China and the Long Road Ahead

By Steven Hill, World Policy Blog, September 6, 2008

During the Olympics, China showed the world that it can throw a heck of a coming out party. But traveling here afterward, one sees the many complexities and challenges facing this vast and ancient land.

Especially in the rural areas–where most people still live–the impressive economic rise of China has penetrated only superficially. True, the Communist Party, which still runs nearly everything, brought electricity and other development here in the early 1980s. But while some appliances like television and telephones are increasingly common, indoor plumbing, electric ovens and other comforts are still scarce.

The life of farming families is still extremely poor, filled with backbreaking labor and scavenging for wood. They don’t have tractors, so they still use water buffalo to plow, an image completely at odds with modern Beijing.

But among the most backward Chinese policies–one that deeply affects these poor rural families–is that of education. The Communist government does not provide free education at any level. Families must pay out-of-pocket tuition for primary, high school, and college education for their children.

One acquaintance I made in southwest China, a young woman in her late 20s named Ming, told me of the hardship this causes for farming families. While most can scrape together enough money to send their kids to elementary and high school, finding the $1400 annual tuition for college is usually out of sight.

Sadly, Ming, had fallen victim to this unfortunate policy.

“I wanted so badly to go to college, to continue studying English and also computers,” she said. “But my parents could not afford it. So I have to work in town to help my brother and sister, and also help my parents on the farm.”

Ming spoke with considerable frustration. “What is the future?” she asked, her face twisting in anguish. “I work hard just to help my family get by. My parents did the same when they were my age, as did their parents.” She talked of young people she knew who felt similarly trapped.

“One person he was so smart, so clever, that he felt trapped inside his head. Nowhere to go. He could not afford to live his dream. What did he do? He threw himself in the river.”

Her sadness broke my heart. Previously, she, like most Chinese I have spoken with, had talked with great pride about her country’s splashy hosting of the Olympics. “Only China can do that so magnificently,” she said.

But I wanted to ask her–or even better, ask China’s leaders: “How is it you can spend billions of dollars on your coming-out party, yet you don’t have the $1400 college tuition for your young brilliant minds?” As a result of this education policy, in China only 11 percent of its college-age people attend college, compared to 65 percent in the United States.

More perversely, unlike the United States, the economy of which is wracked by a large budget deficit, China has a huge budget surplus totaling trillions of dollars. And what do they do with this surplus? They buy tons of U.S. government bonds, essentially funding our budget deficit and subsidizing Americans so that they can keep consuming and buying Chinese goods.

From an economic standpoint, this has benefits for both nations, especially those better-off urban Chinese who benefit the most from trade with America. But it means millions of young people from farming families like Ming are going without college or higher schooling, going without their dreams fulfilled, while China plugs the holes in our budget deficit.

That’s just plain nuts. It’s a sign of not only the inequities of the global system but also of the poor priorities of China’s government. Unquestionably, the leadership in Beijing has done much to lift millions of Chinese out of poverty and to foster a growing middle class. They deserve some credit.

But it’s hard to understand why they don’t take more of that trillion dollar surplus and invest it in their people, especially in the rural areas and young people. China has become “one nation, two people”–rich vs. poor, city vs. country.

Now that its coming-out party is over, it’s time for China to demonstrate that it embraces the goal of improving the plight of its countryside, and fulfilling the hopes and dreams of young people like Ming.

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