Self-abandonment or seeking an alternative way out: understanding Chinese rural migrant children’s resistance to schooling

Dr Jiaxin Chen,
Lingnan University, Hong Kong / East China Normal University

Chen, J. (2019). Self-abandonment or seeking an alternative way out: understanding Chinese rural migrant children’s resistance to schooling. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 1-16. doi:10.1080/01425692.2019.1691504

Because of the rapid urbanization, industrialization, and significant economic success in urban areas, unprecedented numbers of rural people have flocked to cities seeking work, creating an extensive urban manual labor force (Chan and Pun 2010; Shi 2010; Wang 1998). By 2016, the total population of rural migrant workers in China had reached 281.71 million (National Bureau of Statistics of China 2017). Yet, because of the hukou (household registration 户口) system, these rural migrants are deemed ‘non-local’ or ‘rural residents’ in urban areas, effectively excluding them from the urban welfare system, including public education for their children.

In 2010, there were an estimated 35.81 million migrant children (aged 17 or younger) in China (All-China Women’s Federation 2013). Researchers have found migrant children are more likely to fail in their schooling, and to be tracked into vocational schools or directly into the manual labor market (Li 2015; Ling 2015; Song, Zeng, and Zhang 2017). Previous studies have mainly blamed China’s hukou system for the difficulties rural migrant children (RMC) facing in accessing urban schooling and their being forced to attend private migrant schools (Chen and Feng 2013; Kwong 2011; Lai et al. 2014; Li and Placier 2015). Some researchers have recently argued that migrant children also play an active role in reproducing their migrant parents’ low social-economic status, through resisting schooling (Xiong 2015; Zhou 2011). However, few studies have examined the complexity of migrant children’s resistance, especially the complex meanings embedded in resistant behaviors, which are essential for understanding student agency (Giroux 1983; Lanas and Corbett 2011). This article bridges this research gap.

This study examined the diverse forms of RMC’s school resistance in their interactions with the school system and with surrounding social inequalities in urban society. Qualitative investigations were conducted in two primary schools in the Sun District (pseudonym) of Beijing. Three patterns of RMC’s school behavior emerged from the analysis of interview data and observations: conformist learner, education abandoner, and nascent transformative resister.

Most, if not all, RMC under study had strong expectations of bettering their and their families’ futures through individual efforts. A conformist learner is someone for whom pursuing education is the preferred means of achieving this desired betterment. Xi, for example, a sixth-grade male student, clearly expressed high educational expectations in his interview, saying ‘studying well can help me enter a key point middle school, then a key point high school, then a first- class university’ and eventually a Master’s program. He believed a high-level educational credential would command a high salary in the labor market, meaning a bright future for him.

Although RMC in general believed in the significance of education, many did not feel they were capable of achieving educational success and so were less inclined to pursue it. Some became education abandoners, dismissing education as irrelevant to their future betterment. Upon education abandonment, they began searching for alternative opportunities to advance their future social positions. For instance, Miao knew going to university could help him ‘become a boss [and help him to] walk my way out of peasant life and towards the city life’, but he felt that he had little possibility of succeeding in school education. Thus, his best option, he felt, was to ‘work as a worker at first, [to] earn and save some money. Then open my own company, [and] become the boss myself ’. However, these migrant children perceived their entering the world of manual labor as a strategic move towards the pursuit of a higher social position, such as becoming ‘the boss’, with no intention of doing low-paying, low-ranked manual working jobs henceforth.

Many RMC in this study had already shown their awareness of social inequalities. Indeed, it was hard for them not to, as inequality was a daily experience in their lives. Conformist learners, therefore, chose to study hard for a university degree so that they could find better jobs, earn a higher salary, and improve the living conditions of the whole family. Education abandoners, by contrast, gave up pursuing academic success and decided to enter the labor market as long-game players. Both were searching for opportunities for self-improvement to the best of their ability but lacked a social justice agenda.

Yet, a small group of migrant children were found to present the potential of developing transformational resistance, for example Student Le. Le’s aim of pursuing a position at the Education Bureau was not merely to improve his living conditions. Instead, it was one step towards a further agenda of changing the education policy for RMC, so that other RMC need not face the same unequal school access as he does. Nevertheless, the reason for considering them as only nascent resisters is that they still seem confused about who or what is to blame for social inequalities and how to act.

As Kipnis (2001a) has argued, Chinese society has traditionally featured a widely held and strong belief in schooling for upward social mobility. While teachers also kept emphasizing the significance of academic pursuit, RMC successfully internalized the ideology of meritocracy. Therefore, most migrant children in this study were initially conformist learners. The change process from conformist learners to education abandoners reflects the ongoing decrease in migrant children’s self-efficacy in achieving academic success throughout their education. This can be attributed to the school’s promotion of educational pursuit always going hand-in-hand with a highlight on students’ alleged responsibility for their academic failure.

Besides, the potential of RMC in developing transformative resistance was based on their personal experience and awareness of the social inequality caused by both an oppressive employment relationship and rural-urban differentiation in the broader society. Nevertheless, the vulnerable pursuit of social justice among nascent resisters indicates the difficulty of transferring children’s initial awareness into critical reflection. While teacher-student discussions about social oppressions rural migrants facing in urban society could benefit students’ development of transformative resistance, this is challenged by school’s dominant ideology of meritocracy and a teaching agenda that legitimizes social inequality.

This study suggests that migrant children’s school resistance should not be considered as a developed group culture, stemming from their migrant family culture in contradiction with mainstream culture in the schooling. Rather, migrant children’s school resistance reflects their perceptions of social realities, which are still open to change while the children are interacting with the school system. Therefore, the analysis of Chinese RMC’s educational failure should go beyond children’s self-defeating resistance to mainstream schooling.

Author Biography

Jiaxin Chen is Research Assistant Professor in School of Graduate Studies at Lingnan University, Hong Kong (beginning March 2020). She received her PhD from the University of Hong Kong, and worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the East China Normal University, Shanghai, China. Her research interests include education inequality and mobility with a strong focus on disadvantaged children, migration, citizenship education and academic mobility. She can be contacted via the following email address:

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