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China Has an Achilles’ Heel: Undereducation

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(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- China doesn’t seem undereducated. Its Confucian culture places a high value on learning. Chinese students excel at universities around the world. And in the Program for International Student Assessment in 2015, Chinese 15-year-olds from four provinces (Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Guangdong) trounced Americans in math and science while trailing just slightly in reading. 

Appearances are deceiving, though. In reality, undereducation is a serious problem in China—one that jeopardizes its leaders’ efforts to spring the nation from the dreaded “middle-income trap.” The trap is the slowdown that occurs when factors such as cheap, low-skilled labor that lifted a country from deep poverty don’t work anymore and the country lacks the factors needed to reach the next stage of development. There’s a growing shortage of workers with the education to handle advanced technologies, and that could bring China’s amazing economic progress to a halt in coming years.

So says a new book called China’s Invisible Crisis: How a Growing Urban-Rural Divide Could Sink the World’s Second-Largest Economy. It’s by Scott Rozelle, co-director of the Rural Education Action Program at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and Natalie Johnson, a writer and researcher on Chinese education and health issues. Despite the dual authorship, the book is written entirely in the voice of Rozelle, the senior of the two.

China’s crisis is invisible because it plays out in the countryside, far from the view of most foreign academics and journalists and even remote to most urban Chinese, Rozelle says. But invisible doesn’t mean inconsequential. In this important book, Rozelle rings an alarm bell loud and clear. He writes: “China has failed to invest in its single most important asset: its people. Today, China may be the second-largest economy in the world, but it has one of the lowest levels of education of any nation.”

According to the country’s own 2015 microcensus, only 30 percent of the labor force has a high school education or higher. That puts China behind all other middle-income countries, including Mexico, South Africa, Thailand, and Turkey. Until now this wasn’t much of a problem because there was plenty of work in factories and construction for people without a high school education. But China has built most of the highways and buildings it needs for now, and low-wage factory work is going offshore to cheaper locales such as Bangladesh and Vietnam. The future is in high tech—which most Chinese aren’t equipped for, Rozelle says.

The problem lies almost entirely in China’s neglected hinterlands, according to Rozelle. Rural workers are only one-fourth as likely as urban ones to have a high school education or better. That matters, because rural areas account for 64 percent of China’s overall population and more than two-thirds of its children. 

Rozelle knows more about this problem than just about anyone, including the Chinese leadership. He’s been traveling to China since 1983 and is fluent in Mandarin. He visits rural schools regularly. The Rural Education Action Program he heads at Stanford has, in cooperation with Chinese experts, gathered data from more than 500,000 people in 26 of China’s 33 provinces. 

The crisis he delineates should trouble the world because the 1.4 billion Chinese are “just as deserving of a life of dignity and peace as anyone else,” he writes. In case that doesn’t persuade readers, Rozelle offers a second reason for caring: If China begins to flounder, its leaders will be tempted to “harness the people’s passion to the cause of military expansion.” Although he doesn’t dwell on it, Chinese President Xi Jinping is already projecting Chinese power in the South China Sea by militarizing rocky islets and threatening passing U.S. military ships and planes.

China’s leadership has woken up to its problem of undereducation and has made great strides in recent years building schools and boosting attendance rates, but there’s a lot of catching up to do, Rozelle says. And even today, he says, the quality of rural education lags far behind that of urban education. For one thing, there’s a strong emphasis on vocational training, much of it for jobs that might not exist in a decade or so. Some students are still being taught to use an abacus to do math, believe it or not.  And high school isn’t even free. The tuition, combined with the fact that attending school prevents students from working full time, drives many rural youth to drop out.

Rural students also face three big health challenges that inhibit learning and can permanently reduce IQ. Anemia from inadequate diets is common. Many students have poor vision. And intestinal worms are endemic. Even before reaching school age, rural children fall behind because they’re not intellectually stimulated. Grandmothers put babies on their backs while they go about their day’s work in silence. None of these problems is expensive to fix. For example, deworming pills cost just $2 per child per year. But Rozelle says the cultural barriers to change are high. While farming families diligently deworm their pigs, many regard a worm in a human as normal. And schools prescribe useless “eye exercises” instead of glasses for kids who can’t read the blackboard. One grandmother regarded Rozelle with disbelief when he said she should talk with her grandchild, whom she doted on. “Why would we talk to the baby?” she said. “He’s a baby.”

India, which is poorer than China, is on a trajectory toward the same trap, Rozelle says. Other countries he worries about include Ecuador, Ethiopia, Peru, and Vietnam. If they “do not take a new tack now, with their youngest children in mind, it may soon be too late to do so,” he writes. “For China, it may already be too late.”

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Eric Gelman at

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