China’s Education Gap – A Surprising Factor in Rural Poverty


Many hold China’s education system up as a symbol of excellence around the world. In fact, Shanghai high schoolers recently participated in a study of students from 65 countries, representing 80% of the world’s economy. The result? Shanghai students scored best in the world for math, reading, and science. In fact, East Asia had 7 of the top 10 scores. The United States, by comparison, scored 36th place. While education in China is a tremendous benefit for some, there’s more to the story.

A gaping chasm exists in the school system. China once pioneered a merit-based system of education through standardized test scores. Now a system that was once an equalizer perpetuates inequality.

For instance, the Shanghai students who scored #1 in the world were part of 170,000 students enrolled in the city. 570,000 more students were not allowed to attend those schools because the were part of migrant worker families. They were not born in Shanghai and therefore don’t have access to any schools there.

The education gap is largely defined on rural vs. urban status, and there are significant gaps at all levels of schooling.

Primary School in China

China requires nine years of school of all students and provides the education through a government-run school system. Six years of primary or elementary school are provided along with three years of junior secondary (middle school). As soon as elementary school, facilities and quality of teachers start to create a gap between rural students and their urban counterparts.

In urban classrooms, students use state-of-the-art technology. They learn English, reading, math and science from well-qualified educators. By contrast, many rural schools include cramped dormitories where students eat and sleep because they’ve traveled from their homes in the mountains. Teachers are under-resourced and lack incentives.

Chinese Secondary School

Secondary (high school) education is typically three more years and is the financial responsibility of the student’s family. As high school nears, a financial barrier starts to widen the gap between rural and urban students. Only about 40% of rural students even attend high school because of the cost. Many decide to drop out in middle school. They pursue a trade to start earning income for their struggling families.

Higher Education in China

By the time students are ready to take college entrance exams, 95% of rural students have dropped out of the system. The remaining 5% of rural students reach a Chinese university through an unfair and discriminatory system. Since college entrance is based on test scores, all students are required to take the entrance exam. The exams are expected to be completed in a student’s hometown, recording a rural or urban status. This status is a key factor in discrimination.

Major cities like Beijing and Shanghai are given higher quotas for student admittance to colleges in hopes of yielding better test scores. As an example, research showed an application from Beijing is 41 times more likely to be admitted to Peking University than a comparable student from a rural province.

Urban Migration’s Effect on Rural Education

As over 250M people migrate from rural to urban areas in search of higher paying work, over 60M students are left behind. These children are typically raised by their grandparents. Not only are their family relationships fractured, they often have to take on more responsibilities because their aging guardians are unable. This means dropping out of school as soon as they can plow fields and tend crops.

The children that follow their parents to the cities face education challenges as well. The internal passport system of Hukou limits access to urban schools for these kids. Without urban registration, parents often hire private tutors and create makeshift private schools. This solution is expensive and fails to compare in quality of education to the government-run urban schools. Complicated and corrupt urban registration systems further compound the issue for rural families. Many parents are left with no choice but to send their children back to rural hometowns for inferior schooling.

Stories of the Education Gap

Two stories from Helen Gao in the NY Times illustrate the divide perfectly:

“Chang Qing, a friend and mother of a 16-year-old girl, has been preparing her daughter, Xiaoshuang, for America since the girl was a toddler. She played her tapes of English lessons made from Disney movies and later hosted a steady stream of exchange students from America to hone her child’s accent. Now, her daughter speaks impeccable English and attends a private academy in Beijing where annual tuition is around $24,000. Ms. Chang believes that nothing short of an Ivy League education will suffice.

On a trip to the countryside in Hunan Province (the home of Mao Zedong), I met Jiang Heng, a skinny 11-year-old whose parents work in a handbag factory in neighboring Guangdong. The boy attends a local elementary school that takes him an hour and a half to walk to and, together with his younger brother, is looked after by his grandparents. I asked him what he wanted to do after high school. He looked confused as if the answer was too obvious. ‘I want to be a migrant worker,’ he told me, without blinking.”

Causes of Poverty in China

1. Rural-urban Migration

For the first time in its history, China became an urbanized country in 2012. That means the urban population (52%) is larger then it’s rural one. People are moving into urban centers at a record pace in search of high-paying jobs. While this creates a substantial amount of poverty in the cities with people taking underpaying jobs and increasing their cost of living substantially, the most severe poverty is in the rural areas. That’s where the ones left behind (women, children, elderly) now struggle daily to survive.

2. Hukou System and Migrant Workers

The Hukou system is the household registration program in China. Among other demographics, it identifies every person as either rural or urban. The unfair and discriminatory system began in 1958 and is credited with preventing large slums from forming around major cities like those in India and Latin America. Today, though, it’s only a major barrier to economic reform and prevents migrant workers from receiving government provided services like healthcare, education and pension. Since these services are managed by regional governments, rather than the centralized national government, Chinese citizens are only eligible to receive the benefits from their local government. When they move, they are not eligible to receive benefits from their new regional government.

As an example, according to The Economist, “Shanghai had 170,000 students enrolled in high school in 2010, but there were 570,000 migrant children aged 15 to 19 living in the city who were unable to attend those schools.”

3. Education Gap

Education is widely accepted as a key to eliminating poverty. The Chinese government recognized this in the 1980s and began a nine-year compulsory education system to cover kids from ages 6-15. The system has had some success for urban children, but has created a large divide between urban and rural students. Many of the urban students attend state-of-the-art facilities to learn from outstanding teachers. Rural children are subjected to deteriorating buildings, poor materials and substandard education. “Rural students stand virtually no chance when competing academically with their urban counterparts,” Jiang Nengjie, an independent filmmaker who make a documentary on these children, explained for an NY Times interview.

Education is also a benefit subject to the national family planning policy (One-child Policy) as well. There are exceptions, specifically in rural areas, but many families are still subject to the policy. If not exempt, only one child per family are eligible for government provided education. Additional education is the financial responsibility of the family.

4. Access to Healthcare

Healthcare suffers from a similar challenge. While it is also considered a basic right under the Chinese constitution (along with education and social security), there is a disparity between urban and rural. While the central government provides some funding, most of the funding comes at the local government level. All of the administration comes from the local government. For families in the rural areas, their local government often is underfunded, medical clinics are few and far between, and the level of care is lacking.

5. Agricultural Lifestyle

Over two-thirds of China’s rural population make their living from farming, forestry or fishing. The poorer the household, the larger portion of income is derived from agricultural activities. With the urban migration of males, it leaves women and children to particularly vulnerable. Farming in rural China faces several challenges:

  • Remote locations without paved roads and poor markets
  • Unsafe drinking water
  • Naturally dry climate, over-cultivation and excessive demand on water and soil
  • Lack of skills and capacity
  • Reliance on traditional farming equipment and techniques

From Project Partner


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