The Guardian recently ran a report from Guizhou by Tani Branigan, focusing on rural poverty and the growing development gap between urban and rural China. The report focuses on 9 year-old Zhao Ai, who leaves home at 6:30 every morning for a two-hour trek down to the mountain to school, returning home at 5:00 for his first and only meal of the day. And the kind of malnourishment Zhao lives with is just one of the many factors that conspire to drive the rural-urban education gap wider and wider. Another is the ongoing problem of ‘left-behind children’ (an aspect of the ‘hollowed-out’ countryside explored in my earlier post), who tend to “have inferior education results and more behavioral roblems than the average child.” The article goes on to point out that “the proportion of rural students in universities – particularly the top ones – is falling rapidly.” As the rural-urban gap continues to widen, an urban life is increasingly viewed as the only viable means of escaping poverty for many in rural China. Indeed, this also seems to be the government’s perspective, as it pushes for more rapid urbanization as its primary strategy for combating rural poverty.
But education still remains one of the few hopes for rural residents trying to improve the chances that their children will escape the poverty their parents have endured. From this perspective, the falling enrollments of rural university students is even more troubling. Meet Wang Fang and Chen Shuangfu, a husband and wife who collect garbage in Guiyang so that their children might have a better future:
Wang Fang and her husband, Chen Shuangfu, arrived in the provincial capital, Guiyang, 10 years ago, with just 10 yuan in their pockets. Their hard, unappealing work – collecting and sorting rubbish for recycling – earns them as much as 20,000 yuan a year, compared with their 1,000 yuan income back home. But their rural hukou means they are not entitled to many services – and, since the hukou is inherited, neither are their sons. Schools do not receive extra funding for migrant pupils; many claim they are full, or charge hefty illicit fees. The couple have spent 50,000 yuan since their sons reached school age in “donations” to get them into a public school and illicit extra fees.
“I can’t read or write; I can’t even speak standard Mandarin well. We don’t want our children to be like us,” says Chen. Migrant workers build China’s cities, clean their homes and clear their rubbish – but other residents “call us beggars and use dirty words,” added Wang.
While the government has taken recent steps to improve rural education, such as finally making making it free and building more rural boarding schools, and while more and more wealthy cities in China have been organizing their own charitable projects to improve rural education in impoverished hinterland regions, it will take more fundamental reforms to reverse rural China’s decline. That can only begin with a systematic reform of the hukou system of household registration and urban reforms that allow migrant workers to integrate as equal citizens in China’s booming cities. But that is not likely to happen anytime soon, for a variety of reasons that we’ll be exploring in more depth over the next few weeks.