China's community teachers: A historical debt still unpaid

10 June 2011

China’s community teachers had for many years been the backbone of the country’s rural education system. Most did not have formal qualifications and were recruited primarily to provide children in the countryside with a basic education. They were usually only paid one third to one sixth of a state school teacher’s salary, had no job security and received no benefits.

In the 1990s, the central government introduced a policy designed to eliminate the huge pay gap between community (民办) teachers and state school (公办) teachers by the end of century. Under this policy, community teachers (sometimes called substitute teachers) were to be promoted to state school status and given the same salary and benefits, and in 2000, the Ministry of Education declared that the problem of community teachers had basically been solved. However, in early 2005, an unprecedented number of reports appeared in the Chinese media on teachers in rural areas who had no old-age pension and who were getting paid much less than state teachers even though they were doing the same work. On 27 March 2006, the Ministry of Education announced that within three years it would screen and discharge the country's remaining 448,000 so-called substitute teachers.

An intractable problem

However, the problem of community teachers is still far from resolved. There was a recent case in Bobai county, Guangxi, for example, of more than 40 community teachers who were duped into paying a fee of 40,000 yuan to be reassigned as state teachers. Their gullibility cost them more than one million yuan in total.

The provinces of Guangxi, Xinjiang, Shaanxi, Hubei, Fujian and Hunan, as well as the cities of Chongqing and Shenzhen, have all now announced the introduction of old-age pension schemes for substitute teachers. But as Li Feiyue, of Citizens' Rights and Livelihood Watch, an organization that has long championed the rights of community teachers, has pointed out, such pension schemes are few and far between and often rather miserly. Teachers who wish to join such schemes, notes Li, have to pay a steep joining fee and the amount retirement-age teachers actually receive is very small, typically 300-400 yuan per month.

In March of last year, a netizen posted an essay on Frontier Forum (天涯论坛) entitled, "An unacceptably ungrateful society: a proposal to solve the problem of old-age provision for elderly community teachers." The post, in a creative interpretation of the law, suggested that:

According to China's labour laws, a temporary worker who has been working continuously for the same employer for more than ten years must receive from the employer various welfare benefits, including the payment of old-age pension contributions. We propose that teachers who have been teaching for more than ten years retire with the welfare benefits stipulated in the law and that teachers who have been teaching for less than ten years receive lump-sum compensation and priority in applying for rural old-age pensions.

CLB Director Han Dongfang has talked to several groups of teachers over the last few years, including community teachers in Liaoning and most recently in October 2010, community teachers' representative Wang Yanwu from Santai county, Sichuan, who in 2009 travelled with his colleagues all the way to the capital Beijing to petition the courts and education authorities for their pensions only to be forcibly sent back home.

Wang Yanwu worked for 25 years as a community teacher in rural primary schools before being laid off in 1985, when he was given severance pay of just over 1,000 yuan and no social security benefits. Wang was just 49-years-old when he was laid off, and he did not worry too much about his pension at the time because he could earn a living from farming. It was only in the last few years, as he neared his 70s, that Wang started to think about his pension entitlements and how he was going to provide for his family.

Pay up or get nothing

In 2009, the municipal government in Mianyang proposed two options for those local community teachers with no pension. Wang explained:

The first option was that we could buy a pension, which meant paying 38,000 yuan out of our own pocket into the scheme. I said that on our community teacher's pay, we could not earn 38,000 yuan in several decades, which is why I didn't buy in. The alternative was to accept a fixed annual stipend of a minimum of 950 yuan and a maximum of 1,200 yuan. Teachers like me with 25 years' teaching service could get a fixed annual stipend of 1,200 yuan, less than 100 yuan per month.

However Wang pointed out, even this pathetically low stipend has not yet been paid by the local government because of "financial constraints."

If on the other hand they had been able to buy into the pension fund, they would have got 391 yuan per month in 2009 and 510 yuan per month in 2010.

Wang's first port of call in his quest for justice was the county education bureau. But officials there told him "your problem has already been solved." Wang and his colleagues then went to the provincial government. "The provincial government told us that the Mianyang municipal government had solved our problem for us. They said there was nothing they could do, so we decided to go to Beijing."

Tilting at windmills

After five days of hardships and close shaves with "petitioner retrievers," Wang and ten colleagues arrived in Beijing on 6 July. But on 8 July, a little over a day after they checked into a hostel in Beijing's Fengtai district, a dozen men burst into their room at 2 a.m., carted them into a minibus and drove them back to Mianyang against their will.

The men who escorted the teachers back home had Beijing accents.They would not let them get off the van to go to the toilet and gave each of them only one packet of instant noodles to eat during the whole trip, which took a whole day and a night. After arriving in Mianyang, the teachers were handed over to officials from the County education bureau who took them back to their hometowns and villages.

Wang said the county education bureau accused them of having made an "illegal petition." Since that incident, Wang said: "We travelled twice this year to Beijing, but came a cropper both times, because men from their Beijing office caught us before we could petition the authorities."

Asked why the teachers did not approach their local trade union, Wang said: "We didn't know a union we could turn to. All we knew was that there was a union for state teachers and that there wasn't one for community teachers."

Wang and his colleagues did however think about solving their pension problems through legal channels:

Last year we submitted a dossier about our case to the Supreme People's Court. The court's reply prompted us to urge the government to come up with a solution to our problem. But this year came and we still hadn't heard from the government, so we decided to submit more materials to the Supreme Court. The court stated on 19 August that we would get a formal reply within two months, in-mid October.

Why can't a systemic solution to the problem of community teachers be found?

The well-known educationalist Xu Xiliang thinks that the reason no solution to the problem of community teachers has been found is that Chinese society has too many historical debts. The problem of community teachers is just one of many. Barefoot doctors, retired army veterans, laid-off workers, etc., are all potential problems waiting to surface. The thinking is if no wholesale solution can be found, it may be better not to solve just one or two of them in order to preserve social stability, he said.

Liu Feiyue of Citizens' Rights and Livelihood Watch thinks that the central government has washed its hands of this problem and left it to the provincial authorities to deal with. But the vast majority of provincial governments have so far failed to propose any real solutions and as a result, community teachers across China are petitioning the authorities in Beijing for a just outcome.


Han Dongfang's interview with Wang Yanwu was first broadcast in five episodes in October and November 2010. To read the full Chinese transcript or listen to the audio file of the broadcast please go to the workers’ voices section of our Chinese language website and follow the links.............

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