Rural Reforms Have Not Improved Education

May 18, 2006 Updated: December 3, 2015

On March 4, “China’s Macroeconomics and Reform Trends Symposium” was held at Xishan Xinglin Mountain Village, Beijing. Experts from fields including finance, economics, politics and law gathered together to discuss China’s reform plans. The competing views from differing schools of opinion were broadcast immediately as the minutes of the meeting were disclosed on the internet, and this has attracted worldwide attention. This meeting, in reality, marked the continuity of China’s economic introspective look at reform since last year. Having been through 28 years of reform, China has arrived at the crossroads, and is facing problems that cannot be avoided.

I would like to hereby evaluate China’s village reform based on the experience of my extended family in funding our children’s education. What I am putting forth here is down-to-earth, simple data, yet it is also a true reflection of the living conditions experienced.

1. An Overview of My Hometown

My hometown is a village in Quanzhou County, Guangxi Provincial Zhuang Race Autonomous Region. On average, each person holds: one mu (0.165 acre) of paddy field land, eight fen (637.84 square yards) of arable land, and one mu of barren hill land. Before 1978, living in hunger and cold was the norm for us. People of my father’s generation often lamented about the poor local conditions and I used to think that our hometown was the poorest in the world. After I had been to university, I learned of the conditions in some villages in central and western China, and realized that my hometown was not the worst in China. Objectively speaking, it’s probably average. Actually, since 1980, with the village economic reform which fixed farm output quotas for each household, the problem of hunger in our hometown was solved.

This was our local economic situation – the paddy field was used for growing rice rice, while the dry land was used for growing vegetables. In the 1980s, an average of two pigs per household would be raised annually to solve the need for money since the meat can be sold and furthermore, lard can be used for domestic consumption. Another source of income came from selling agricultural products such as home treated tobacco, peanuts and chilies.

In the early 1990s, the local young adults began to search for employment away from the farm. By the late 1990s, virtually all of them were working away and only came back during Chinese New Year and Tomb Sweep Festival. On the whole, my hometown people are industrious and thrifty. The awareness of economic development there, though weaker than coastal regions, is stronger than northwest inland.

In view of the geographical position, natural conditions and culture of my hometown, I consider it to be in a medium level of development. In basing my discussion on this village, I believe that it has certain representative characteristics and is a microcosm of China’s countryside development.

I come from a big family. My father, who is the second child, has five brothers and two male cousins. Within the village, our economic situation was considered average. I think that such a family in such a village is representative of China’s countryside development and is able to reflect some ubiquitous problems.

2. Funding for Education Across the Generations

Here is a summary of the funding for education in my home:

In the context of the extended family, our family was the least well-to-do. One reason was that our parents were not in good health. Among my four siblings, the oldest two were female. Before 1980 (the economic reform), labor in the production team was based on work points – males would get 12 points per day while females would get eight points (newcomers get four points) for that work day. In the years of the production team, the value of the annual grain we were given would outweigh the value of our work points, which meant that even after a year of hard work, my parents were in debt to the village. Even under a situation like that, in 1978, I was in the first year of junior middle school, my second sister was in the first year of senior middle school, and my younger brother was in the second year of elementary school. Editors Note: In China, the family pays tuition for elementary, primary, high school and college.

In 1980, my mother passed away after failing to respond to medical treatment. Our economic situation was worsened by the debts for treatment and I had to leave school temporarily for half a year to take care of my mother. Despite such a situation, my father encouraged me to go back to school in September. At that time my second sister had smoothly completed two years of senior middle school studies. As she was not admitted to a university, she returned to contribute to the family labor force, which now consisted of three people – two sisters and my father. My sisters started with four work points per day. Fortunately, by the end of the year, the fixing of farm output quotas for each household was implemented, and our family was given land to grow crops. At that time, three in the family supported two member’s education. The economic situation depended entirely on crops and pigs. Under such a situation, after a year we unexpectedly cleared the debts accrued due to our mother’s illness.

In 1982, I entered the county’s top high school, while my younger brother entered primary school. The family income still depended on my sisters’ and father’s labor. Although money was tight, we managed to cope with our expenses.

In 1985, I gained admission to the Beijing Normal University. In early 1986, my eldest sister had married, leaving my second sister and father to work. Our income still depended on crops and pigs. In September, my younger brother entered the county’s top high school. In 1987, my second sister had also married, leaving my father to support me and my brother in our educational efforts. In 1989, I graduated from university while my younger brother entered Nanjing University. My starting monthly salary was over 70 yuan, which I used to support my younger brother after deducting my personal expenses. Even then, my father, who was 60 years old, still had to cover part of my younger brother’s education expenses until he graduated. This period was indeed difficult, but it was still manageable and the family stayed out of debt. Apparently, by being thrifty, two children per family from the countryside could still be supported to go to school.

Funding for Education in My Fifth Uncle’s Family

My fifth uncle has three children–two boys and one girl. The girl is the youngest. His three children went to school respectively in 1983, 1986 and 1990. From 1990 to 1994, he and his family paid his children’s tuition for high school, primary school and elementary school simultaneously. It was really tough for him. I recall that my fifth uncle often borrowed money from others.

In 1994, when my fifth uncle’s oldest child had graduated from high school, the child was forced to give up his chance to take part in the university entrance exam due to the family’s economic difficulties. Although his study was pretty good and he listed in the top ten in ordinary local high schools, he still couldn’t get government funding to go to a good university. His family couldn’t afford to pay the tuition at a good university. If he insisted on studying at a university, the second child would not have been able to go to high school.

At that time, his family faced the substantial choice of who to send to school. Carefully weighing the factors, my fifth uncle and his oldest child agreed that they felt that the second child’s study was much better and he would be more likely to enter university as a government-funded student. In order to guarantee the second child’s study, the oldest child had to give up his chance and join the rural workers group. (He went to large cities to do labor jobs.)

That year, the second child entered the second best high school in the county. The oldest child worked away from home. The two older people worked at home to fund schooling for a senior high school student and an elementary school student. When their daughter graduated from elementary school in 1995, they could not afford to let her to enter primary school due to economic strife. Therefore, she had to leave school with tears.

I remember when I came home for the Spring Festival that year. Every time that girl talked about her studies, her eyes filled with tears. My fifth uncle sacrificed the oldest and third child’s studies to guarantee the second child’s chance.

In 1997, the second child of my fifth uncle entered the Nanchang Water Resource University without letting down the expectations of his family. In order to raise the tuition, my fifth uncle was happily running about staying busy for half a month. With the assistance of his relatives, his second child was able to enter the university successfully. During the second child’s university life, four people of the fifth uncle’s family (two children worked away from home and two older people worked at home) worked to support the second child’s graduation from school. Albeit the family’s going “all out,” they still borrowed an external debt of several thousand dollars during these years.

Funding for Education in My Oldest Sister’s Family

My oldest sister married a man in a farm village ten miles away from my home town. The village’s condition was similar to my hometown. She gave birth to two boys. The oldest child and second child went to school in 1994 and 1997 respectively. In 2002, when the oldest child graduated from primary school, he didn’t enter the top high school. Nonetheless, he was admitted to the Zhuzhou Traditional Medicine College in Hunan province. He was told in the advisory note that he would be eligible for a degree if he could finish five years of study.

It is considered a good thing to enter college when you come from the countryside. However, my oldest sister faced a choice of whether to promise to send her children to school or not due to economic problems. If they let the oldest child study, it would become a problem for the second child to go to school. Ultimately, they decided to give up their oldest child’s chance to enter college and send him to Guangzhou city to earn money. All three family members work in Guangzhou city to allow their second child to go to school.

Now, my nephew goes to the high school in our county. Three people in my sister’s home still work in Guangzhou city. When I go home to see them each spring festival, I usually listen to their talk filled with worry. They say, now, it costs so much money for children to go to school every year. If our nephew enters college in the future, they don’t know how they will afford it. I can only try to persuade them to stop worrying, and promise them, that as a family, we will work it out when problems arise.”

At present, it is not enough for an ordinary household to work hard enough to support their children in going to high school and college. They need extensive help from their relatives and one home can only support one child’s education at one time.

Just as expected, my fifth uncle’s youngest child entered the Traditional Chinese Medicine College in Guangxi Provincial Zhuang Race Autonomous Region in 2005. Two older children in my seventh uncle’s home all work away. Two older people work at home. Their family situation is not hard in the countryside.

In the middle of August, my uncle phoned me to borrow some money and said they had foreseeable financial difficulties when their child enters college. He had already contacted the child’s uncle, his older brother and me to help him educate his child. That is, he must get four families’ finances together to support one child in going to school. Otherwise, it they would have to give up halfway.

Although a “Study Loan” is repeatedly advertised in the newspaper, it is a very hard to get and is only a limited loan that can be granted for college. Therefore, farmers will not take a loan if they can afford to pay the tuition. They will try in every way to borrow from their relatives. My home town of Quanzhou is a county with good education. Many high school graduates pass the university entry exam every year. Nonetheless, we always hear about many students that pass the exam but can’t afford to enter university. Last year, something happened in our neighboring town of Shitang. There are two girls in the same class and they both passed the university entry exam. However, they can’t fulfill their dreams due to financial difficulties and chose to commit suicide together.

Sigh! Does God have eyes? When I listened to this news, I only could sigh deeply.

3. What on Earth Has the “Development” in the Countryside Been for These 28 Years?

I don’t want to research information about the development of the countryside or enumerate it. I feel it is not necessary to research it. I already know the farmer’s condition is poor. The actual situation in sending their children to school should reflect the changes of China’s countryside at least in some aspects.

1. During the initial stage of economic reform, the village economic reform policy of fixing farm output quotas for each household solved the problem of hunger, and this achievement of maintaining basic food and living supplies endures today. This is the biggest and only real achievement from the whole village economic reform.

2. Before 1989, although an ordinary family led an arduous life, they could manage with effort to afford two high school educations and two college educations. Meanwhile, they didn’t generally have to borrow money from relatives.

3. In the middle of the 1990s, a village family could barely afford to have one child go to high school and college. Other children must sacrifice their future and stop their studies. Even with this, they have to borrow money from their relatives.

4. From the end of the last century until now, especially in this century, if an ordinary farm family wants to support one child in entering high school and college, they have to pool several families’ financial capabilities together. Otherwise, they can only dream. Even worse, they can be driven to suicide.

From viewing the changes of ordinary Chinese village families’ funding for their children’s education across these 28 years, we can understand the gains and losses of China’s reform in the country side. When thinking about the reform, it is hard to avoid the harsh reality of the countryside. I think that the issue is not one of the distribution of the reform’s fruit but the question of who is deprived by the reformation. This narration and demonstration look so weak in front of over 28 years of history of village families funding their children’s education. Where is the success of the reformation after 28 years in China? After all this, who has succeeded?

Written on April 29, 2006, in Beijing