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China's Beijing Migrants

Photographer: Rolex dela Peña


China’s household registration system, called ‘hukou’, is meant to give citizens access to public services and is based on birthplace and family roots. However, it poses a problem for Chinese migrants who leave their provincial hometowns in search of jobs and a better quality of life in cities, as they can only live in these places as temporary residents.


The circumstances of migrants living in Beijing differ, but some face the same problems in terms of having limited access to public services, social benefits and education. Due to the hukou system, young children from migrant families have limited access to public schools supervised by the government and have to enroll in schools like Qiang Jian Wen Wu.


The Qiang Jian Wen Wu School is a facility for children of low-income migrant workers in the Shijingshan district in western Beijing. The school teaches children from six to eleven years and has been operating since 2011, partly through reasonable fees paid by parents. As the school’s financial resources are limited, its facilities and teaching materials are sub-standard.


Near the school are small rooms home to migrant families, who settle for renting low-cost dwellings in order to save money. Some rooms are so small that personal belongings can only be placed outside in the alley.


One of the migrants is Sun Chang Jie, a cargo transport company worker, who hails from Hebei province. He now lives with his jobless wife Li Ting in a 13-square-meter room. Their two children were left in the care of grandparents.


Cheng Xi Mei, whose family is from Henan province, watches over her grandson while his parents work. Without a hukou, she is ineligible for full healthcare benefits and social insurance within Beijing.


Zhang Wen Xia is a migrant who has worked in Beijing for 17 years, living with her family in a comfortable home in Tongzhou district. She and her husband have well-paying jobs, but she is concerned about her young sons who do not have a hukou, and will in time have limited or no access to government-funded high schools. As for her father, mother-in-law and father-in-law, they do not have access to full healthcare and social insurance benefits due to a lack of a hukou.


News reports have come out about plans by the Chinese government to reform the hukou system and allow permanent residency status for migrant workers, with guidelines reportedly based on employment status, living conditions, length of residency and social security payments. It remains uncertain if all of China’s 270 million migrant workers will be eligible for permanent residency and appropriate social benefits once the reforms are put in motion.