November 1, 1999
In China, School Fees Keep Many Children Away
Issue in Depth
50 Years of Communism in China
China from Microsoft Encarta Concise Encyclopedia
By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
IJIAGOU, China -- At first
glance, Hong Mei, a willowy 12-year-old in a long floral skirt and hoop
earrings, seems a beacon of color
and sophistication in this poor mountain village where the streets, the
mud homes, even the crops are the
same drab dusty brown.
But her story is depressingly typical of poor Chinese girls: Although
nine years of education is compulsory in China, Hong Mei has never
been to school. "Of course I'd like to
go, but it's too expensive and my
mother needs my help at home," she
quietly explained. Her three younger
brothers are all enrolled.
School fees in Lijiagou have risen
from $2.50 to $7.50 per five-month
semester in the last five years -- a
huge sum in a region where per
capita income is $50 a year and the
payback for literacy seems far
away. And the Hui Muslims who live
here in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, like families in much of poor
rural China, have never seen much
point in educating daughters anyway.
All told, only 20 percent of girls --
and 40 percent of boys -- are now in
school in Lijiagou.
In many parts of poor rural China,
economics are keeping an increasing
number of children out of the classroom. Required fees at state schools
have grown exponentially since the
central government largely stopped
subsidizing primary education a decade ago. Today education is increasingly a luxury item in China's poorest villages, purchased only when
finances allow -- and far more often
for boys than for girls.
An aggressive government campaign to achieve 100 percent enrollment by the year 2000 has pushed
attendance up in more prosperous
regions, experts say. But in a number of poor rural areas, they add,
only a fraction of children are in
The government has exhorted local officials to work harder on
education and has solicited charitable donations to subsidize schooling
through Project Hope, run by the
China Youth Development Foundation, and the Spring Bud Project for
girls, run by the Women's Federation. Each has had success in the
towns where it operates.
Hai Minglian, a shy 10-year-old
Hui girl with tattered cloth shoes and
a red thread holding back long black
hair, is now in a second-grade class,
one of two organized by the Spring
Bud Project, in the village of Kaicheng, also in Ningxia.
Every day after school, she packs
up her pencil stub and the razor
blade she uses as a sharpener and
trudges back to the cave her family
calls home. She feeds the ox and
prepares a meal for her parents
when they return from the fields.
"Without Spring Bud," she said,
"there is no way I could go to
But the drop-out problem generally dwarfs the resources available to
combat it. There are only 48 Spring
Bud classes in Guyuan County, which
includes Kaicheng, spread among
127 poor towns. Even Project Hope,
the biggest educational assistance
program in the country, sponsors
only one-third of eligible children in
the poor counties it assists.
After an investigation of five provinces and cities last month, Peng
Peiyun, deputy head of the National
People's Congress, estimated that
only two percent of counties officially designated as impoverished had
met state standards for education as
of last year.
And most experts say it is hard to
know the true magnitude of the problem, since statistics collected by the
local governments are notoriously
unreliable, tweaked to meet government goals.
Recently, China's most popular investigative television show, Focus,
profiled a middle school in rural Anhui Province where school officials
forced 200 children who had dropped
out to masquerade as students for
the annual inspection.
"The government campaign for
universal enrollment has had two
results," said Yuan Fang, a researcher at the National Research
Center for the Development of Science and Technology, who has studied the impact of Project Hope.
first is that the situation in the country as a whole is improving in the
last few years. The second is that a
lot of the statistics we get from local
governments are fake. In some counties we visited, leaders just said that
meeting the goal was impossible."
In fact, primary education is based
on a problematic equation, financed
almost exclusively by individual villages and towns, which, in rural
areas, often lack money.
In a report on education to be
published soon, a Communist Youth
League official in Guyuan laid out his
county's plight: Total revenue is less
than $2 million a year in a county
with half a million people and 408
schools. Just to pay the county's 5,000
teachers requires more than $3 million annually -- and that does not
begin to address costs like classroom
supplies and building upkeep.
And so the schools, which are not
allowed to charge tuition, instead assess an ever-growing list of "miscellaneous fees." In one typical school
studied by Yuan, these fees included a book fee, a materials fee, a
substitute-teaching fee, an electricity fee, a coal fee, even a fee to raise
matching funds for a World Bank
The fees often total $20 to $35 a
year, a huge amount for subsistence
farmers. And in remote rural regions, where families generally have
two or more children, parents must
choose each year who, if anyone,
goes to school.
Kong Lanying said she believes in
education but simply cannot always
afford to enroll her 14-year-old
daughter, who -- because of her erratic attendance -- is now in the
fourth grade. "Whether she goes depends on whether we have the money
at the time," she said, standing in
front of the mud hut in Lijiagou that
is her home, a tattered quilt serving
as the front door.
The vagaries of family finances
mean that many students have stuttering educations and a single elementary school class can contain
children aged from 7 to 14.
In Guyuan's impoverished villages, less than 60 percent of boys
and 50 percent of girls enter school,
according to the report. Even according to the latest central government statistics, 25 percent of students in Ningxia drop out after one
year and less than 50 percent finish
elementary school, completing sixth
"In the conflict between subsistence and education, subsistence is
the priority and compulsory education is beyond talking about -- the
goal of realizing compulsory education by the year 2000 is for us a
beautiful dream," said the official
with Guyuan's Communist Youth
Even without good statistics, there
is evidence that the dropout rate is
This month, in a front-page essay
in the national newspaper Farmer's
Daily, an official from a poor prefecture in Shandong Province painted a
grim picture. He said many townships were spending more than half
their revenue to pay teachers, who
were often paid late or not at all and
have to quit or take second jobs that
interfere with teaching. School fees
"exceeded the capacity of a proportion of families," said the official, Li
"In parts of the countryside, the
occurrence of students resisting going to school or dropping out has
become increasingly serious," he
Likewise, a township Communist
Party secretary in western Qinghai
Province, a sparsely populated area
of nomadic herders, recently told the
Economic Information Daily that
"mobilizing children to go to school
has become the biggest headache for
our township and village cadres."
Herders, the official said, are unwilling to send their children; the five
secondary schools in the region have
seen attendance drop from more
than 6,000 earlier in the decade to
1,170 last year.
The rising cost of education is the
biggest precipitant, researchers say.
"Children can't go to school because
their families can't pay," said
Recent changes in China's labor
market also mean poor farmers see
fewer benefits to schooling.
A decade ago, education was a
reliable route for smart children to
escape the countryside -- springing
from local schools, to the country's
free regional universities and on to a
secure government job.
But today, China's universities
have started to charge significant
tuition, beyond the reach of the very
poor. Also, with China's state sector
shrinking and the economy slumping, more college graduates find
"In the past, university graduates
would all get jobs," said Shi Jinghuan, a researcher at Beijing Normal
University, China's most prestigious
teachers' college. "But now it's
much harder. And these rural kids
don't have connections. So they don't
get jobs, and then come back to work
in the fields -- which they're not good
at anyway. So unfortunately the parents say, why bother?"
Mei-Duo-Er-Cai, a herder and local official in Qinghai, told the Economic Information Daily that in 1997,
53 recent university graduates returned home to her rural area, jobless. Because of China's strict system of residency permits, graduates
who do not find employment must
return to their registered homes.
Young girls bear the brunt of the
hardship. The sidewalks of Beijing's
clubby Sanlitun district are dotted
with school-age girls from poorer
provinces, selling flowers -- often to
support a brother's tuition. Female
dropout rates are particularly high
in the Muslim minority areas, like
the poor villages of southern
Ningxia, where workers in the Spring
Bud program fight local biases.
In somewhat more prosperous regions, children drop out at slightly
older ages, but the problem still exists. In one study in Chongqing County, Sichuan Province, more than 30
percent of children ages 12 to 17 in
poor areas were dropouts, and three-quarters of the dropouts were girls.
The preponderance of female
dropouts reflects centuries-old biases, but also practical considerations:
In rural China, married daughters
move away to their husband's community, while married sons remain
at home to support their parents.
Shan Xinlian, a Hui woman in Nanjiao, Ningxia, has two sons, ages 7
and 12, in elementary school and an
8-year-old daughter in a subsidized
second grade class for girls. Ms.
Shan never went to school -- and
freely admits that her daughter
probably would not either, if she had
"In our village, girls are not as
important," she said. "School is so
expensive. And what's the point of
paying all that money, since she'll
belong to another family once she