Growing social unease in China over right to a good education

March 27, 2013

By NOZOMU HAYASHI/ Correspondent

BEIJING--Like parents everywhere, Chinese want only the best for their children when it comes to education. But that is easier said than done, especially if the parents have humble origins.

The country's system of residential registers clearly works against people from the countryside who now live in big cities. A growing sense of its discriminatory nature is fast developing into a serious social issue.

The system of residential registers is a holdover from the era of a planned rather than market economy and was originally used as the basis for rationing of food and other daily necessities.

The economic reform and open-door policies implemented since the 1970s created tens of millions of migrant workers across China. But strict conditions remain in place when it comes to obtaining a much sought-after residential register in an urban area.

Even if a child is born and raised in a major metropolitan area, the application will come to naught if the parents are originally from the countryside and had been unable to switch their registration to an urban address. In such cases, and there are many, the child is forced to attend high school in the rural area that the parents used to call home.

On Feb. 28, dozens of citizens gathered in front of the Beijing education commission to vent their anger and frustration over the discriminatory nature of the register system.

"Are you saying those without a Beijing register are second-class citizens?" screamed He Qingrong, 40, whose oldest son is in his third year of senior high school. He is originally from a farming village in Sichuan province.

The 100 or so parents who gathered were all originally from rural areas. Even though their children were born and raised in Beijing, they are obliged to attend senior high schools in rural towns to seek entry to universities.

That puts them at a clear disadvantage because China's capital is home to many renowned universities.

Just like their counterparts in Japan, South Korea and elsewhere, parents in China generally want the best education possible for their offspring. It is not uncommon for parents to devote half their income to fees for preparatory or cram schools so their children can eventually enter a prominent university.

Youngsters armed with a university degree, as well as the personal connections that result, are considered to have a valuable form of "insurance" that will bode well for the individual as well as the entire family. It's a passport to a good life.

For that reason, education policy has always been the focus of keen attention, especially as the system keeps changing.

Initially, with the exception of Shanghai, a uniform entrance exam was used for universities throughout China. However, in 2002, the central government revised the system, citing significant differences in the educational environment and academic standards from region to region.

There was a gradual shift to allowing the provinces and major municipalities to hold their own entrance exams. For example, Shandong province holds its own university entrance exam and students who achieve good results are assured--depending on their ranking--of winning a place at a university somewhere in China.

Moreover, students are required to take the entrance exam in the region where they are registered as residents.

Of the elementary, junior and senior high school students in Beijing, about 400,000 do not hold Beijing residential registers. In elementary school, about 40 percent of the pupils are registered in a domicile other than Beijing.

Almost all of those children have to leave their parents' home in Beijing and return to the areas where the family is officially registered to attend junior and senior high school.

Only civil servants and people in certain professions are able to obtain urban registers, even if they are originally from rural areas.

A 41-year-old woman who does editing work for a government-affiliated publishing company and is originally from Shanxi province said, "While Beijing uses us as labor, they keep our children outside of its gate."

Her oldest daughter is in the first year of senior high school. While the girl was still in elementary school, she finished second in a Beijing music competition. During an interview to gain entry to a famous junior high school, she revealed that she did not have a Beijing residential register. That meant her daughter couldn't get in.

It was obvious the teachers at the school did not want to allow someone from outside of Beijing to attend their school.

"The discrimination arising from the residential registers casts a dark shadow over the personality of our children," the woman said.

It will likely prove immensely difficult to come up with reforms that win widespread acceptance because parents with a Beijing register do not want to see their benefits taken away.

Last October, a group of 20 or so parents gathered at the Beijing education commission to press for the entrance exam system to be maintained.

One of them argued, "If there continues to be a flood of children to the capital who do not have Beijing registers, they will monopolize the educational resources of Beijing."

Parents with Beijing registers have a special advantage that they are loathe to give up.

Beijing universities have established quotas for the various provinces and major municipalities, and set aside a preferential number for Beijing residents.

For example, in 2012, Peking University had an enrollment cap of 1,300 for its key faculties, with the exception of the medical school and for those who enter on the basis of recommendations.

Of that number, 246 places, or about 20 percent, were set aside for exam-takers with a Beijing residential register. The remaining slots were allocated to the other 30 provinces and major municipalities. That meant that Henan province, which had about 10 times the number of exam-takers as Beijing, was allotted only 80 places in Peking University.

Tsinghua University, the alma mater of President Xi Jinping, and other leading institutions such as Fudan University in Shanghai and Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, operate similar entrance systems.

Under China's economic reform and open-door policies, major metropolitan areas attracted a huge flood of workers from rural areas to build up the economy. Of Beijing's 20 million or so population, about 7.42 million are originally from rural areas.

Despite increased social mobility as a result of the mass exodus from rural to urban areas, the residential register system still works against people with humble origins.

The Xi administration has made urbanization a key policy area.

China's rapid modernization has not been achieved without major problems; for example, choking air pollution. The government is now seeking to make regional cities the main engines for economic growth in the future.

A key to achieving that goal will be reform of the residential register system. Because social services, such as education and health insurance, are linked to the registers, residents with rural registers are unable to receive the same level of services as those with urban registers.

The government could face a severe backlash if it decides to move more rural people into urban areas while maintaining different levels in social services.

Li Keqiang, who became premier on March 15, said at an internal party meeting late last year that the government would push reform of the residential register system so that the public could enjoy the benefits of that change.

Even so, the road ahead is unlikely to be a smooth one because of the emotional confrontation that already exists between those from rural and urban areas. Another factor is the wide disparity in wages between those who work in cities and those who don't.

Zhang Qianfan, a professor at the law faculty of Peking University, says reform of the register system remains a pressing issue.

"Under the economic reform and open-door policies, college students have become able to choose where they want to work after graduation," Zhang said. "That has lessened the significance of ratios for college entrance based on place of origin. The problem is that because universities receive various benefits from local governments, they continue to maintain the ratios that provide preferential treatment to local students."

As a result, he said: "Those with registers in major urban areas become the vested interest sector of the population and they consider the flood of rural residents to be a form of pressure. Because the register system hinders equality of opportunity, it has to be revised."

Zhang cautioned that the process will not be easy "because resistance will likely be put up by urban residents who are the current beneficiaries of the system."

By NOZOMU HAYASHI/ Correspondent
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Parents protesting outside the Beijing education commission over the discriminatory nature of the residential register system (Nozomu Hayashi)

Parents protesting outside the Beijing education commission over the discriminatory nature of the residential register system (Nozomu Hayashi)

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  • Parents protesting outside the Beijing education commission over the discriminatory nature of the residential register system (Nozomu Hayashi)

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