Yi Banyao is no stranger to life outside the system. Yi and his wife, Li Shumei, have operated a private elementary school on the outskirts of Beijing since 1994. Yi’s school was operating illegally until 2003, when he obtained a license from the city. But while Yi’s school is now legitimate in the eyes of the state, some of his students still are not.
The school serves the children of migrant workers, Chinese citizens from provinces outside of Beijing who come to the city in search of low-income jobs and a chance to start new lives for themselves and their families. Since migrant workers, and by extension, their children, do not hold a Beijing hukou, or household registration certificate, they are unable to take advantage of the city’s public services. These include access to social services such as healthcare and public education. While some of Yi’s students may simply hold a hukou for a location other than Beijing, others possess no registration whatsoever. These children are known in Chinese as hei haizi, or black children, because they lack any official status or standing in the society. And although Yi aims to service this population, students at schools like his are not included in official school records. When these students finish elementary school, there’s no proof that they actually attended classes at all.
“They go back to their home village and see if they can enroll in a public school there,” Yi said. ”Sometimes they sit in on classes, or audit. But if you don’t have a hukou, there’s no way to attend public school.”
In December 2015, the Chinese government announced a reform of the hukou system that promises to grant the country’s 13 million unregistered citizens legal household registration status. While that seems like a large number, it’s worth noting that this amounts to about 1 percent of the total population of China. This was followed by an official statement made available online in January 2016, outlining the central government’s desire to “further improve the household registration policy and eliminate any pre-existing conditions that previously disqualified individuals from obtaining registration; strengthen the management of household registration.”
According to Yao Lu, professor of sociology at Columbia University, these reforms are not aimed at helping migrants living in large, first-tier cities like Beijing.
“We can only guess what the goal is. But I feel like it’s basically to redirect urbanization, to relieve the pressure on first-tier cities and redirect migrant flows to second and third tier cities where they need development, they need labor, and can actually absorb a significant number of migrants,” Lu said.
So as for Yi and his students in Beijing, these policy changes are unlikely to have much of an impact. But Lu thinks these policy changes will motivate schools in smaller second and third-tier cities to take in students like those who attend Yi’s school. She says many urban schools in these areas are actually under-enrolled.
When it comes to helping unregistered citizens obtain hukou, Liang Zhongtang, a retired member of the National Family Planning Commission, thinks this policy change is only a small step in the right direction.
“I can’t say that it won’t help at all, it will probably help some,” Liang said. “After all, it’s now possible to obtain a hukou without paying a fine first. In short, there will be some who are able to truly achieve equity. That’s a step forward. But it won’t solve the fundamental problems.”
Liang thinks the national government should be making an effort to register citizens and make the hukou system stronger; however, he also feels there is more work to be done. The government must also address issues related to implementation of the new policies. Rules and regulations are complicated to begin with, and often vary by region. While citizens might be interested in taking advantage of the opportunity, the government must also work to ensure new policies are accessible.
Kristen Looney, professor of Asian Studies and Government at Georgetown University, agrees. According to Looney, the migrant population does not trust the government, in large part because past policy reforms have not done anything to help them.
“I would say it’s an uphill battle, because migrant workers will avoid the government at all costs,” she said.
For example, the national government rolled out a set of reforms in August 2014 that gave local officials more freedom to decide who is granted a hukou and why. This batch of reforms favored skilled workers and well-educated individuals who held a college degree or studied abroad. The goal was to “strictly control the population” in megacities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong.
This article was originally published at The World Room on Medium.