During the Olympics, China showed the world that it can throw a heck of a coming–out party. But traveling here post-Olympics, one sees the many complexities and challenges of this vast and ancient land.
Especially in the rural areas – still where most people 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. And some appliances like televisions and telephones can be increasingly found, yet indoor plumbing, electric ovens, and other comforts are still scarce.
The life of a farming family 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 one of the most backward of China’s policies that deeply affects these poor rural families is its education policy. 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, a young woman named Ming in her late twenties from a farming family in southwest China, told me of the hardship this causes. While most farming families 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 U.S. whose economy is wracked by a large budget deficit, China has a huge budget surplus, 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 each and every American so that Americans can keep consuming and buying Chinese goods.
From an economic standpoint, this has benefits for both the U.S. and China, especially those better-off Chinese in the cities who benefit the most from trade with America. But it means millions of young people from farming families like Ming are going without college, going without their dreams fulfilled, while China plugs the holes in our budget deficit.
That’s just plain nuts, and a sign of not only the inequities of the global system, but also the poor priorities of China’s government. Unquestionably the Chinese leadership has done much to lift millions of Chinese out of poverty and to foster a growing middle class here. 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 the young people here. China has become “one nation, two people” – rich vs. poor, city vs. country.
Now that it’s coming out party is over, it’s time for China to demonstrate that it embraces the goal of improving the plight of it’s countryside, and of the hopes and dreams of its young people like Ming.
Steven Hill is director of the Political Reform Program at the New America Foundation.