China Development Brief, No.55 (Fall 2012)
The author, who goes by the pseudonym, Zhong Shiwu, discusses how one migrant school was able to survive a rash of school closings in Beijing by going public rather than engage in behind-the-scenes negotiations. This summer saw yet another series of migrant school closures, affecting four schools and thousands of students.
Ultimately, the Tongxin Experimental School (同心实验学校) was the only one to remain open and continue enrolling new students. Of the three school closures, the most unfortunate was probably that of Chaoyang District’s Jinghua Hope Primary School supported by the New Citizen Program (新公民计划支持的朝阳区第一新公民学校 (京华希望小学)),. The closure of this school is most regrettable and an injustice. [Editor’s Note: The New Citizen Program is supported by the Narada Foundation, one of China’s best-known foundations know for its support of grassroots NGOs.]
Two months have passed, and I have been fortunate (and also unfortunate) enough to have had the opportunity to observe this debacle from the beginning. , Now that things having calmed down, I can look back on the events and ask why the fate of these two schools was so different. I have always had a very strong intuition: perhaps the different fates of Tongxin and Jinghua were the product of different circumstances and choices.
On June 19, Tongxin, along with the other three schools that were later closed, all received a closure notice from the Chaoyang Jinzhan Village Education and Health Section for “not complying with safety and hygiene requirements, and also for not obtaining the proper qualifications for running a school.” At the same time, the notice also required each school’s principal to sign a document, promising to stop classes and relocate their students before July 16.
Tongxin’s principal, Shen Jinhua (沈金花)，resolved not to sign her name from the very beginning. She understood that if the public saw the news afterwards and demanded an explanation from the government, the government would then have justification to close the schools. However, Jinghua reportedly signed the letter of commitment, knowing the school was to be shut down. Even after repeated contacts with the government, they still saw no improvement in the situation. These talks appeared to be a delaying tactic, but upon closer inspection seemed to be more like a last ditch effort to prevent the inevitable.
In fact, as early as May 30th of this year, Jinghua had already received a verbal notice from the village government regarding the closure. At that time, other than the principal and several others, none of the students or faculty were aware of the situation, and the details had not been disclosed to the public. Shortly before that, the school came up with more than 400,000 yuan to improve campus safety and hygiene, and was prepared to welcome the government’s assistance in undertaking these improvements.
Then Secretary General Liu Zhouhong from the Narada Foundation (南都公益基金会), Jinghua’s largest sponsor, paid a visit to the village government and the district Education Commission departments concerned with the management of private schools, but both the village and district refused to accept responsibility. Ironically, the agency that originally introduced the new “third path to address the education of migrant children” – the Chaoyang District Education Commission (朝阳区教委)- was the very same one that issued the order to close the schools.
Compared with Jinghua, Tongxin received their closure notice relatively late, and soon after had an unfortunate experience with the relevant government departments who tried to pass the buck. However, Tongxin did not stop there (clearly they understood lobbying the government was not enough), and used the internet to mobilize parents and get the media involved. To a certain degree, this strategy allowed the outside world to follow the issue of migrant children’s education. The issue gradually got more attention, to the point that the lowest levels of government did not dare make any rash decisions.
During that time, Tongxin planned for the worst case scenario, but fought constantly for the best possible result The measures taken included distributing information to the public via mail and Weibo, and recording protest songs, After the village committee rescinded the rental contact, the school invited public figures from the outside to participate in the school’s summer camp and music activities. Finally, they planned to get the parents of their students to sign a petition.
In the process of fighting for Tongxin, the school’s annual summer camp continued to run during the summer vacation, unaffected by unfolding events. Outside observers were inspired by the commitment shown by the school’s teachers who managed, under difficult circumstances, to put the children’s education and future first and foremost.
There were many factors that allowed Tongxin to persevere; crucial among these factors was the participation of Cui Yongyuan (崔永元), Wen Tiejun (温铁军), Li Changping (李昌平) and other scholars and experts who sent appeals to the Minister of Education to keep Tongxin open. [Editor’s Note: Cui Yongyuan is a popular talk show host. Wen Tiejun is dean of the School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development at Renmin University and intellectual leader of the New Rural Reconstruction movement. Li Changping is a well-known advocate for the rights of farmers.]
Even though the village committee had already hired bulldozers, cut off the water supply to the school, and had the doors to the school boarded up, Tongxin exercised restraint and continued an active dialogue with the relevant government departments. This was in part possible because of the attention from the surrounding community. By the next day, the water supply on campus was restored to normal. Reportedly, some volunteers at the school were employees at the State Grid Corporation (国家电网公司) which promised to keep the electricity going, giving Tongxin much-needed support.
The concessions Tongxin won in this short period of time have something to do with the experience and knowledge that they have accumulated over the past few years in dealing with an uncertain environment. They understand the enormous wisdom and rallying strength of the public, and that every step has to be well thought-out; with gradual progress, the school will fight for its right to stay open. The school’s founder Sun Heng (孙恒)does not expect that a school can achieve such results, but he also believes this kind of investment and persistence will always have a positive return. However, whether other NGO’s will adopt this particular strategy as a guide will depend on each organization’s specific circumstances. The route Tongxin took cannot be adopted by all NGOs in their own situations.
As for the New Citizen School’s Jinghua Hope, for a brief period of time it did have the qualifications to legally keep the school open, maintained good relations with the government, and had the confidence of a large number of corporate donors. They also had their own philosophy, and wanted to go through the proper legal channels to realize their goal of being able to manage the school. They had seen too many schools demolished, and many schools allowing parents and children to take the lead in protests. They did not approve of these methods much, want to protect the children and guard against unpredictable parents. Perhaps these notions were mixed with the fantasy that the government could really help them maintain their legal status.
Jinghua had already quietly started to relocate its students before the official announcement of closure was made. On July 16th, over 800 students were relocated. That day, the district Education Commission and the village government came together to maintain order, calling in the help of two police cars and an ambulance.
To date, the schools are without any other options for reinstatement other than through the proper legal channels. On the afternoon of Sunday July 22nd, the Narada Foundation made public the progress of its communication with the government and an appeal in order to make some headway. Until then could the public knew why Jinghua had previously confronted the school closure by choosing to go through official government channels instead of going public with their troubles like Tongxin. Unfortunately, this was the wrong move, and disaster could not be avoided.
Despite the way things have turned out, I believe you cannot make a simple comparison between Jinghua and the schools that were saved. Such a comparison might possibly miss out on factors unique to each school (available resources and limiting conditions) which would not make for a fair comparison. But there is one fact which cannot be ignored: these migrant schools are able to survive, grow, and be active on their own. Why then can we not unite behind common educational goals? Would not this [kind of coordinated action] increase the number of allies paying attention to these issues, so as to preserve our schools and push for legitimate accreditation methods for private schools?
Now that the new semester has begun and this summer’s disturbances have temporarily come to an end, this struggle for educational rights is still underway, and these two migrant schools have embarked on two very different paths. Tongxin is still working hard to obtain legal status and avoid closure for the time being but unable to make any guarantees for the future. Jinghua continues to follow up on their 854 students now relocated to other schools so that they could be aware of the impact this relocation has had on the families. Additionally, in order to protect the school’s public assets, they want to continue operating according to the relevant legal statutes. After the 18th Party Congress [held in November of 2012], they plan to bring a lawsuit against the Chaoyang District Education Commission and other related departments, seeking to use legal channels to keep Jinghua open.
According to a Beijing Evening News ( 北京晚报) report on July 4th, Chaoyang District plans to close all migrant schools without proper accreditation by 2014. Children who attend these schools will be moved to district-approved institutions. Clearly, Tongxin’s survival is merely the starting point of realizing academic equality. Can it influence more people in society to participate in this issue and change the injustices inherent in the educational system? Educational practitioners will need to apply more of their wisdom and influence to cope with the problem.