Educating Migrant Children in Urban China: Social Movements, Community Mobilization, and The Politics of Schooling

Min Yu

Dr Min Yu, Wayne State University, USA

Featured Research:

Yu, M. (2015). Revisiting Gender and Class in Urban China: Undervalued Work of Migrant Teachers and Their Resistance. Diaspora, Indigenous, and Minority Education, 9(2), 124-139. DOI:

Yu, M. (2016). The Politics, Practices, and Possibilities of Migrant Children Schools in Contemporary China. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Yu, M. (2018). Rethinking Migrant Children Schools in China: Activism, Collective Identity, and Guanxi. Comparative Education Review, 62(3), 429-448. DOI:

Yu, M. & Crowley, C. B. (in press). The Discursive Politics of Education Policy in China: Educating Migrant Children. The China Quarterly.

Reflecting on the struggles taking place within schools and marginalized communities, critical scholars have applied social movement theories to analyze issues around education both locally and globally. These cultural historical analyses document the challenges and rewards of community organizing and highlight the values of collective actions that promote public good (Freire, 2000; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 2006; Anyon, 2014; Apple, 2013). These discussions have contributed to the development of particularly useful concepts which explain why and how collective actions could be mobilized and organized for educational changes in schools and communities. In addition to analyzing the resources and strategies movements utilize, this body of research identifies both barriers and opportunities that activists, stakeholder groups, and individuals have encountered as they attempt to bring about changes. Furthermore, the theoretical and empirical studies of social movements in education emphasize the diverse conditions and circumstances that led to the formation and development of these actions—that is, the various contexts from which these actions emerge, expand, negotiate, and sustain.

The attention given to the contextualization of educational social movement in different political and cultural structures is particularly important for recognizing the ways in which different communities mobilize at the grassroots level, especially the ones in non-Western societies. As Kurasawa recognizes (2007, p. 12), the pattern of social action “is located within—and thus structured by—historically transmitted and socially institutionalized forms of thought and action, discourses and relations of power, which have enabling and constraining effects upon a practice’s effectiveness and the range of possibilities within which it operates”. In my work (Yu, 2015, 2016, 2018, forthcoming), I have shown that adopting social movement framework in China one needs to recognize different meanings and functions of civil society and public sphere in this context. This analysis revealed the limited social space and uncertain conditions in which many social actors have struggled in contemporary Chinese society and examined forms and process of collective actions, or what people do, in the movement of educating migrant children.

Existing studies of migrant children education in China tend to focus on children’s experiences, giving less attention to the schools which provide education to the majority of migrant children. To date, very little research on the education of migrant children in China has focused on the experiences of people who have mobilized around building schools for migrant children. There are only a few studies examine the process in which the problems and possibilities of migrant children schools brought. However, migrant children schools have in many ways come to represent both the determination and struggles of migrant communities. The efforts to provide an alternative solution for their children’s schooling has been overlooked for decades by the state. Even though the development of these schools is still strongly impacted by government policies and regulations, the actions related to navigating different regulations in this process has opened up a space for the reconstruction of relationships between the state and society. Meanwhile, the daily life and work within migrant children schools have played a crucial role in building a sense of solidarity and the transformation of collective identity in the migrant community.

Drawing from a longitudinal qualitative study, my work focuses on the foundation of collective actions in China’s migrant communities by analyzing the mobilization of personal and social networks, as well as the gradual formation of a sense of collective identity among those involved in the movement of educating migrant children. In other words, my work concerns why and how people participate in the movement. I view this work as part of a larger effort to challenge the dominant discourse surrounding migrants in China. I engage with discussion of social movements theories regarding the roles of activists, civil society, collect identity and social networks and introduce what has traditionally been recognized as guanxi in Chinese context. Some of the questions I have focused on in my work are: In what ways do migrant children schools provide space for parents and teachers to connect and mobilize for collective action? How might the stories of emerging migrant teachers-activists provide insights into the nuances of collective identity transformation that would otherwise be overlooked?

The analysis of the daily lives of migrant parents and teachers reveals how they both struggled with, while spontaneously contested against multiple layers of inequalities. My work highlights how these inequalities are produced, not only by the political control from the state but also by the cultural practices that associated with these policies. Moreover, it demonstrates the development and transformation of collective identity by focusing on the seemly insignificant daily activities of migrant parents and teachers. These activities include sharing information, searching for potential resources, and building informal networks under the complex and uncertain social and political circumstances. The examination of their seemly invisible, small-scale, and apolitical actions indicates the challenges and possibilities of mobilizing to create social spaces that were not available for them within these marginalized communities. I argue that the stories of migrant parents, teachers, and activists who work to maintain schools for migrant children are in many ways emblematic of the process in which the collective identity of members in migrant communities has been socially and culturally transformed, which not only influence the reconfiguration of migrant children school movement but also implicate a broader movement towards educational equity.

My work also explores the complex functioning of education policies specifically affecting the education of migrant children, the schools responsible for educating them, and the migrant families who are attempting to provide their children with a formalized education. The interplay between notions of constraint and agency is key to policy analyses that recognize the discursive functioning of education policies. With the intention of building upon ongoing discussions surrounding both the conceptions and purposes of policy sociology, I analyze policies directly related to the education of migrant children living in and around China’s largest urban centers, bringing into consideration community perspectives regarding policy enactment. I argue that education policies have an underlying agenda that extends beyond that of simply addressing the educational needs of migrant children. In essence, these policies come to frame what people collectively assume to be possible regarding the education of migrant children. My work seeks to raise questions about who is best served by these policies, for whom these policies are intended, who are the intended beneficiaries, and what will the long-term impact be.


Anyon, J. (2014). Radical possibilities: Public policy, urban education, and a new social movement. New York, NY: Routledge.

Apple, M. W. (2013). Can education change society? New York, NY: Routledge.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum.

Kurasawa, F. (2007). The work of global justice: Human rights as practices. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Ladson-Billings, G., & William F. T., (eds.) (2006). Education research in the public interest: Social justice, action, and policy. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.


Min Yu, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Division of Teacher Education in the College of Education at Wayne State University, U.S. Her research focuses on how changing social, political, and economic conditions affect the education of children from migrant and immigrant families and communities. She is the author of the book, The Politics, Practices, and Possibilities of Migrant Children Schools in Contemporary China (Palgrave Macmillan 2016). Her work also appears in journals such as The China Quarterly, Comparative Education Review, Review of Research in Education, Diaspora, Indigenous, and Minority Education, as well as chapters in edited volumes.

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