Heidi ROSS

The mass exodus of people from China’s rural areas to its cities is having an unexpected positive consequence for girls “left behind” in the countryside.

It was a hot summer day three years ago. Suddenly dark clouds rolled in, thunder struck and lightning streaked. Rain poured, driven by strong winds. In an instant one could not distinguish where the sky ended and the earth began. Water was everywhere. In that engulfing darkness, our home swayed as if it were ready to crumble. At father’s command, we ran out to seek refuge. But then father remembered that the ginger mother and I crisscrossed mountains and valleys to dig up for so many days was still in the house. That ginger was to pay for the fees of my next school term. The moment father went back into the house, it collapsed. The rain gush washed away our home. It carried away father. (A left-behind girl, thirteen years old)

The story of contemporary Chinese education is really two stories, of two different systems. The first story celebrates—often in headlines—an extraordinary revolution in human capital that over the past decade has expanded educational opportunities for nearly all children and youths. It is a story of the largest school system in the world educating over 20 percent of the world’s students with 2 percent of the world’s educational resources. Gender parity is within reach at all levels of schooling, most classroom teachers meet minimum national requirements, and college and university enrollment is growing almost exponentially.

This story has excited a kind of anxious appetite among U.S. policy makers and educational administrators. U.S. colleges vie for influence in China’s rapidly expanding tertiary market, recently dubbed “the Klondike of higher education.” Simultaneously, Chinese students, like their Soviet and Japanese counterparts of the 1950s and 1980s, are portrayed as hard driving, laser focused, and achievement oriented.

In stark contrast, the second is a story about the gap between China’s educational haves and have-nots. This tale, despite its significance, is told primarily below the fold. Its central storyline is that the price of growing prosperity is greater disparity in educational resources and opportunities across geographic region, ethnicity, and gender. Twenty-five years of economic and human capital expansion have increased educational inequalities, jeopardizing China’s commitment to education for all and its social benefits. For rural, minority, and impoverished children, the majority of them female, primary and junior secondary school may be compulsory, but it is not universal. In 2003 27 million, or 10 percent, of China’s school-age children were unable to complete nine years of compulsory schooling, and according to a March 4, 2005, report from the Xinhua news agency, the average rural junior high school dropout rate was as high as 40 percent. The percentages of people in urban areas with senior middle school education, junior college education, and four-year college degrees were respectively 3.5, 55.5, and 281.55 times higher than the percentages in rural areas.

I was born into a poor farming family. I have several sisters, and parents aged and weakened by years of hard work. Three years ago we had a most unfortunate surprise. Father’s liver had hardened to an advanced stage. This added substantially to the family’s burden. Mother bravely hid her constant tears, but we knew things needed to change. Older sister quit school to earn money to help pay for father’s treatments. To lessen the financial strains on the family, I also left school to help out at home. The instant I stepped out of the schoolyard for what I thought was forever, tears streamed down my face. (A left-behind girl, fourteen years old)

Spring Buds

The two teenage girls profiled above are caught between the two systems. Both were forced to leave school in the fourth grade when their families could no longer afford their school fees. They returned to school several years later only after receiving a “Spring Bud” scholarship to attend school.

The Spring Bud scholarships were set up after the People’s Republic of China ’s fourth population survey revealed in 1989 that 4.8 million children between the ages of seven and fourteen were not attending school. Eighty-three percent of them were female. In response, the Chinese Children and Teenager Foundation (CCTF), which is administered under the auspices of the All-China Women’s Federation (a state-sanctioned Chinese nongovernmental organization) launched a national initiative, called the Spring Bud initiative, to raise funds from nongovernmental sources to help girls in poverty-stricken regions complete China’s nine-year compulsory education. The girls are two among a thousand girls supported by the 1990 Institute, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization that acts in partnership with the Shaanxi Women’s Federation. Spring Bud projects are supported throughout Shaanxi, as well as in most Chinese provinces, but the 1990 Institute project is China’s largest international NGO-supported Spring Bud initiative in China.

The two Spring Bud girls featured here live in one of the poorest counties in Shaanxi, in a mountainous region rich in mineral resources and hydroelectric power, but poor in productive farmland. The county’s average annual per capital income is under US $200. Sixty-four percent of students in the county complete nine years of compulsory schooling. The annual incomes of the Spring Bud girls’ families ranged from US $88 to US $113 in 2000. Their lives have been beset by material and social hardships, including devastation of land and home by flooding, the deaths of parents, and severe illness.

Girls and the “New Poverty”

Research around the world supports data from on-the-ground projects in rural China, which indicate that multiple factors (safe and effective schools, adequate health care and nutrition, economic development) must be present for girls to stay in and succeed in school. Household income and economic decisions; the burden of school fees and tuition; the relative strength of local economies; the number and sex of other children in the household; culturally rooted parental expectations regarding the desirability of schooling for females; the quality of teachers and teaching; school environment characteristics, including the relevance of the curriculum, disciplinary methods, and sanitation facilities; the distance of schools from girls’ homes; and girls’ aspirations and perceptions of their own academic abilities all influence whether a girl can take full advantage of schooling.

These factors indeed shape the educational experiences of the Shaanxi girls, as well as the experiences of marginalized girls and boys throughout China’s diverse rural regions. At the same time, however, what is sometimes referred to as China’s “new poverty”—the compression of poverty into ever more difficult-to-reach and remote, largely western regions of the country—has given rise to a counterintuitive relationship between gender and poverty, one that at least in the short term actually supports female educational attainment.

During the past two decades over 200 million Chinese workers have left farming for service and manufacturing jobs in cities. This migration is not only changing the demography of villages; it is fundamentally reshaping family relationships and the configuration of households as nearly 70 million children are “left behind” (liushou ertong) in homes without parents. Over 60 percent of the Shaanxi Spring Bud girls fall into this category. They are being brought up in the care of grandparents (many of whom are illiterate) or are staying with other relatives or spending significant portions of their time alone. On the one hand, they are considered at greater risk of academic failure or physical abuse. On the other hand, in dying villages where subsistence farming is abandoned, where working fathers and mothers are absent from the home, and where transportation and communication infrastructures have yet to significantly improve the local economy, daughters, in particular, have nothing to do but go to school. (Boys tend to leave home seeking work at younger ages, and when parents go in search of work, they are more likely to take a son with them because they fear he will get into trouble if left on his own. Also, parents are more willing to pay for a son to receive education in the city, whereas they are more likely to leave a daughter in the countryside where school fees are not as high.) Parents’ desire for their daughters to attend school is reinforced by the reality that there are no meaningful alternatives.

In sum, the economic, familial, and cultural patterns that have supported son preference and privileged boys’ access to schooling in rural China are being altered by the collapse of agriculture and the increasing migration of men and women out of the countryside to more prosperous and urban regions for work. Paradoxically, it is the relative lack of development that is propelling girls—especially teenage girls—into school.

Without the full support of mothers and fathers at home, the school, teacher mentors, and peers come to play a crucial role in shaping the academic and life expectations and aspirations of China’s left-behind children. Next year, the Shaanxi girls will face the extremely competitive examinations that will determine their access to high school and whether they will become a part of the first or second of these stories. They confront this transition just as the government is seriously addressing the question of how to create the conditions for more balanced development in the face of new poverty concentrated in remote areas. Responding both to a perceived skills gap among the young working population and the potential for social unrest arising from inequalities, the state has committed to raising high school gross enrollment rates from 40 percent to 70 percent and to doubling educational spending as a percentage of GDP, from under 3 percent to 6 percent. The state has also mandated the elimination of tuition for compulsory schooling in rural areas by 2007 and has proposed a number of measures designed to boost village income, including lightening or eliminating agricultural tax burdens and increasing social services. It is too soon to know whether such policies represent breakthrough or Band-Aid, but they will be critical to left-behind Shaanxi girls, who now depend on schools, more than any other institution, as a lifeline to a full and productive adulthood.

Further Reading

Adams, Jennifer, and Emily Hannum. (2005). Children’s Social Welfare in Post-reform China: Access to Health Insurance and Education, 1989–1997. China Quarterly, 181, 100-121.

Hannum, Emily. (2003). Poverty and basic education in rural China: Villages, households, and girls’ and boys’ enrollment. Comparative Education Review, 47(2), 141–159.

Kroeber, Arthur, and Tom Miller. (2005). Education, schooling for the Future. China Economic Quarterly, 9(4), 19-32.

Leadership Is Necessary, but Not Sufficient, for Social Justice. (2005). China Development Brief, 9(8), 1–3.

Maher, K., and H. J. Ling. (2003). Achieving EFA in China (Background paper for EFA Global Monitoring Report 2003-4). Paris: UNESCO Publishing.

Ross, Heidi.  (2996). Challenging the gendered dimensions of schooling: The state, NGOs, and transnational alliances. In Gerard Postiglione (Ed.), Education and social change in China: Inequality in a market economy (pp. 25-50). Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

UNESCO. (2003). Gender and education for all: The leap to equality, EFA global monitoring report 2003–2004. Paris: UNESCO Publishing.

Paul Mooney. “The Wild, Wild East,” Chronicle of Higher Education 52 no. 24 (February 17): A46. Available online at http://webcampus.stevens.edu/chronicle.html.

Xinhua news service, “Report: Migrant workers leave 70 million kids behind,” China Daily, October 26, 2005, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/2004-10/26/content_385858.htm

Source: Ross, Heidi. (2006). A tale of two systems: Girls “left behind” in Shaanxi. Guanxi: The China Letter, 2, 1.