Written by Jinting Wu.

In the broad strokes of media accounts, China presents a success story in education. Not only are many foreign universities vying to tap into its rich educational appetite by setting up offshore campuses, its “ruthlessly dedicated students” both home and abroad have impressed the world. In the 2010 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Shanghai students surpassed their foreign counterparts in maths, reading and science, producing deep anxieties in the western hemisphere about an educational ‘China Rising.’

In 1986, China passed the Compulsory Education Law, stipulating that basic education (grades 1-9) be free and obligatory to all school-age children regardless of gender, ethnicity, region, religion, and family socio-economic status. Three decades after the law’s implementation, China has improved in leaps and bounds in education provision. With a 99% literacy rate (up from 20% in 1949) and high mass participation at all levels of schooling, it demonstrates remarkable success in the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals.

However, this is only part of the story. In the diverse landscape of China, education is a study in contradiction, and educational resources are as unequally distributed as economic wealth. While urban elites seek greener grass overseas by sending their children for a developed-world education, children in rural, inland, minority regions are pressed by more immediate concerns of earning a livelihood, and are often subject to early drop-out, child labour, and migration-induced family separation. While the urban desire for education is palpable, for many rural and ethnic residents, education does not change one’s destiny as the state law promises, yet remains an elusive ideal that prepares them only for factory sweatshops.

In the Miao and Dong villages of Southeast Guizhou where I spent some 16 months conducting research, villagers reason that schooling’s uncertain outcomes can hardly justify monetary and time investment. Some decades ago we heard stories of cash-strapped families striving to educate their children so that they could be gainfully employed in the future. Now the dominant narrative is that even college graduates couldn’t find a job, let alone children in remote villages where teaching quality is poor, and where farmers do not have necessary cultural capital or social connections. Why waste the money and time? Many are seriously pondering this question. If children are unlikely to continue beyond the free compulsory years (high school and college education is not free), and if they are ultimately going to end up in menial jobs, why not start earning a livelihood earlier?

According to a recent survey of 17 middle schools in 14 rural counties across 6 northern provinces, conducted by the Rural Education Research Institute of the Northeast Normal University, dropout rates were running at about 40%. Despite the persisting difficulty at obtaining accurate statistics in China, in general, ethnic minority children are found to have higher dropout rates than Han students, and rural children higher than urban students.

Poverty is an obvious deterrent, but it is far from the only reason. Besides financial constraints, disinterest and fatigue are often cited to be a contributing factor to the soaring dropout rates. Teachers continue to teach students to take tests, and disengagement and poor academic motivation are common in rural classrooms. Furthermore, despite the government campaign to revitalise the countryside, rural schools continue to deliver an urban-centred, national-standard curriculum. Textbooks in rural schools are replete with abstract contents of urban life. Students are de-linked from the domain of traditional knowledge production, such as batik making, singing, and embroidery, which used to perform important educative roles before state schooling came into existence. The cultural and material supremacy of the urban has produced significant brain-drains from the rural community, and for those who have little hope of continuing education, a deep sense of doubt and helplessness.

In addition, exam scores do not singularly determine one’s educational trajectory. Guanxi (having social connections) serves as an important political, social asset to help one navigate the educational and employment market. Lacking the essential social lubricant of guanxi and the economic means to grease the web of personal connection, the children of peasant descent are put at a decided disadvantage at the start of the educational race. Overall, rural ethnic schools in Guizhou suffer from resource shortage and physical isolation to varying degrees. While schools in township-centres are better equipped and serviced with public buses, schools in remote hamlets often face dire conditions without vehicle-accessible roads. Due to lack of facilities and qualified teachers, many schools are forced to put two grades into one classroom, where the teacher divides class time into halves and handles one grade at a time.

Moreover, in compulsory education policy agendas, all students must move ahead and not repeat grades even if they do not perform well, as the state provision of free education is for nine years only. Teachers complain that students have less incentive to work hard now, knowing they can always move up grade levels and that the teachers have a stake in keeping them in school. With yearlong school audits where higher-ups pay school visits to gauge the local implementation of compulsory education, teachers spend much time and energy preparing materials and entertaining inspectors; many skip classes or teach in a perfunctory manner. As teachers’ morale declines, teaching quality also plummets.

For the Miao and Dong youth, many finish junior secondary schools inexperienced for a soil-bound life; nor do they have credentials for salaried jobs in urban centres. Upon graduation or after dropping out, some remain in their native village to work in hair salons and retail shops; others become truck-drivers, vegetable vendors, and hotel security guards. A few go to high schools or attend technical academies. The majority of them leave home to work on factory floors in the bustling cities on the coast. Scaling the walls of the school, rural ethnic youth do not necessarily jump out of their peripheral status.

There are better visions to be dreamed of, but until then, compulsory education remains a double-edged sword that produces both hope and discontent in China’s rural ethnic margins.

Jinting Wu is Assistant Professor of Education Policy at the University of Macau. Image Credit: CC by Thomas Galvez/flickr.