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China’s Education Woes – Part 1: Rural China

With a rich history, the world’s largest human population, and one of the most influential global economies, China is seen as a progressive, up-and-coming competitor to rival the United States in its influence on the global scene. As the country’s technology, economy, and even parts of its political system continue to move forward, its education system is lagging behind. China will have to make significant changes to its education system in order to continue its upward trend of development, maintain its reputation, and close the socio-economic gap between its urban and rural population.

China’s Education System : The Plague of The Two-Track System

China has an interesting education system known as the Two-Track system, which can be traced back to the era that preceded the founding of the current People’s Republic of China in 1949. Due to shortage of education resources, the system, first created by the Nationalist party, was designed so that village schools in rural areas were supported by local communities and county government, and urban schools were supported by the central government. After the PRC (Communist Party) took power from the Nationalists in 1949, the new communist government adopted the same model.

As early as 1950s and 1960s, the central government attempted to adopt a regularized, standardized education system uniformly across the country. The rural population first rejected this opportunity for uniform education because the content and timing of standardized education were unsuitable to the local needs for agricultural labor force. With this rejection, the rural population and county leaders drafted their own education system that better suited the cycle of agricultural life; this separation of urban and rural education earned the Two-Track system its name.

However, as can be seen today, this separation led to unequal education opportunities and varying quality of education. The gap between urban and rural communities emerged almost immediately after the implementation of the Two-Track system. Interestingly enough, the only time this gap was closed and inequalities between urban and rural schools were eliminated was during the two years of Cultural Revolution in 1966 and 1976. Once this short period of Utopian rhetoric dissipated, the Two-Track system gradually returned : urban communities modernized their education system with according to the evolving technology, the growing economy, and globalization, while the rural schooling system did not adapt.

Education Inequality – A Lopsided Country

Along with unsanitary living conditions, lack of clean water and electricity, and of a proper healthcare system, many parts of rural China still suffer from an inadequate education system and inadequate infrastructure. To be exact, there are four problems rural communities face in terms of children’s education;

School Closures

Rural schools have been closing at a concerning rate since 2000. According to Rong Jinglong, director of the Butuo County Education Bureau (one of China’s innumerable rural counties), the county had an elementary school in each of its 190 villages in 2003. As of the count done on January 2013, the county now only has 58 schools remaining. According to the 21st Century Research Institute of China, 63 rural primary schools, 30 learning centers, and 3 middle schools have been vanishing per day since 2000. Children are being deprived of their right to education.


Lack of Support from Local and Central Government

The alarming rate of school closure is closely tied with the second problem – the lack of support and communication between central and local Chinese governments. With no support from the central government, and a lack of funds and systemic support from the local governments, many rural schools cannot afford the most basic teaching materials such as chalk, blackboards, and even desks and chairs. Schools weather and tear over time and with no heating, air conditioning, electricity, or even the most rudimentary means to repair the crumbling school buildings, many schools decide to close.

There are various causes behind the lack of government support. Some cite corruption, others argue that central government officials do not see the necessity in funding schools that have four elementary students attending on a regular basis, and some blame the incompetence of rural community leaders. Another major factor of the lack of government help can be explained by China’s geography itself. It is indeed extremely difficult and nearly impossible for the central government to oversee every single community of the world’s second-largest country. While local governments can request further assistance from the central government, communication and coordination between local and central governments are usually extremely poor. Thus, the urban school system continues to move forward while rural schools stagnate or simply disappear.

Quality of Education

Aside from lack of financial support, the government is also failing to fulfill its responsibilities to provide these communities with well-educated, professionally trained teachers. As schools close and students leave, few teachers decide to stay in the vicinity of rural communities to continue teaching. Consequently, many villages resort to appointing make-shift teachers with no formal training  (and some having received very little education themselves) to fill the void left by the lack of professional educators. Unsurprisingly, many students have extremely poor levels of education. Many students are unable to even write their own names after several years of education in the rural schools.

Increasing Drop-Outs & Overcrowded Schools

As schools continue to close and quality of education becomes increasingly questionable, many families face a dilemma: should they even bother sending their children to school or not? In places such as the Butuo county, some students walk up to four hours, and travel across several villages in order to reach their nearest primary school. As Liu Shankui from the Rural Education Institute of Northeast Normal University said, “it is too hard for young students to walk a long way to school and they are not capable of handling the dangers on the road either”.


As parents lose faith in the school’s ability to properly educate their children, schooling drops to the bottom of their list of priorities. These problems are collectively contributing to the fourth major problem, which is the increasing drop-out rate and the issue of overcrowded schools. Since most of the school closures happen in areas where there are few methods of convenient transportation, many families decide to let their children drop out rather than have them trekking far away to school every day. Some children drop-out before they even finish primary school.

On the other hand, the rural schools that remain open face yet another issue – overcrowding. For example, the Butuo County’s Ethnic Primary School has a quota of less than 1200, yet their current student body counts 1800. With the shortage in education resources, larger rural communities must now find a way to support not only children of their own community, but also students from nearby communities with poor or no access to nearby schools.

Now What? Moving Ahead

As mentioned previously in this article, China’s geographical size makes it extremely difficult to have the central government oversee the entire country’s education system. Some level of task division is necessary. In this sense, the Two-Track system was correctly designed. What went wrong is the execution of the system. Local governments must establish better communication with the central government, and the central government must be more enthusiastic and willing to assist the needs of rural communities. Both levels of government must be willing to cooperate if any changes are to be made to the current situation.


A major problem still remains : China has an innumerable number of small, rural communities, and assessing all of their needs is daunting; meeting those needs immediately is impossible. The Chinese government can however initiate a census system starting from the poorest counties with most urgent needs, based on their regional level of income and on reports of their living conditions from local officials. If need be, the government could even dispatch its own personnel to conduct the reports. Then, the government could work its way up from the poorest regions and carefully craft an agenda that will eventually universalize within the country. This is one of those cases where the trite saying “slow and steady wins the race” rings true.

Neglecting to respond to the current education inequality may plant the seeds for deep divisions within China, as rural communities drift apart from urban communities. This can’t possibly be good for any country, let alone China, which grounds its political rhetoric on nationalism and unity.

The goal may appear impossible to achieve, but it has been done before. Prior to the times of Cultural Revolution, China faced very similar circumstances to the ones it witnesses today. There were high drop-out rates, poor literacy rates, few properly constructed schools, and a scarcity of resources. Even so, just two years of proactive attitude, communication and cooperation between local and central government, as well as positive thinking, were enough to bring up the rural education levels to match those of urban areas of China. China has a much stronger economy and a far more stable political climate today. Who says it can’t be accomplished again? Although this time, let us hope that it does not take a largely catastrophic fiasco of cultural reform to trigger beneficial policies.

– Tiffany Lee


Featured Photo: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works  pmorgan, Creative Commons, Flickr

Photo 1 Body: AttributionNo Derivative Works Leo Kan, Creative Commons, Flickr

Photo 2 Body: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Steven Yuen-Pak Liu, Creative Commons, Flickr

Photo 3 Body: Attribution ToGa Wanderings, Creative Commons, Flickr


About Tiffany Lee

Tiffany (Chae Yeon) Lee is studying Political Science and International Relations at McGill University. She was born in South Korea and immigrated to Canada in 2004. Her interests include current issues (specifically in East Asia), environmentalism, human rights, and learning foreign languages and cultures.

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