The contradictions of the hukou system, designed for a 1950s planned economy, become more painful with every year of China’s development. About 140 million rural migrants are now working in the cities, where average incomes are more than three times than those of the countryside. Migrants have fuelled the country’s spectacular growth but not reaped the benefits. And once they become parents, they face an unpalatable choice.
Fifty-eight million children are left behind in the countryside by parents who hope that relatives will raise them lovingly. Another 19 million remain in the cities – where they are, in effect, second-class citizens. Both groups have poorer academic performance and more behavioural problems than their peers.
At present, Hu’s eight-year-old twins, Xiaonan and Xiaobei, are studying in the family’s cramped one-room apartment, under the guidance of their mother, who left school at 16.
“You need connections to get your kids in [to state school] if you are from other places, and making those connections costs too much money,” says Hu. “We can’t afford it.”
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