County government squeezes out community teachers

23 February 2010

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 were to be promoted to state school status and given the same salary and benefits, however many local governments refused to comply claiming they could not afford to pay the higher salaries. Instead, they simply fired hundreds of community teachers with no compensation.

In April 2009, CLB Director Han Dongfang talked to two community teachers from Jianchang county in Liaoning, Wang Feng’e and Yang Shuge, who had both been fired by the local government in 2007, about their attempts to seek redress and the corrupt and underhand activities of local officials.

Rather than give community teachers equal pay for equal work as directed by the central government, the Jiancheng county government instituted the so-called “622” policy that mandated that for every six teachers promoted to state school teacher status, two had to be retired and two more dismissed. The selections were made based on the annual teachers’ examination, and for several years in the 2000s, the county authorities used the results of these examinations to winnow out the corps of nearly 700 community teachers, sacking and forcibly retiring hundreds of them.

Exploiting the vulnerable

In 2006, the Liaoning provincial authorities criticized Jianchang county’s “622” policy, and demanded that all community teachers be promoted to state school status as a matter of course. Nevertheless, Jianchang persisted with the examinations, arguing that the policy had to be continued another year for “procedural” reasons. The most likely “procedural” reason however was the desire to sack as many teachers as possible before the implementation of the Labour Contract Law on 1 January 2008.

Wang Feng’e was recruited as a community teacher in 1974 during the dying days of the Cultural Revolution. As most colleges had been closed down at the time, Wang herself had only graduated middle school and consequently taught the students basic Chinese language and mathematics. “My monthly wage then was five yuan,” she recalled. “That’s what you got for five work points. Later, it rose to 30 yuan.”

More than three decades later, in 2007, she was still only earning 350 yuan a month, about one-fifth of the salary of a state school teacher in the same position. That year she took and “failed” the county’s teachers’ exam and was dismissed with no compensation. No explanation was given of why she had been failed. The decision was relayed verbally by the principal of the county’s “main school” (总校) who said Wang could not see her file because, he claimed, all the relevant documents were with the county government.

Wang was one year short of retirement and unable to get the pension she had previously been promised by the school principal, amounting to two-thirds of what a state school teacher would get. “The county authorities said we had been misinformed,” she said. “They did not recognize this.”

While working, Wang had no social security or medical insurance benefits. Now out of work, all she has is a 130 yuan monthly stipend from the county government, equivalent to the local minimum subsistence allowance. This handout was hardly enough to cover daily living expenses let alone medical and other bills incurred in the care of her ailing husband. Moreover it disqualified her from getting any other welfare entitlements. Wang said all she had to fall back on was: “a bit of land, for growing crops.”

Fighting back

Wang was one of 68 teachers who formed an informal lobbying group, seeking redress for their dismissals and forced retirement between 2005 and 2007. Most were classroom veterans, with service records ranging from 24 years to as long as 42 years in one case. The 68 teachers had three main demands: Reinstatement for those teachers dismissed before retirement age; compensation for the many years of lower pay for the same work as state school teachers, and, in the case of teachers who had already reached retirement age, the same retirement benefits as state school teachers.

One of the most active members of the group was Yang Shuge, who like Wang started teaching Chinese and mathematics during the Cultural Revolution. “At that time, all of us were primary school teachers,” he said. “Some of us did a year or six months of middle school and went back to primary school to teach, and some managed to get several years at middle school.” Although Yang was qualified to become a state school teacher, he was passed over when reforms enabling such a promotion were approved in 1986. While state school teachers of the same grade were getting over 1,300 yuan a month, Yang and his colleagues got around 350 yuan.

Yang too learned of his dismissal from the principal of the main school. But in his case, he challenged the legal basis of the action. He argued, “this all goes back to Central Committee Document No.32,” a five-point blueprint for educational reform through a mixture of school closures, promotion of community teachers to state school status, new recruitment, dismissals and retirements, that was the policy underlying the state drive to eliminate pay differentials by 2000. Yang stated that in ignoring this document and pressing ahead with its own “622” policy, the county was violating the law. “This was a matter of systemic reform to reduce headcount, and it should all have been completed before 2000. Getting rid of us in 2007 after all those years of service was illegal.”

Yang and the other campaigners presented their demands to the county, provincial and national-level authorities. They traveled to Beijing in 2007 and 2008 to petition the Ministry of Education, and State Petitions Bureau. The ministry kept its doors closed to them, and the petitions office simply referred them back to the county. The group’s representatives were given a “supervisory order” (督办令), a document supposedly requiring the county authorities resolve the matter, but the document made no reference to any specific law or policy, had no specific demands, and was effectively worthless. The county authorities ignored it.

Pushing too hard

Provincial level officials were more sympathetic, agreeing that the “622” policy was “unreasonable.” However, nothing was actually done to help the teachers, and when they persisted, official indulgence wore thin. A mass petition outside the provincial government in Shenyang at the end of 2007 ended with the detention of Yang and two of his colleagues by the police:

There were more than 30 of us, all sitting in front of the government building shouting and wailing. The governor came to receive us, but we would not leave. Our people were kneeling, the women in front and the men behind, all weeping and saying they were victims of injustice and demanding redress. Then guards appeared at the entrance. They contacted the petitions office and persuaded us to go to there. The head of the county government and the head of the petitions office talked things over with some of our representatives, and tried to get us to go home. But they could not persuade us. I said nobody will leave unless you address us all. The county governor and the head of the petitions office did do that, but still people did not go home. Later, in the evening, we were told that the provincial Party secretary would see us. But by eight o’clock, he had not appeared, and so we thought he was not going to do anything, and the county had been messing around with us. Then a phone call was made and the Public Security appeared, along with the riot squad, and at four minutes past midnight, we were forcibly taken back home. Halfway back to Jianchang, the Public Security people stopped the vehicle, and called out some names. These people were sent to a detention centre, one of us for five days and two for two weeks. The pretext for the detention was that we had been ‘disrupting the normal conduct of business’ at the provincial government entrance. This is normally what happens when you mount a petition - you get detained.

Losing heart

Wang Feng’e conceded that after so many setbacks: “Some of us have lost heart.” Han suggested that the teachers take legal action, but Yang countered that a similar, considerably larger, group of dismissed teachers in the neighbouring county of Suizhong, had their suit rejected by the court “because the court was afraid to take the case on.” Regardless, Yang said, the teachers had ruled out legal action on cost grounds, which, he estimated, could run to 1,500 yuan per year, beyond the means of people living on 130 yuan a month. As for seeking union help, Wang said: “We did not even try. After you retire, what does the union care about you?”

Yang is still of working age and, more than anything else, wants his job back, but there seems little hope of achieving this:

We are not at retirement age, and we want to go on working. And when we reach retirement age, pensions should be properly arranged for us. The other day the county governor received us, and I raised these questions. I said we all worked at a senior level in primary schools, all of us have at least 30 years’ experience, and we should be getting, as a matter of course, 1,800 yuan. He did not accept it. He said that basically reinstatement to our former positions and equal pay for equal work are not feasible

The only concession won so far, after years of lobbying, has been a promised 100 yuan rise in the 130 yuan monthly allowance, to 230 yuan.

And the teachers revealed an even darker side to the county’s teacher-employment policies. They said a provincial investigation had uncovered the practice of replacing dismissed and retired teachers with unqualified casuals, known in Chinese as “black” (黑民办) community teachers, including escort girls, laid-off factory workers, forestry personnel, armed police college graduates and others. Moreover, although paid at an even lower rate than Yang and his colleagues (150 yuan a month), these casuals had, in many cases, bought their positions because they could later “pass” the teachers exam and be elevated to state school teacher status.

“They are the sons and daughters of people with power and influence,” Yang said. In the early 2000s, while community teachers who had dedicated their lives to education were being dismissed, these “black” teachers were taken on in their hundreds, with 110 being hired in 2005 alone. And all the time, Yang said, there was a shortage of real teachers in the county.

Six months later: Still no change

When Han called Wang Feng’e again six month’s later to see if there had been any progress, she revealed that the government had still not made good on its promise to increase the teachers’ subsistence allowance of 130 yuan per month. “They said it would be raised, they said they would raise it by 100, but as of now they have not given us the 100,” she said.

In the follow up interview Wang talked in more detail about how the community teachers had been weeded out in the 2007 “examination” process; “It didn’t matter what you scored on the test; if you were in the bottom 20 percent, the bottom 20 percent all had to resign,” Wang explained. The teachers were forced to compete against each other to stay employed. “There were only five points’ difference between the top score and the bottom 20 percent,” she continued.

“Everyone was saying that if you had money, you passed. Whoever gave more gifts was like that...if you didn’t give gifts, it wasn’t possible,” she said. Some who took the test “hadn’t been teaching for six or seven years,” Wang said, “and they became regular employees. They had been away working, doing business. And they came back, took the test and passed...they had money and connections in the Education Bureau,” she continued.

Neither the county nor the school provided formal procedures or anything in writing to document the resignations, Wang explained, “They just didn’t let you go to work...they just told you, and didn’t let you go to work. If you went to the school, there were no classes for you.” This was the case for the 72 teachers across the county who were dismissed between 2005 and 2008.

After Wang’s group of teachers was dismissed, they approached the county leadership again. They were told to their faces that: “Everyone in our group was mediocre; and that we had been cheating the people; this is what they told us… The director of the Education Bureau even said, ‘You are all useless.’”

Wang replied; “I’ve worked for over 30 years; what were you doing earlier? Why didn’t you say anything earlier? Why did you use me for over 30 years and only then say something? My questions left him speechless!”

Han Dongfang’s interviews with Wang Feng’e and Yang Shuge were broadcast in seven episodes in April and May 2009. The follow up interview with Wang Feng'e was broadcast in five episodes in October 2009. To read the full Chinese transcripts or listen to the audio files of the broadcasts please go to the workers’ voices section of our Chinese language website and follow the links.

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