Atim Kilama

The Hukou System and The Migrant Worker

by Shalan Billault-Lee

T o better understand the lives of migrant workers and their kids, we first needed to understand how China’s hukou system, the household registration system, works. We interviewed Chen Liang, a teacher from the Chinese Society Academy of Science Research Institute who helped us understand how the system work.

The hukou system was established in the early 1950’s by Mao Zedong. It classified and designated people as rural and urban citizens based on their birth place and prevented them from leaving their designated area. Liang explained that the government wanted to keep farmers in the countryside and factory workers in factories to increase production rates and lift the country out of poverty.

While China has indeed developed its economy and managed to lift thousands out of poverty, the hukou system has caused different areas to develop at different rates; the cities have multiplied in size and become international business centers while rural China has barely changed since the 1950’s. The hukou system has prevented social mobility and created “the migrant worker.”

Migrant workers consist of rural citizens with rural hukous who leave their hometown and head to cities to find jobs. They work as janitors, nannies, caretakers, construction workers, delivery men or factory workers. These jobs are too dirty and tiresome for city dwellers, and they pay very little. Rural citizens are however forced to take these jobs as the countryside doesn’t offer them any opportunities. The hukou system ensures that citizens are only entitled to the public services of their hukou location. Migrants who come to Beijing are therefore not entitled to the same rights as citizens with Beijing hukous. For example, as Liang explained, migrant workers cannot receive subsistence allowances, aren’t able to participate in Beijing’s car lottery, can only rent apartments and are often denied public education. As the city’s lowest social class, migrant workers are also the first to be pushed out of the city by the government. For example, the government recently been trying to decrease Beijing’s huge population by targeting migrants. It recently started shutting down migrant schools and businesses in hopes that the migrants will leave the city. As a result of governmental discrimination, migrants are always on the move; they have become urban nomads.

Newspaper stand outside of ErFuZhong belonging to a migrant worker from Hunan.

Why then does China use the hukou system? As a matter of fact, Liang believes that the hukou system will be abolished in the near future. The government has already started to relax the system and make some reforms to it. For example, migrants can now receive a Juzhuzheng in Beijing, a Temporary Residency card that allows them to receive the same rights as urban citizens. In order to be eligible for it, migrants must have a job, stable housing and have lived in Beijing for over six months. Certain cities like Fujian have started to allow migrants to transfer their rural hukous to Fujian hukous without any restrictions. It is our hope that China will soon allow its citizens the freedom of movement and grant all citizens equal rights. Only then, will China’s socioeconomic gap finally close.

What Moving to Cities Means for Migrant Children

by Leah Pagan

A t the young age of 13, 77-year old Mary moved to Beijing to build a better life for herself. She is one of many migrants in the early 1950’s who went to cities in search for new opportunity. Luckily for Mary, she got what she was looking for.

Mary showed us a photo of her in high school.

“Before I moved to Beijing, my family was very poor. My father wanted me work in a factory, but I told him I wanted to study. One day we went to a hukou office. I gave them a paper with my information it. I told them all about me. Afterward they let me go to Beijing 27 Middle School. I went there for six years.”

Mary went on to become an airplane engineer, and lived a comfortable life. But in recent years, the tides have turned, and other migrants have not been so fortunate.

During the past decade, mass migration from China’s vast countryside to it’s bustling cities for work has some sixty million children living without one or both parents. That is one in five children nationwide. Many migrants have felt pressured to bring their children along with them on their journey to a better life. However, in their new cities, migrant children aren’t sharing the same journey as their parents, especially when it comes to education.

In Beijing, most migrant children cannot attend a typical public school because of the hukou system- the residency permit system. Obtaining a Beijing hukou as a migrant is incredibly challenging, so most migrants do not come in to Beijing with a Beijing hukou. We spoke with Ms. Liang, a researcher who looked into the lives of migrants in Beijing. She admitted that without a Beijing hukou, migrant children are at a great disadvantage.

“Priority for enrollment into neighborhood elementary schools is given to kids who have Beijing hukous. If a school’s capacity is reached, kids without Beijng hukous are not admitted, and they have to travel to schools farther away from home.”

Because of priority enrollment, parents of migrant children are usually forced to send their children to private schools, where the tuition is often expensive, and the quality of education is poor. To make matters worse, the government has been closing most of these schools, which has further minimized educational opportunities for migrant children in cities like Beijing.

Another reason parents hesitate to bring children from the countryside into the city is because of the lack of important academic opportunities. Younger kids are usually not allowed to take the Zhongkao, the high school entrance exam. If they manage to go on to high school, they are also not allowed to take the Gaokao, or the college entrance exam, either. They can only attend Beijing’s vocational schools.

Even though Beijing’s school policies have limited the educational opportunities given to migrant children, in recent years, there has been hope for reform. Ms. Liang pointed out signs of development in other cities, and interestingly insisted that there is no institutional discrimination against migrant children.

“The Gaokao system is very complicated, but it isn’t meant to prevent migrant workers from attending city schools. Recently some places have loosened their Gaokao regulations. Now, migrants are allowed to take the Gaokao in Fujian and Shandong.”

Many places have began to loosen strict regulations for migrants, but Beijing still has a long way to go. If there is any hope for migrant children to smoothly integrate into urban life and receive the opportunities they deserve, there must be more educational reform.

Pi Cun Village and The Tong Xin School:

by Atim Kilama

P i Cun is a small migrant village located on the outskirts of Beijing.There are about 20,000 migrant workers living in the area with their families. The children of the migrants are unable to receive a Beijing hukou meaning they can not attend the same schools as Beijing children. In 2005 the Tongxin school was founded by a non-profit organization who donated 75,000 yuan. The Tongxin school has about 600 students ages three to ten years old. The school only has 20 full-time staff members with teaching qualifications. The school employs other teachers who may not have the proper credentials. In the past Tongxin has run into issues with local officials for fire safety violations and employing unlicensed teachers.

Entrance to Pi Cun Village

Some issues that were brought upon the Tongxin school were false and it was just motive to shut down the migrant school and run out the migrant population in the area so they could return to their hometowns. This has caused some parents to withdraw their students from Tongxin and send them back to their hometowns to finish their schooling. This was because the school is unable to hire experienced teachers due to the lack of support from the government. All the funds come from the tuition the school receives from each student enrolled in the school and they try to do their best with the limited funds they have since they have no support from the government.

Even though the school has faced many problems in the past they’ve managed to recover with some successful achievements. The first achievement was stopping the government from shutting down tongxin by bringing the schools issues to the media’s attention. By doing so, they attracted many non-profit organizations to help them with funds to keep the school open. Another achievement is the school helps the parents of the students who attend Tongxin with jobs.

Some of the students’ parents at Tongxin may not have a good job or a job at all, so the school has a little women’s shop for moms, where they can make bags and sell them. While looking around the shop we decided to interview a mother whose 10-year-old daughter attends classes at Tongxin. The mother told us despite the government efforts to shut down the school, the Tongxin school education is much better than the education student would receive back in their hometowns. At Tongxin, the children can participate in sports and they usually have volunteers to come help with certain activities. Back in the countryside, the schools are in much worse conditions.

We interviewed the principle of the school to get her perspective on migrant workers and their children’s lives. The principal said that she doesn’t think the increasing amount of migrants to Beijing poses any threat to the city itself. She believes the government and media have attached negative connotations to migrant workers. The government has carried out many policies in order to drive out the migrant population in Pi Cun and many attempts to shut down the school have been made.

Despite the government’s efforts to shut down the Tongxin school, the school has made tremendous efforts to fight for the rights of migrant children’s education and keep providing the students with the education they deserve. The principle doesn’t know what the future hold rights now for the school but in any case, she is very accepting of the fact that they might have to pick up everything and start their lives somewhere else because that’s just the migrant life.

Kids from the Tong Xin School

Our Journey to Pi Cun and Tong Xin




我们研究我们的话题的时候,为了多了解外来务工人员的生活, 我们觉得应该先了解户口制度。所以,我们采访了梁老师。她在中国社会科学院做社会学研究。


外来务工人员都是有农村户口的、 来城市打工的人。他们在城市当保姆、清扫工人、工厂工人和 建筑工人等等。外来务工人员也不能享受很多有城市户口的人的权利和政策。比如说,在北京,他们只能租房子,不能摇号买车,不能享受最低生活保障。 他们的孩子想上学的时候,常常碰到困难。北京的政府最近想减少北京的人口,所以他们把一些打工子弟学校关闭了,把一些外来务工人员的店铺拆了。 政府希望他们没有学校,没有工作的话,会离开城市。












有的父母可能没有很好的工作,甚至没有工作,所以同心实验开了一个小的商店。在这个商店上同心实验学校的孩子的妈妈可以工作.在商店同心实验学校孩子的妈妈做钱包,她们用旧的衣服做钱包。这个工作让妈妈们很高兴,因为学校给她们很好的机会。我们看见的时候觉得应该问一个妈妈对学校的看法。这个妈妈有一个女儿,她十岁和他在同心实验上课。那个妈妈告诉我们,即使政府想要关同心实验,同心实验的教育也是非常好的,同心实验的教育比他们老家学校的教育好。她说“ 在同心实验他们有体育课,所以孩子们可以做很多运动” 还有同心实验的课很好。后来我们采访了同心实验的校长,她告诉我们她的看法。她觉得外来务工人员来北京的时候没有问题。很多人觉得外来务工人员是坏人,可是那个看法是错的。他觉得政府和媒体只说不好的事情,所有很多普通人觉得外来务工人员是坏人。

Support the Tong Xin Moms!

Women Workers of Tong Xin

The TongXin moms make bags and wallets out of old clothes to sell to visitors of the school to make some income. Below are a pictures of some of their products.

Purse:20 Yuan, Bag: 69 Yuan
Purse: 20 Yuan, Wallets: 15 Yuan, Fish Wallet: 29 Yuan

— — — — — — — -WeChat Shalan if you want to buy a bag! — — — — — —