Whether the principle of ‘attending nearby schools’ is an obligation or an option makes a big difference in promoting education equity. This paper explores how the setting up of a de jure catchment area together with other complex socio-economic factors in China’s context distorted the initiative intention of ‘attending nearby schools’, via a case study of Xicheng District in central Beijing where quality public schools are concentrated and their catchment areas were accurately divided. With the unbalanced distribution of basic education resources formed by history, the remaining controversial hukou system, and the rapid urban and social transformations increasing parental choice, a contradiction exists within the Chinese public school enrolment system where the admission right is directly bound up with residential registration (hukou): an emphasis of equal access to basic education, but an opposite outcome. In order to reveal the causes and effects of the ‘attending nearby schools’ policy in practice, the paper illustrates the spatial pattern of de jure school catchment areas by GIS-based mapping, explores the relationship in demographics classified by hukou status between the schools and catchments and collected representative opinions among residents on the policy implementation through semi-structured in-depth interviews. By explaining the disparity between school composition and the residential pattern of typical catchments with the choice behaviours of nonnative/native groups, the paper discusses the legitimacy underlying the current enrolment system and makes suggestions for future reform.