Fifteen-year-old Zhan Haite thrust herself into the spotlight last year by calling for equal education opportunities for herself and fellow children of migrant workers.
Although Zhan's family has lived in Shanghai since 2002, she will have to take the senior high school entrance examination in Jiangxi Province, her parents' hometown and where her hukou, or registered permanent residence, is. Instead of going to a vocational school in Shanghai or returning to Jiangxi, Zhan dropped out of school in May 2012 in protest and microblogged appeals for equal rights. Her activism has stirred a public outcry from residents with a Shanghai hukou and sparked a heated debate throughout China.
Cui Wei, a harsh critic of Zhan and organizer of Guarding Shanghai Alliance, a group of netizens who meet offline, said that removing the hukou barrier to education would cause Shanghai to be flooded with a surge of migrants from other parts of China, which would worsen the city's living environment.
Official figures show that China has more than 260 million farmers-turned-workers living in cities. An estimated 20 million children have migrated with their parents to the cities, while more than 10 million are left behind in their rural hometowns.
China's hukou system used to restrict children to attending schools in their home provinces. A 2003 regulation amended this by admitting migrant workers' children into the nine-year compulsory education systems of the cities where their parents work.
Despite progress, out-of-province children are still not allowed to attend the secondary and tertiary education entrance exams locally in most cities. These children have to return to their hometowns to take entrance exams for further schooling where they are put at an enormous disadvantage due to the differences in curriculum design and exam contents. Protests from migrant workers have mounted in recent years.
Under the current policy, colleges and universities set a fixed admission quota for each provincial-level region every year. As advanced educational resources are distributed unevenly across China in terms of the number and quality of universities, a growing number of students and their parents are complaining about discrimination during the admission process based on locations of candidates' registered permanent residence.
For example, compared to Beijing, central China's Henan Province has fewer universities per capita. That means that a university applicant from Henan could gain admission to a much better university if he or she took the entrance examination held in Beijing, which is prohibited by the current system.
In August 2012, the State Council asked provincial-level governments to formulate plans before the end of the year to eventually allow children of migrant workers to enter senior high schools and take the college entrance exam, commonly known as gaokao, locally.
By January 9, 29 of the 31 Chinese mainland provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions, except Qinghai Province and Tibet Autonomous Region, had individually formulated plans which will eventually ensure that children who have followed their parents to live in a different place can enjoy the same rights to education as their local peers.