Academic journal article China Perspectives

Living in the City: The Identity Strategies of Schoolchildren in an Urban Setting Confronted by the Stigma of Being "Children of Nongmingong"

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Living in the City: The Identity Strategies of Schoolchildren in an Urban Setting Confronted by the Stigma of Being "Children of Nongmingong"

Article excerpt

The scholarly legitimisation of the "question of the education of children of rural migrant workers living in an urban setting" in China and the prospects for "integration"

The household registration system in China known as hukou,(1) originally set up in the 1950s to control migratory flows from rural areas to the cities, is still used today for regulating the urban settlement of such migrants. Those with a rural hukou who have moved to the city do not enjoy the same social and political rights as city people in terms of housing, medical insurance, retrenchment benefits, and education for their children. This makes these "internal immigrants"(2) "marginalised"(3) and an "urban underclass." (4) Hence they remain peasants in terms of their hukou status, even though they might have lived and worked in the city for several decades. These "nongmingong1 (rural migrant workers), as they are called in public policy documents, the media, and everyday language,(5) are not only a cheap pool of labour, but also an image of the Other in urban society and a quite distinct element in the representation of the Chinese people, one that is "different from 'peasants' and 'urbanites'" alike.(6) Indeed, they bear an identity that is commonly assumed to be passed on to the second and third generations. Their children, having migrated to the city, are the subject of a specific education policy, categorisation, and segmentation in specially designed city schools that they are required to attend.(7)

The political measures dealing with the education of children from a rural migrant background have thus given rise to the emergence of a new institutionalised category - "children of nongmingong' - in the terminology on education and migration found in policy papers in China. This new category has also sparked the interest of Chinese academic circles that are trying to account for the phenomenon. If media exposure of the problem of educating the children of nongmingongin the cities brought the issue to light in the 1990s without being able to gauge its scope nationally or attract the attention of the political authorities, the year 2001 marked a turning-point in research on the subject. One sign of this was the proliferation of quantitative sociological studies aimed especially at accounting for the situation of private schools set up to receive this group of children in the city.(8)

This schooling of children of nongmingong has become a subject of multidisciplinary study today. Some Chinese researchers in sociology and education approach it through the notion of "integration" (rongru IÍA) in order to analyse how these students relate to urban society. This research perspective is tinged, however, with a normative outlook, and in my view, the analyses constitute value judgements couched as objective statements.(9) They also tend to shift the question of education in the sense of "schooling" (jiuxue ?!¥) to one of education in the sense of "upbringing" (jiaoyuffiM) within the family and thereby open up the possibility of imputing the problem to migrant workers and their children by explaining the flaws in the system not by the public policies put in place but by the deficiencies of the migrant families and the supposed cultural differences between the latter and city people. These researchers often begin with an observation about the learning difficulties of children and try to locate their causes in their family upbringing. The analyses are formulated in terms of a deficiency, and the whole milieu of the migrant workers is put under the spotlight and judgement is passed: "low Quality"(10) (suzhidi3|®ffi),(11) a backward conception of education said to be "freewheeling" (fangyang M # ) or "closed,"(12) an attitude that values boys and looks down on girls (zhongnan qingnü!"S£),(13) etc. Other research, undertaken by actors directly involved in the education sector, namely teachers, tries to propose remedies to shortcomings in family upbringing. …

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