Education in China: A short introduction

Despite many ongoing improvements to the education system in China, for many children, standards of education in China have been falling in the past decade or so since the start of the economic reforms. The numbers of children receiving adequate education are dropping with the exclusion of an every growing number of them. Drop out rates also appear to be on the increase and there has been a corresponding rise in child labour. This lack of decent education corresponds to the increasing number of child workers and both issues need to be addressed.

In 2001, the education budget was reportedly only 3.19% of the CGP. Although this is the highest rate since 1949, it is still much less than the average education budget in the world - around 5% of GDP. According to Chinese law, the state must provide compulsory nine year basic education. This is, for many Chinese the only form of education they receive, especially in rural areas. However, according to statistics from the China Education and Research Network, the number of primary schools has decreased from 832,309 in 1985 to 609,626 in 1998. The new enrollment of both primary school and second level school has decreased. For example, from 1978 to 2000, the entrance rate for primary school dropped from 15.19% to 10.28%, and the entrance rate for secondary school dropped from 6.9% to 6.61%. The entrance rate of students of all levels reportedly dropped from 22.2% to 17.4% of the total population. (note 1) There are also reports which reveal large numbers of children excluded from school in some of the ethnic autonomous regions in China. (note 2)

Reforms within the education system and the privatization of the economy have led to a dramatic increase in school fees. Schools may now charge fees for tuition, for books, for school clothing and the families must also pay transport costs and provide meals for the children. Chinafs Compulsory Education Law came into effect in 1995; article 18 states that local governments are obliged to ensure that all children attend school for at least nine years. However, the law also states that local governments are at least partly responsible for education funding and this has led to at least a 10-fold increase in school fees between 1991 and 1997. (note 3)

In one case monitored by China Labour Bulletin [CLB], a village primary school principal from Tongxi County, Ningxia Province traveled to Beijing to petition the central authorities for funds for his school after attempts to get money from local authorities had proved useless. He was appealing for funds to pay for books for primary school and for assistance to be given to the parents who could not afford the school fees of 90 Yuan for each child. According to the headmaster, after successive drought in the region, the farmers were virtually unable to feed themselves and could not afford the fees or the books.(note 4)

Growing numbers of children are not attending school and seek employment instead because the poor quality education often makes attendance seem a waste of time for both the parents and the children. Schools in most villages suffer from problems such as overcrowding, inadequate sanitation and unqualified teachers. Many parents who send their children to school want their children to attend a university or a higher school, but in the villages, most teachers themselves have not received a higher education and the quality of teaching is very poor. Children in rural communities have a very limited opportunity of getting into a university and many parents ultimately choose to send their children to work in farms or factories instead.

National statistics claim extremely high enrollment rates even in poor areas although it is becoming harder for the government to ignore the fact that increasing numbers of children, especially girls, are dropping out of school. According one survey by the British Department of International Development reported in the media, one county in Gansu province north-west China had a graduation rate of only 25% of the children who enrolled in primary school. All were boys. Research conducted by the Beijing-based Internal Migrants Legal Aid and Research Centre in 2000 found that many child flower sellers, so-called gflower childrenh working the Beijing bars came from You county in central Hunan province. You county reportedly has a school drop out rate of 40% among children over 10 years old. Increasing school fees are a primary reason for the increase in drop outs and corresponding increase in child workers.

Although in direct contravention of Chinese education law, many schools force children to work for the school in order to make up school budgets starved of central government funds. The well publicized case in 2001 of the fireworks workshop attached to the Fanglin village school in Wanzai County, Jiangxi Province which exploded killing some 60 primary school children and three teachers is just one example of the ways schools are being forced to earn money to pay for basic equipment and teaching. In many other regions, children perform tasks ranging from producing crafts and handiwork to farming. Recent reports suggest that despite the publicity surrounding the Jiangxi explosion, little has changed on the ground to halt the use of school workshops and to increase funding enabling schools to be financially stable. There have also been many reports in the Chinese media of schools being forced to sell off buildings or land in order to raise income from rents or to conform to local reforms in land management. This again has resulted in decease in the classrooms and facilities available for schools.

In one recent report in July 2003, a school in Haikou, Hainan Island School had restored to fining all staff, including teachers and cleaners, if they failed to fulfill a quota given to them by school administration for the number of enrolling students they are personally responsible for. The report also stated that those failing to meet the quota were also liable to lose their jobs. (note 5)


There are very few educational opportunities for the children of temporary workers in the cities, large numbers of children of migrant parents living in Chinafs biggest and most prosperous cities are being denied the right to education by local authorities on the ground that they do not possess the correct registration. As a result of this policy, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of children may have already been deprived of their right to education. Over the next decade, millions of children may suffer similar fates. Estimates based on incomplete statistics point to a current total of 1.8 million migrant children between the ages of 6 to 14 who should receive compulsory education but are not receiving any education at al. This figure could be much higher is based on estimates of China's migrant population which is between 100 and 150 million.(note 6)

According to some statistics in 2002, there were over 200 schools in Beijing and over 519 schools in Shanghai providing more affordable schooling for the children of migrant workers. The parents pay less than the fees charged by the public schools which are often already full and do not want to accept migrant children. However, the quality of these schools is often very low and there is not enough basic equipment. This has led to some local authorities closing down many schools as part of other government policies on improving educational standards. However, such moves have left the children with no classrooms to attend at all. In February 2003, 16 non-public schools serving the migrant population were forced to close in Beijing and in Shanghai, authorities closed over 70 schools between 1999 and 2002, ostensibly because they were not built with the approval of the education supervisory authorities. However, in many instances these schools are refused permission to operate by local authorities leading them to open and operate illegally.

Extensive media reports on the problem and pressure from some government officials led to regulations issued in May 1998, which allow for the existence of unregistered schools and asked that all major cities must allow migrant children into the areas schools if they had lived there for more than six months. However, in a clear example of the many discriminatory policies and treatment faced by migrants, many schools responded by charging extra fees for migrants making such schools unaffordable. In Beijing these fees can amount to Rmb 2,000 with an added book-borrowing fee of Rmb 480 per term. (note 7) The vast majority of migrant workers are paid no more than the minimum wage, which in Beijing is Rmb 400, putting the local schools way beyond the means of most migrants.

According to some sources, only a few cities have granted legal status to migrant schools. Xiamen in particular has been praised by official Chinese media for its handling of migrant schools and its attempts to help such schools register and improve standards. The city government has reportedly set aside three million Rmb to raise the standards of migrant schools by training teachers and improving school facilities and safety standards of the premises. Huang Yang of the Xiamen Education Bureaufs development and planning department stated that; "Our city government leadership has recognized that a large number of our migrant workers will eventually settle down here. Their children's education will affect the quality of our future resident's".(note 8) However this acceptance of the need to educate migrant children is not one commonly shared and migrants in general face discrimination and in some cases hatred by the local population.

Official figures estimated the number of migrant workers in China in 2002 to be 94 million people, an increase of over 4.7 million from 2001. In effect migrant workers make up around 8 percent of the total population of China and are increasingly a group which contributes enormously to the economic viability of Chinese cities as well as ensuring that many millions of rural families stay afloat through their remittances. Yet migrant workers remain one of the most impoverished and unprotected sectors of Chinese society. Despite recent revisions to the Hukou residency system which underlies many of the problems facing migrants and their children, there has been little impact for the majority of migrants and it is estimated that most of the changes and relaxation in the residence permit system will benefit the wealthy white collar migrants working in larger cities and not the vast numbers of migrants working in unskilled manual jobs.


Note 1 : Deng Yuwen, “Who should buy the check for compulsory education”,

Note 2 : Human Rights in China, “Western poor children facing crisis”, July 20, 2002

Note 3 :China Statistical Yearbook 1999, China Statistics Press, Beijing

Note 4 :Beijing Youth daily 11 September 2001

Note 5 : Workers Daily, 2 July 2003

Note 6 : Human Rights in China, “Shutting out the poorest: Discrimination Against the Most Disadvantaged Migrant Children in City Schools,” May 2002

Note 7 :Workers Daily 30 September 2000

Note 8 :Straits Times 19 April 2003

November 2003

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