Village life has never been easy in China, especially in the mountainous central and western regions, mostly arid and poor, which were once the refuge of Mao’s communist movement. This has changed little over the past three decades. It appears that China’s villages have fallen victim to the very policies of economic reform and opening up that have lifted over a hundred million people from poverty since the 1980s. Many villages, still hidden from the outside world, shrink and wither as more young people go off to work in city factories.

China’s push to modernize has been, by and large, a push to urbanize, drawing 150 million surplus labourers off the land since 2000 alone. Migrant workers who used to send money back home to support their children now bring their children along for a better education and a better future. This mass migration, perhaps the largest in human history, together with a general decline in school-aged children across the country, caused partly by the one-child law, has resulted in hundreds of thousands of rural primary schools closing up over the past decade.

The situation is especially grave in provinces like Jiangxi, Hubei, Henan, and Guizhou. Even though China’s national spending on education, as a percentage of GDP, continues to rise, the Ministry of Education every day shuts down dozens of small village schools—some have shrunk to point they can only claim the dubious title of “teaching spot”—and moves children to township schools to consolidate teaching resources.

For village children forced to leave teaching spots close to home, it means a longer walk to the classroom—for some up to four hours, each way. Few township schools have buses, and those that do have difficulty convincing parents they are safe. As a result, more and more children are simply dropping out. The dropout rate in rural areas has doubled since 2000.

China has long sought to achieve universal education, as well as educational equality. In the early 1900s, the Qing dynasty, rapidly declining and fearing a total loss of control, conceded to some educational reforms to bolster its popularity. It abolished the Confucian civil service exam, which had been the basis for selecting administrative officials in imperial China for more than a millennium, and made an effort to introduce primary schools in all villages.

The Qing’s reforms proved too little and too late. When the Communist Party came to power in 1949, it brought with it an ideological stake in enlightening the masses and quickly set about to extend basic education to peasants, workers, and females. By the mid 1960s, however, Mao decided that it was really the urban bourgeoisie who needed a better education from the country’s peasants. He set in motion the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), which saw city students “sent down to the countryside” in droves to learn the wisdom of the proletariat. Large numbers of rural children during this period left school to take up more ennobling work in the fields.

By the 1980s, the folly of the Cultural Revolution was apparent. It had left a huge gap in the population’s scientific and technical training, which Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, believed was necessary to achieve his vision of economic reform and development. In the 1960s and 70s, 160 million people had missed part or all of a basic education. To help remedy this, China promulgated the Law on Nine-Year Compulsory Education in 1986, making six years of primary schooling and three years of secondary schooling mandatory. When the law took effect, it became illegal for companies to employ children before they had completed their nine years. The government offered free education and subsidies to children of families with financial difficulties.

A year earlier, in 1985, Beijing had transferred responsibility for school funding to the provinces, autonomous regions, and special municipalities. They, in turn, passed it down to the townships and villages, thinking it would allow education to become better tailored to local conditions. And it did, for a time. Many villages, however, soon began to struggle with the added financial burden.

Beijing embarked on a new seven-year plan in 1993, prioritizing education by naming it one of the four pillars of China’s Four Modernizations. The results were promising. Primary education rates across the country jumped to well over 90 percent from an estimated 20 percent before 1949, and the enrollment rate of girls in primary schools surpassed boys for the first time. By 1997, China boasted 630,000 primary schools, more than twice the number it had before 1949.

But the new schools suffered an old problem. China’s rural areas have always had difficulty attracting qualified teachers, who tend to gravitate to well-funded urban schools, where salaries are richer and student attrition rates low. In 1999, fifty years after the proclamation of the People’s Republic, one of China’s best-known directors, Zhang Yimou, released Not One Less, a film about a 13-year old substitute teacher who is assigned to a one-room schoolhouse in a remote village, where she contends with the vagaries of rural life and succeeds in not losing a single pupil. The film’s release coincided with a new action plan by the Ministry of Education to encourage more teachers to pursue their calling in the countryside.

Today, the number of primary schools has fallen by more than half, and the dropout rate has doubled. Zhang himself has fallen into disgrace after authorities discovered he has fathered three children, violating the country’s one-child policy.

Now it appears that the government, after more than a decade studying the causes of mounting discontent in the countryside, has finally acknowledged that it is facing a serious rural crisis, one that could eventually bring about its own demise. Not even during the catastrophe of the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), when millions perished from famine, were China’s peasants as willing as they seem to be today to rise up if some event were to precipitate widespread rebellion.

Like the Qing government, the current government believes it can turn the tide by improving education. There are 160 million children in China enrolled in nine-year education, and roughly 100 million living in rural districts. Since 2011, Beijing has deployed billions of dollars to rehabilitate rural education, aiming to bring the dropout rate below 0.6 percent at primary schools, and below 1.8 percent at middle schools. Much of its funding is directed, predictably, to infrastructure projects—to constructing and upgrading township schools and ensuring they meet safety standards.

Many people, however, including prominent Party officials, argue that the new plan puts too much emphasis on bricks and mortar. They say there are better ways of dealing with the core problem—remoteness—than by building larger schools farther away from poor children. They would like to see more spent to upgrade existing teaching spots and better trained teachers. They believe this would help curtail student migration and avoid mass unemployment among China’s 6.2 million rural teachers.

There are people, too, who envision a revitalization of village education through the application of new technologies, such as the internet and telecommunications, which could bring virtual teachers to students in remote areas.

Whatever course taken, the outcome of this renewed sense of urgency to reform rural education will no doubt play a pivotal role in determining future stability of the countryside and of the nation as a whole.

This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's March/April 2014 print edition.

Paul Nash
Toronto-based Correspondent Paul Nash is a frequent China commentator and serves as a Senior Contributing Editor at Diplomatic Courier.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.