Yang Yinli, like millions of migrant workers in China, sent her first son to live with his grandparents in the countryside. It was a choice she would bitterly regret.
No one was watching the lively six-year-old when he was struck and killed by a truck roaring through the steep village roads. Heartbroken, Ms Yang bore a second son and vowed to raise him in Beijing, stuffing a crib into her tiny shop and keeping a close eye as the toddler played on the pavements.
But new regulations announced this year may force her to send her son, now five, away to be educated. The regulations, which in effect prevent migrant children from entering the first year at Beijing schools, triggered weeks of protests this spring by crowds of anguished parents.
The battle faced by migrants for a basic education in Beijing and other major urban centres shows how China is struggling to accommodate the millions flowing to its cities despite a national policy of stimulating urbanisation. “His father could move with him but then what about me? I would still be far from the child,” Ms Yang says, her voice cracking.
About 40 per cent of the primary schoolchildren in Beijing lack a city hukou , the official household residency permit that grants access to social services, including education, healthcare and the right to buy homes. Nonetheless, in recent years they have been permitted to attend primary school in the city, a concession that has allowed many migrant couples to keep young children by their side. This school year alone, 470,800 non-Beijing hukou — or migrant — students attended primary and middle school in Beijing.
A relic of the famines during early Communist rule, the hukou system was introduced in the 1950s to keep the peasantry out of cities where food was more plentiful. It has gradually been relaxed as a flood of workers moved out of rural villages to the factories in cities along the prosperous coast but migrants still remain second-class citizens in many of the cities where they have settled.
Official statistics show that 55 per cent of Chinese, or 749m people, now live in cities, up from 19 per cent in 1980 at the dawn of market reforms, although the real number is probably higher — and still rising. A government think-tank has estimated it would cost about $100bn per year to integrate another 400m people into the cities over the coming decade.
Reforms that allow migrants to establish residency in provincial cities have been accompanied by tighter restrictions for some, mostly hitting those who have moved to the biggest cities, or those who often change jobs and residences.
“If we were a market economy, the problem of population would sort itself out and resources would flow more evenly. But China is not a fully market economy and a lot of resources are still concentrated in the hands of certain cities,” says Hu Xingdou, an economist who studies migrant issues at the Beijing Institute of Technology. “Under these circumstances we can never have the free movement of people.”
北京理工大学(Beijing Institute of Technology)研究外来务工人员问题的经济学家胡星斗表示：“如果我们实行的是市场经济，人口问题会自动解决，资源会更平均地流动。然而，中国并 不是完全的市场经济，大量资源仍集中在一些特定城市。在这种情况下，我们永远都不会实现人的自由迁徙。”
Recent policies — such as the rules on education — seek to push migrants out of the most attractive and high-wage places into provincial cities where there is a glut of new housing. Those policies, a reversal of several decades of population flow into the biggest cities, force migrant parents once again to face the choice of confiding young children to the care of elderly and uneducated grandparents or to enrol them in distant boarding schools.