How a six-year-old girl from Shandong can save Shanghai

12 September 2013

Shanghai women produce, on average, just 0.7 children in their lifetime. This is not only the lowest fertility rate in China; it is probably the lowest rate in the world, and far below the 2.3 children needed for a sustainable population.

This reluctance to reproduce is creating numerous social and economic problems in Shanghai, including not having nearly enough local children to fill the city’s schools. The municipal government has responded over the last few years by allowing more migrant children into its public school system, but even here, where there is a desperate need to fill classrooms, there is still resistance among locals to the idea of letting migrants mix with their children.

Diao Qianwen, a six-year-old migrant from Shandong who lives with her grandparents in a Shanghai vegetable market, was initially denied a place at a local primary school because her parents were absent and her grandparents could not prove they were her legal guardians. Moreover, since her grandparents had no way of contributing to the city’s social insurance fund, even if they could prove guardianship, Qianwen would still not be eligible for a place in the city’s school system.

It was only after a sympathetic journalist broadcast Qianwen’s story on national television that the school authorities finally relented and allowed her in. And even then, Shanghai residents took to the social networks to complain about migrants using up precious resources that should be reserved for Shanghai residents alone.

The bigoted opinions voiced against migrant workers and their families are of course long-standing and widespread but it is at least encouraging that local government officials can be flexible and bend the rules on behalf of the disadvantaged when necessary.

Of course, it would be nice to think that the Shanghai officials admitted Qianwen because they had big hearts and were touched by her plight. It is more likely however that they were embarrassed by the television broadcast and realised it was actually in their interests to bring her into the school system.

The next step, in nine years’ time, will be to allow Qianwen to stay in Shanghai to study for the university entrance exam rather than send her back to her “home town,” which is the current practice.

There will undoubtedly be fierce resistance once again from Shanghai residents to the idea of giving outsiders the same opportunities in tertiary education as their own children but perhaps by then local government officials will begin to see that opening up the city’s elite universities to the best and brightest is a smart move and one that is beneficial for the city as a whole.

The story of Qianwen emphasizes once again that any meaningful reform of China’s household registration (户籍) system will come not from grand pronouncements in Beijing but from the bottom up, one child at a time. As more and more cities realise that it is in their interest to integrate the migrant population, they will, just like Shanghai, begin to implement measures to realise that goal.

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