A Chinese Sarafina

Think domestic identity cards went the way of Apartheid? Think again. The Chinese hukou system is alive and well. Every Chinese man, woman, and child is identified by their place of origin, a locale passed from mother to child, and classified as “urban” or “agricultural.” And it’s very hard to change your stars—even children who’ve never even visited their “home” town are classified by their mother’s hukou. So what does this have to do with education? Many rural Chinese are moving to urban centers, but their hukou basically denies them access to many of the urban services provided in those centers, including education. Migrant children are forced to attend and pay for private schools (often run by other migrants), while their urban hukou holding neighbors attend free state schools. Universities operate on hukou quotas, with huge numbers of spots held for Beijing and Shanghai residents. Migrant students often have to travel halfway across the country back to their “home” village to take annual tests, a prohibitive measure for the less well-off. All of this denies an affordable education to an entire class of children, while also crushing their university aspirations or any chance at social mobility, just because of a piece of paper. As if China wasn’t doing enough to oppress its citizens.

Invisible and heavy shackles,” The Economist, May 6, 2010

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