On Thursday, I was delighted to listen a presentation on education by my old friend Scott Rozelle, a Stanford economist who has a really broad knowledge of rural China, and has done many research projects on topics ranging from agriculture to public health to education. He emphasized that one of the biggest challenges facing China in the next decade will be the ability to keep its working-age population employed, given that its labor costs are rising and that the multinational businesses that have turned to China as “the world’s workshop” in the last 20 years will soon be taking their business elsewhere, to places where wages remain cheap. When this happens, China will need to have a workforce educated well enough to make them worth the $10 an hour wages that they will be demanding.
This coming wage crisis, he said, is exacerbated by the fact that China’s social and economic inequality is rising: the latest estimate of the Gini coefficient, a measure of economic inequality ranging from 0 for the most equal societies to 1.00 for the most unequal, is .50, very high by world standards. He emphasized that the countries that have “graduated” in the last three decades from middle-income status (where China is now) to high income status–including Taiwan, South Korea, Portugal, Greece, and others, have all had Gini coefficients below 40, and most of them below 35. China’s is not only high, but increasing, and the biggest factor in the increase is the widening gap not just between cities and countryside, but also between rich rural areas (mostly in the coastal provinces, but also in certain inland places such as the Chengdu Plain) and poor rural areas, which contain about 22% of China’s population. And one of the biggest elements of the inequality between rich and poor rural areas is in education. Whereas over 40% of elementary graduates in China’s cities now attend either four-year colleges or state-accredited junior colleges, in the poor rural areas, the ratio is only 2%. In other words, a child graduating from the sixth grade in a poor rural area has only one-twentieth the chance of attending school enjoyed by her urban counterpart. If she is going to have a job in China’s future high-wage, high-skilled economy, we have to increase her chances of getting a higher education.
The Baiwu Valley is, of course, part of a poor rural area; the whole county of Yanyuan is an officially designated poverty county. So it is really noteworthy that of the 34 children who graduated in Yangjuan’s first class, in 2005, 15 tested into four-year or junior college programs, and 12 of those are attending college right now. In other words, Yangjuan graduates have a record of college attendance comparable with children from an urban elementary school, far, far better than could be expected from a school in a poor rural area, let alone one in a poor, minority rural area.
How much of this is due to our efforts is a matter for us or others to research. But the preliminary conclusion is that we are, indeed, doing some good.
Another question we need to ask ourselves is whether boys and girls are receiving equivalent education at Yangjuan. I will post on this question next week.