BEIJING - As China's school year kicks off, some longtime Beijing residents are being forced by restrictive residency rules to send their children to distant schools, with some unlucky few packing their bags for places as far south as Shenzhen.
In the past year, Beijing has evicted a legion of status-less migrant workers and relocated hundreds of factories to cut down on what it calls an "urban disease" of over-population. Its number of registered residents saw a rare, albeit small, decline last year to 21.7 million.
But now, some long-term, tax-paying middle-class families are moving out because new rules have made it difficult for children to get admission in city schools.
A 35-year-old man called He, who did not wish to be further identified, said he had moved out of Beijing to the neighbouring district of Hebei after new residency rules barred his six-year-old son from applying for admission to the city's schools.
Mr He and his son went to Hebei two weeks ago ahead of the start of the school year last week, while his wife had to move in with relatives to be closer to her job in the capital.
Mr He, who wanted to remain anonymous out of fear his son could lose his place in school, now only sees his wife when she visits them on weekends. He quit his job in Beijing in March.
"We've taken a big economic hit," Mr He said. "But it's most important that my son has a place to go to school."
Among the new rules, a family's registered address must be unchanged for at least one year and match the area where their social benefits are paid.
Speaking at his nearly-bare two-bedroom apartment in Hebei, Mr He said his family had prepared over a year to ensure they met requirements.
But the local government in the Beijing district of Tongzhou, where he had stayed, published the new rules right before the deadline for school registration for the coming school year, making it impossible for them to qualify.
Hundreds of Tongzhou parents in a similar situation protested for weeks at the Tongzhou education and the Beijing central education bureau offices in May and June.
One mother, Ms Li, said that of a group of 200 families she knew about that petitioned the authorities, one-third eventually were accepted at Tongzhou schools, one-third chose private schools or moved to different cities, and one-third, like her, were keeping their children at home for now.
"We paid tuition for a private school, but it was terrible. So we pulled him out," said Ms Li, who also did not want her full name published.
A 10-year resident of Beijing who works in public relations moved his family 2,000km south to Shenzhen after his child was refused admission in a local school.
"I loved Beijing, but I don't understand what the government is doing. I'm really unhappy with the way they handle things," said the parent.
The fight for strained education resources is not limited to the capital.
In the small city of Leiyang in southern Hunan province, police arrested 46 people in August after 600 people protested over the difficulties of enrolling their children in school.
The problems arose after the local government said some students would be diverted from over-burdened schools to other schools, according to local media.
While China has significantly increased its investment in education in recent decades, it still lags behind global average spending levels.
An International Monetary Fund report in July said China still under-spends other emerging markets on education as a percentage of gross domestic product.
The issue is also in focus, as some Chinese regional governments have been under pressure from deteriorating finances and heavy debt burdens.
Meanwhile, even those who meet residency requirements in Beijing deal with school headaches.
Mr Fang, an IT manager at a central state-owned insurance company, said he had to move to a smaller apartment in a new district in Beijing for his son to qualify for Beijing school enrolment.
He said he also had to pay the landlord an additional 40,000 yuan (S$8,015) just for the landlord to sign-off on Mr Fang's son using the apartment's allotted spot in a school.
Other parents, including Mr He and Ms Li, said some landlords were charging 100,000 yuan for a spot.
With such an opaque system, there is ample room for corruption and loopholes, parents say, as those with the right relationships or with money for bribes are able to get their children in school.
Mr He said he had to take the Hebei school principal out for dinner several times before he would agree to accept his son.
"Even though the school is pretty lousy, at least he's in school."