Crowds outside China's ministry of education. Photo posted on Chinese social networking site Weibo.
In China, one’s hukou, or permanent residence status, can be perceived as either a birthright, or an insurmountable obstacle. It dictates everything from where you can live to what kind of social services you have access to. In a country whose economy is in part built on the shoulders of its more than 200 million migrant workers, many in the capital Beijing are fed up with the system they say stands in the way of their children’s education.
China’s present hukou system was officially established in 1958 as a means to control migration within the country. It requires that every person register a permanent household with the state, thereby creating a sort of internal citizenship structure. While one enjoys full “citizenship” rights wherever their hukou is registered, these rights can be limited or made all together obsolete in the event that one moves, say, for work. Even if a child is born elsewhere, their hukou is dependent on their parents’status, which can be nearly impossible to change.
Outrage over the system became apparent in Beijing last week after hundreds of migrant workers gathered outside China’s ministry of education on Thursday to demand equal education for their children. Millions of migrant workers and their families have lived there for generations. Despite this, their children often run into trouble in secondary school as they prepare to take their university entrance exams, or gaokao. Because they don’t have a Beijing hukou, they are ineligible to take their exams in the city. “Foreign” students are instead required to return to their “hometown”, which can sometimes be as far as thousands of kilometres away and often have lower university acceptance rates. For some, even the idea of undertaking such a trip is unthinkable due to cost alone.
A crowd gathers outside China's ministry of education to demand equal education rights for children of migrant workers. Photo posted on Weibo.
A crowd gathers outside China's ministry of education to demand equal education rights for children of migrant workers. Photo posted on Weibo.
Critics of China’s hukou system say this is merely one more example of how it discriminates against the country’s migrant population, treating them as second class citizens. In September 2011, local authorities in Beijing shut down at least 20 schools for children of migrant workers, stranding around 14,000 children without an education.

“It’s a problem that has taken over my life”

Mr. Liu, 50, is a migrant worker in Beijing, where he lives with his family.
I have worked in Beijing about seven years, but my hometown is in Inner Mongolia, so my hukou is registered there. Even though I have secured a loan to purchase a home in Beijing and have a stable job with a good income, I cannot get hukou here. I think that even if I struggled my entire life to get a hukou in Beijing, it would never happen. I have a 15 year-old daughter. She is currently enrolled in an elementary school in Beijing, but she will soon have to go to secondary school and begin preparing for her university entrance exams. However, she is not eligible to take the exam in Beijing because we don’t have the proper hukou.
It’s a problem that has taken over my life. If we send her back to our hometown alone, we won’t be able to take care of her. Not only that, but the testing system is different there from in Beijing. I also think it will be very difficult for her to adapt to her new school environment. Yet her future is inextricably bound to this single exam. So, the other option is that we all go back together, which means I lose my job in Beijing.

I was among the group of parents that went to petition the ministry of education last Thursday. There were police vehicles in the streets, and officers guarding the building. It was the 21st time that parents have presented Education Minister Yuan Guiren with a signed petition demanding that Beijing residents without a hukou have the right to take the exam in the city. We nominated five representatives to go into the office with our letter. The result was very disappointing. They told us that the ministry would look into the problem, but they didn’t give us a time frame as to when we could expect an official response. When we brought the problem to Yuan nearly one year ago, he promised to find a solution then, but we’re still waiting to hear anything.

Crowds outside China's ministry of education. Photo posted on Weibo.

There’s an online forum called ‘I want gaokao’. It’s a place for parents to share their stories. We also have a number of volunteers. Thursday’s gathering was my second trip to the ministry of education. In the future, we are planning to petition the ministry on a monthly basis, and I will go yet again if I can find the time. I hope that society cares enough about equal education rights to support us. However, the reality of the situation is cruel. My daughter is so young.  I don't want to talk about the hukou with her. She doesn’t deserve to be burdened with such problems”.