If China’s boom has a group of unrecognized heroes it must surely be the 120 million or so migrant workers whose labor is the force that keeps the huge dynamo turning. Migrants do all the grunt work that no one else wants to take on, toiling in mines, constructions sites and factories, usually in unspeakable conditions and often facing severe danger. Estimates vary but even taking officials figures at their face value (a silly thing to do admittedly), there were more than 8000 workplace deaths last year in China. Labor activists say that the real figure is much higher. In mines alone, for example, some 6000 deaths have reported annually in recent years (they dropped somewhat last year) but the good people at the Hong Kong based China Labor Bulletin believe the real figure is several times that. Many of these workers endure these appalling conditions to improve their own lives. But from my experience, the desire to see their children have better lives is an even stronger drive. I recall sitting with Xie Daibing in the tiny room he called home in the windblasted, arid northern province of Shanxi. Originally from Gansu. Xie, who worked in a nearby coal mine, had invited me into the space his company had alloted him, barely big enough to hold the traditional kang, a heated stone platform that served as bed, play area, study and dining table for Xie, his wife, their two daughters and a couple of sleepy chickens.
Xie said he was waiting for his mine to reopen. It had been temporarily closed after a shaft in a mine next door to his had flooded a few weeks earlier, killing 57 men. But Xie wasn’t fazed, or at least he said he wasn’t. “I have been able to bring my family up from Gansu,” he said, pointing to the wall where a certificate had been proudly pasted testifying to the scholastic achievements of one his daughters. His girls attended a nearby private school that cost him a large chunk of his monthly wages, but Xie told me that it was much better than the schools at home and was worth every penny.
I was reminded of Xie when I read a story today about the closing by local authorities of a school for migrants in Shanghai. (link here to the South China Morning Post article). Because they have left their home towns to look for work, migrants usually don’t have the proper hukou, the household registration which in the old days specified where Chinese could live. Like everything else, the hukou system is undergoing rapid change. Without it’s huge floating population of workers, after all, the economy would seize up, and these days Chinese can travel around the country and live pretty much anywhere they want. But one element of the hukou system remains: without it children aren’t allowed to attend local state schools. That leaves parents with the choice of paying for private school like Xie–often financially out of reach–or if they are lucky, sending them to special schools set up specifically for the children of migrants, often by fellow immigrants from the same home province. These schools have a precarious existence and are often subjects of harassment by local governments. Mirgant workers after all aren’t exactly a group hefting much political clout. The case in Shanghai was typical. On the dubious grounds that the Jianying Hope School was violating safety and licensing regulations, over 100 police and officials moved in and put 2000 kids on the street, reducing many of the younger pupils to tears according to local media reports. Amazingly, it turns out the ground the school occupies has been earmarked for lucrative redevelopment. The children have been given crowded temporary quarters in a nearby school but it’s not clear whether the authorities will give them permanent quarters.
As they themselves are well aware, the authorities are playing with fire. China by its own account had some 87,000 “:mass incidents” last year. The term is vague term and encompasses everything from bar fights to protests and riots involving hundreds. But the sheer numbers are still a useful reminder of the violent strains imposed the country’s careening boom. There are plenty of other things Chinese people get angry about –lack of health care, out of control pollution, illegal land seizures and so on. But depriving children schooling even more than most is an issue apt to enrage people enough for them to stage protests. If you take away their dream of a better life for their kids after all, most migrants workers have little left to lose.