t 2pm on September 2, 2018, one day prior to the start of the new school year, security guards were patrolling each floor of Qinxi Experimental Primary School in Suzhou in East China’s Jiangsu Province. In the conference room of the century-old school, leaders from the district education authority tried to pacify parents over the division of school premises to accommodate 800 new arrivals.
Two weeks prior, Lixin Primary School, a private school mainly catering to children of migrant families – meaning people who had moved from another province for work, often low-income work – was forced to close after its lease expired. Since children in China are entitled by law to nine years of free schooling, local education authorities temporarily relocated these students to a vacant building in the campus of the nearby Qinxi school.
To separate the two schools, a steel fence was erected across the campus, dividing the less well-off students from the wealthier students of Qinxi school. Thought to be a well-meant solution to avoid interrupting the Lixin children’s education, the move was soon mired in controversy and outcry after news of the school segregation went viral.
Zhang Hainan moved to Suzhou several years ago to work in the jade business. He did not own an apartment in the city, nor did he pay into China’s social insurance fund. His two children could only attend private schools for migrant families because most public schools require both a property ownership certificate and a hukou, an all-important document in China which states where a person was born, and which entitles them to social security, education and healthcare in the area where they are from. For people moving within China, whether they are low- or high-income earners, this document dictates what benefits they can access – and what they cannot – in the place they reside.
On August 16, 2018, Zhang received a notice from the local education authority informing him that Lixin school would be relocating to the Qinxi campus, five kilometers away. His children needed to register at Qinxi school for the new semester.
Zhang did not think the notice was a big deal. But four days later, Qinxi parents started to share the notice on social media chat groups. The comments were overwhelmingly negative, as the wealthy parents that had bought expensive apartments in the Qinxi school district to secure their children a place started bitterly complaining.
Liu Gang, whose only daughter is in first grade at Qinxi, thought the notice was fake when he first saw it. According to China’s Compulsory Education Law, no organizations or individuals have the right to infringe on or disrupt a school’s campus or teaching facilities, nor can they transfer, rent out or change the use of the school campus, premises and facilities without a legal process.
“I thought it was fake. On September 19, the school organized a parents’ meeting and we weren’t told anything, so when we saw the registration desk for Lixin school [at Qinxi], we parents gotreally angry,” he told NewsChina. “No school authorities explained anything to parents beforehand – we had no right to know anything.”
Another parent told our reporter on condition of anonymity that he had called the mayor’s hotline and was told “the teaching building was not rented to Lixin because there is no Lixin anymore, and the two schools have been merged.” Some parents went so far as to put up banners to protest the new arrivals.
“Education itself is unfair. Whether the steel fence is erected or removed, it generates new inequality,” a parent from Qinxi school told the Beijing News on condition of anonymity. “On moral grounds, it is unacceptable for those students to quit school simply because of the lack of a campus. On the other side, parents of Qinxi students are morally hijacked because our children were enrolled [at Qinxi] after we bought expensive apartments in the school district.”
“For my part, I disagree with the erection of a steel fence and the move to Qinxi. It is a kind of discrimination and both parents and children will feel inferior to those from Qinxi. It will definitely affect the mental development of students from Lixin,” a parent of a student at Lixin, surnamed Jiang, told the Beijing News.
Another Lixin parent surnamed Luo argued that the new campus and classrooms are much better than the previous ones but he hoped Lixin could secure a new campus as soon as possible. “After the completion of the school term this year, I will consider sending my child back to our hometown for their schooling,” he told China News Service.
In contrast to the concerns of parents, Lixin students are quite excited and laughter is filling the classrooms. “The new classroom is much brighter and the campus has so many trees,” said a third-year student at Lixin. Another student pointed to a projector and told the China News Service, “I saw it at a good school in my hometown and right now I am happy to find that my classroom also has this ‘high-tech’ gadget.”
It turned out that the local education authorities had consulted with Lixin school before a decision was made to build the fence.
“The fence was erected to facilitate the separate management of two schools. We expected some complaints but we never expected such intense opposition,” Jiang Lijun, principal of Qinxi, told NewsChina.
Prior to this, Lixin had been relocated at least four times. The previous lease had expired only on June 30, 2017. Because the school failed to renew the land lease contract or move out, Gusu Education Investment Company (GEIC), the land owner, sued the school.
“According to the contract, Lixin was not allowed to enroll new students since 2014 because it has no playground, not enough grass and trees which is mandated for schools, and there are traffic problems as it is inside a small alley,” said Jiao Lu, head of GEIC.
When Jiao visited the school, she was astonished to discover that instead of the maximum allowed 12 classes, Lixin had been running double the number. To make matters worse, some students were being taught inside makeshift shelters. She added that the school had still enrolled students in 2015 and there were more than 60 students to each classroom. She ordered Lixin to demolish the makeshift buildings, but the school refused.
“The 1,500 students [at Lixin] are not allowed to leave the building except to use the toilet. There were no sports classes and no playground activities at all,” she said. “Before the lease expired, we decided not to rent out the premises to the school.”
Failing to secure a new place to accommodate all its students, Lixin school was given the green light by the local education authority to start the new semester in 2017. But by the end of 2017, GEIC demanded the school pay for the rent, but the school insisted it would only pay if it were offered a new lease.
The court sided with GEIC. Xu Bing, principal of Lixin, told our reporter his school did not move out because he failed to find other suitable premises. Xu said the school was established in 2001 inside a defunct camera factory in Suzhou to meet the demands of the growing number of school-age children.
In 2003, China released its Law on the Promotion of Non-public Schools, and Lixin then benefited from a string of preferential policies. In 2008, Suzhou government issued permits to over 70 private schools for migrant children, including Lixin. “We cooperated with the government every time we had to relocate, and we never asked for any preferential treatment,” Xu said.
To date, Gusu District is home to only four private schools for migrant families and each has been relocated at least once. Xu argued that apartment buildings and public schools were constructed on the former locations, adding that the most irksome problem for private schools is to find a long-term location.
Xie Fang, office director of Gusu Cultural and Education Committee, told NewsChina that after Lixin moved, a new public school would be built in their old location. She said the district is short of educational resources and the local government has set aside 50 plots to build new
schools in the next five years, but construction has only started on a few of them so far.
“It involves demolition compensation as well as the change of land use,” she said. “It is difficult to get hold of enough land to build public schools, let alone private ones. What’s more, private schools can’t really afford the hefty cost of construction.”
According to a research paper on compulsory education for children from migrant families in Suzhou, part of the Blue Book of Migrant Children (2016), drafted by the 21st Century Education Research Institute, it costs over 200 million yuan (US$29m) to build an elementary school and over 300 million yuan (US$44m) to build a secondary school. Meanwhile, it has become a challenge to provide the rapidly growing student population with qualified teachers. In 2014 alone, Gusu district received an influx of 7,000 children after their parents moved in, and at least 450 new teachers will be needed.
After the school segregation incident, local education authorities communicated with parents of Qinxi students several times. The south gate of the school has been reserved for students from Lixin and the west gate is for students of Qinxi. Students of the two schools can use the playground at different times. “The two schools have their own teaching staff, buildings and school registration systems,” Xie Fang said.
According to the Law on the Promotion of Non-public Schools, when a private school is shut down, students have to be placed in other schools. Xie said Qinxi is the closest to Lixin which has three teaching buildings and 48 classrooms at the northern building. Its southern building and the surrounding areas were cleared as temporary teaching classrooms for Lixin. When a new place is secured for Lixin, the premises will be returned to Qinxi.
For many parents of Lixin students interviewed by NewsChina, erecting the steel fence is not a serious offense. Parents of Qinxi students, however, worry that the “invasion” into campus space and teaching resources are highly likely to affect the healthy development of their children.
Xu Bing is not sure whether he can find appropriate premises to relocate to this time. Students from Lixin have only prepaid meals and part of their tuition fees and nowadays the school is virtually operating at a loss. “The government is the last hope and I trust in the government,” Xu said. At the time of going to press, the steel fence remains. The only change is the addition of many flowerpots.