Published in the South China Morning Post on July 9, 2012
Tongxin Shi Yan School, which the New Workers Art Troupe founded in 2005, last month received a letter from the local education bureau asking it to close down.
“We consulted lawyers, who told us the government had no legal basis for their threat. We sent the bureau a letter signed by four prominent academics asking them to protect our school. We’re waiting for a reply,” said guitarist Sun Heng, 37, whose band was in Hong Kong last week to perform for free to help raise funds for a local women’s charity.
Sun hopes the local media can spread news of what has happened to their school, and that it was not an isolated incident.
Shutdowns of schools for migrant children have been reported in international media since the lead-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Education bureau officials usually cite lack of permits and poor safety standards of the school buildings as reasons for the closures.
“We have been getting all the required licences for the past seven years, and all of a sudden they say we’re not fit to operate,” said Sun. “If the government really had the children’s best interests at heart, they would help schools make the improvements they say we need.”
Wu Mei-lin, director of the Hong Kong Women Workers’ Association, said an “unofficial reason” for the school closures was that the mainland government wanted to discourage migrant workers from settling down and organising labour rights movements.
Dr Anthony Saich, professor of international affairs at Harvard Kennedy School, said pressure from local schools and residents to push out migrant families was another factor.
“It is problematic for long-term social stability,” said Saich. “Unless China effectively integrates migrants and their children into public services such as education, the leadership will face a second and third generation of migrants who feel even more like second-class citizens. This could lead to the kind of unrest that we have witnessed in other cities around the world.”
Migrant workers Sun and Xu Duo formed the New Workers Art Troupe a decade ago to play at construction sites. They were later joined by Duan Yu, Sun Yuan and Jiang Guoliang, and have performed more than 500 shows in mainland stadiums.
In 2005, the troupe used the royalties from the sales of their first CD to build a school for children of migrant workers in Picun, a village on the outskirts of Beijing.
Tongxin Shi Yan School provides free or low-cost education to children aged three to 14. Their professionally accredited teachers offer a full curriculum, including maths, science, English, art and music. Some 90 per cent of graduates move on to a nearby secondary school.
Tongxin Shi Yan School is financially secure, say troupe members, who serve as school directors. It runs on students’ fees of 550 yuan (HK$674) per term. Donations from Picun residents cover tuition for students whose families cannot afford the fees.