China's economy may be booming, with rapid development in rich urban areas fuelling its image as an Asian power on the rise. But in-depth reporting by Radio Free Asia (RFA) highlights a major struggle among China's poorest communities to provide a basic education for their children — ; a right supposedly guaranteed by the state.
In October 2003, official media reported that around 27 million children nationwide were unable to attend school, representing around 10 percent of China's school-age children. Hong Kong newspapers said the total — ; allowing for gaps in reporting methods — ; could be twice as high in reality.
"My eldest son had to drop out of junior high school as we didn't have the money to support his education," a woman from the northern province of Hebei told RFA's Mandarin service.
"His tuition, books and other expenses were costing us 1,200 yuan to 1,300 yuan (U.S.$157) a year, but the family's total annual income was about 2,000 yuan (U.S.$241). Many other families in our village can't afford to pay for their children's education either," said the woman, who identified herself as Ms. Jiang, from a village near Zhangjiakou City, north of the Chinese capital.
Under a law that took effect July 1, 1986, all Chinese children are guaranteed nine years of basic education, regardless of economic status. For millions of children who had been unable to attend school or had to drop out because of poverty, the law seemed like a passport to a brighter future.
The reality has fallen short of those expectations.
"The Chinese government has been promoting market orientation for education in the last few years. This has had very negative effects, and they will become more evident in the next few years," said William Lan, a professor of education at Texas Tech University.
"I have had opportunities to visit remote border regions. Teachers there said they had not been paid for more than a year because of the responsibility system at the local level," he said. "Under that system, the counties and townships are responsible for their schools, respectively. As a result, the poor counties and townships may have found it difficult to finance education."
Zhao Tingdong, principal of an elementary school in Yonglin Town, Yongning Mountain County in Yunnan Province, said he has seen many students leave school at the junior high school level.
"In the last few years we had more than 30 graduates per year... but only about a dozen could afford to go to junior high school," said Zhao, whose hometown of Yonglin is listed as a poverty-stricken area by the central government in Beijing. He added that some families in his area lacked even basic food security.
"People here live in economically stressful circumstances. Some families do not have enough food to feed themselves, while others do not have cash income though they are not worried about food," he said. "It is difficult for children to go to high schools without any financial support from their families. As far as I know, the government has never given them any financial support."
China's ethnic minorities often face a combination of poverty and discrimination in their quest for a decent education. The problem is so acute in Tibet that desperate parents send their children across the border illegally into India to take advantage of the free education there.
"Before coming to India I had never been to school," one student told RFA. The child, aged nine, is now in Dharamsala, India, home to the Tibetan government-in-exile and a large Tibetan expatriate community.
"My mom is poor and we don't have a house in Lhasa. Mom used to support me by searching garbage heaps for odds and ends. She didn't have the money to send me to school. I came to India in the hope that I can get a good education."
Many other youngsters who have made the difficult and dangerous journey out of China echo her story. One 12-year-old boy from Lhasa told RFA that his education under the Chinese system had ceased when his mother lost her job.
"I had to pay more than 800 yuan for tuition, books, school uniform, and other expenses. My mom used to pay for my education, but after she lost her job, she was unable to do so," he said. "I hope I can get a good education here."
Even in more prosperous urban areas, China's weak taxation system and a "market-oriented" attitude among school administrators has led to an ever-increasing financial burden on parents, often in the form of various "fees" levied for anything from school improvements to bus fees or equipment purchases — ; even if the basic tuition looks affordable on paper.
Each local government and school authority is left to fend for itself in budgetary matters, and the central government has yet to clarify the rules regarding school fees.
"It would be nice if the Ministry of Education could publish regulations, but I don't think it will be able to do so," one resident of the eastern province of Jiangsu told RFA. "What it has provided is merely an outline, while all the provinces, cities, districts, and counties have their own policies... This is a very complicated issue."
The consequences could be far-reaching, said Lan.
"Compulsory education should be free, but if education is market-oriented and schools become profit-oriented, many poor students will not be able to receive the education they deserve," Lan said. "The result is that society will become more stratified. As children of the rich continue to have access to a much better education than those of the poor, social problems will arise."