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Education in China: The Urban/Rural Disparity Explained


Abstract and Figures

China’s ups and downs over the past 50 years reflect the political ideology and the economic reforms applied to its social and economic development. Since the 1990s, China has achieved unprecedented social progress and global economic success. Along with these progresses, new reforms have been implemented to restructure and rebalance China’s education system. In spite of these reforms, disparities in education continue to exist between urban/rural areas and regions in China. At a time when the education system has expanded in size to a point unprecedented in China’s history, a crisis of quality education perpetuates the slow development of China’s rural areas. These rural areas are generally found in China’s western and border regions, contain a prevalence of ethnic minorities, and are less economically developed. The poor quality of education in China’s rural areas is evidenced in high drop-out rates, low enrollment, poor teacher quality, lack of resources, and inappropriate school curriculum. Policies and changes are suggested in line with the human development paradigm in order to improve education and participation and foster human development in rural China. Improving infrastructure to overcome geographic barriers is fundamental to increasing western growth, but increasing human capital formation (education and medical care) is also crucial because only through these improvements can China come up with new and better ideas to solve centuries-old problems like unbalanced growth.
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P. Ayoroa, B. Bailey, A. Crossen, and M.A. Geo-JaJa (*)
McKay School of Education, Brigham Young University 306P MCKB, Provo, UT, 84602, USA
Chapter 7
Education in China: The Urban/Rural Disparity
Patricia Ayoroa, Bethany Bailey, Audrey Crossen,
and Macleans A. Geo-JaJa
J. Zajda (ed.), Globalisation, Ideology and Education Policy Reforms, Globalisation,
Comparative Education and Policy Research 11, DOI 10.1007/978-90-481-3524-0_7,
© Springer Science + Business Media B.V. 2010
Eastern coastal region
Central region
Western region
Hebei Tianjin
Inner Mongolia
Map 1
Decades after China’s economic liberalization began, China developed a hybrid
economic structure. In 2005, China’s economic growth reached 8.8% and total
foreign investment increased 13% while inflation was less than 1% (People’s Daily,
December 31, 2005). China’s rapid growth has fueled a geometric progression in
90 P. Ayoroa et al.
residents’ saving deposits, remarkable increase in per capita income, and a decline
in the poverty rate from 64% at the beginning of reform to a mere 10% in 2004.
However, these competitive positions and rapid transformations have come to
undermine quality growth leading to different kinds of isolation, and disparities
such as income inequality have risen. For instance, the per capita income of urban
residents is more than three times higher than that of rural residents. This inequality
is propelled by the growing education disparity between the highly educated urban
working class and the uneducated rural population. There have also been increases
in inequality of health and education outcomes within regions. Restrictions on rural
and urban migration have further limited opportunities for the relatively poor rural
population in the western and central regions. This region is rather backward eco-
nomically and is home to many ethnic minorities, but it is key to the stability of the
state and society. The end result has been that poor villages in this region cannot
afford to provide good services and poor households cannot afford the high private
costs of basic public services. Overall, however, the robust growth of the aggregate
economy has meant positive gains, even as income disparities and lack of basic
infrastructure have increased.
Economic and social inequality that has increased alongside spectacular perfor-
mance in growth and poverty reduction requires proactive measures and investment
in order to promote more equitable growth in the future. Resource inequality has
caused great ethnic, gender, and class separation, resulting in disparaging income
gaps, poverty, and a general decrease in the quality of life. For example, minority
groups experience inequity in promotion of education, development of infrastructure,
and discrimination in investment on social security protection. China’s ethnic
minority groups, though only 30% of its population and 16% of its total economic
output, still represent over 120 million citizens.
This situation is unfavorable to the development of the national economy and
social stability and unity among China’s various nationalities. These minority
groups are the stabilizing core of Chinese society and are found most prevalently
in China’s western/central region, a region composing 70% of China’s land mass.
As Liu states, a large “percent of China’s population is in the countryside. China
cannot become prosperous if its villages do not prosper, and its economy cannot
be stabilized if its rural areas are unstable” (Liu 2006, p. 1). The charts in the
figures illustrate the importance of rural areas in terms of population density and
total land area.
This urban/rural disparity reaches all aspects of Chinese society, including education.
Access to high-quality primary education in rural China thus has direct implications for
the future welfare of millions of Chinese citizens as well as for China’s national develop-
ment goals. Figures 7.1–7.8 shows the possible significant impact that unbalanced and
uncoordinated improvement of education in western/central rural areas of China may
have on national economic and social development.
This is especially significant in light of the rapidly rising returns to education in
China and the increasingly high social benefits of primary education in particular.
However, students in rural areas of China receive poorer quality education than do
their urban counterparts. Although China requires 9 years of compulsory education,
917 Education in China: The Urban/Rural Disparity Explained
Teaching Areas in China
Counties and Towns
Rural Areas
(Sargent, 2005)
Fig. 7.2 Teaching Areas in China (from Sargent)
Per Capita Annual Income of Urban and Rural
Household (in Yuan)
Source: China Statistical Yearbook, 1997
1978 1980 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996
Fig. 7.1 Per Capita Annual Income of Urban and Rural Families (from China Statistical Yearbook
school attendance is falling in parts of rural China as government cuts in the
education budget and school fees increase. Girls are particularly affected. In some
villages, only 20% of girls and 40% of boys are in school. Students from disadvan-
taged households receive substandard levels of education as a result of poor-quality
teachers, lack of resources, and an inappropriate curriculum (Tsang 1994, 1996).
Case studies in specific regions have found very large differences in educational
expenditures within provinces, and even within regions (West 1997, Saith 2001).
What needs to be done to improve the quality of education in rural China? Should
Human Development Theory or Human Capital Theory be used as the basis for
policy change?
92 P. Ayoroa et al.
Qun jian Tian Urban (Coastal region)
China's tot.
Tot. land
Fig. 7.3 Caption (from Tian)
Rural (Western/ Central)
China's tot.
Tot. land
GDP Percent
Fig. 7.4 Caption (from Tian)
7.1 Human Development or Human Capital: Which
for Rural China?
Geo-JaJa (2007) in a study on poverty alleviation in Nigeria’s Niger Delta states
that “access to education is of core significance for development and for mitigating
poverty.” It is also noteworthy that increasing emphasis on human development and
human development reporting in the Delta implies that the government is required
937 Education in China: The Urban/Rural Disparity Explained
Human Development Human Capital
Basic Knowledge and Skills
Remove all barriers
Military Security
Rights as Investment
Means Only
Grass Roots
Short-term growth and gain
Rate of return investment
Reduce National budgets, increase market
More Governance
Human Security
Rights to Empower
Ends and Means
Capabilities and Functionings
Holistic long-term goals
Social Services essential
Restructuring of National Budgets
Fig. 7.5 Caption (from Geo-JaJa and Azaiki)
Female Enrollment (all regions)
Percent of
all children
Females in
(F) Tertiary (F)
Fig. 7.6 Caption (from Zuckerman)
to take more seriously the responsibility of ensuring access and provision of social
services education – to the disadvantaged section of the population (Geo-JaJa
2007). Equal education for all will potentially decrease and eventually eliminate
China’s poverty and resource inequity as well as enhance China’s women and
minority groups’ quality of life. So what is the answer for the people of rural
China? Should concepts in accordance with the human development paradigm be
adapted to better their education system or should China continue modifying its
94 P. Ayoroa et al.
fiscal decentralization policy centered on human capital principles with more
public sector involvement? Clearly, this approach improves incentives for local
governments to generate revenues and be responsive to local needs; however, it
hampers efforts to meet goals of distributional equity. The government has recog-
nized the policy importance of reversing these trends and has come to adopt
allocated targeted funds to reduce growing inequalities and reduce excessive burden
on rural households. To further address these challenges, first we must understand
the two defining paradigms before we can adequately determine which would be
best for China’s current rural/urban disparity.
These are two distinct though related paradigms that could be used to exam-
ine rural/urban disparity and the human and social development needs that have
continued to be elusive. The Human Development Theory (HDT) considers
human beings as ends in themselves. Enhancing human capabilities of all citi-
China's Illiteracy Rates (Late 1990s)
Percent illiterates in
China that are women
Illiterate women over
15 yrs.
Illiterate males over
15 yrs.
Fig. 7.7 Caption (from Zuckerman)
Fig. 7.8 Caption (from Zuckerman)
957 Education in China: The Urban/Rural Disparity Explained
zens is the explicit goal of this paradigm. It focuses on the basic fundamentals
necessary for enlarging people’s choices and options, thus ensuring wider
choices of human freedom and empowerment, and participation of civil society
in formulation and execution processes of development policy. Through the
above emphasis and its human-centered position, HDT can lay claim to poverty
elimination and human security. This means that the utility of HDT goes
beyond growth or development to offer a different perspective on social systems
and on particular social problems. It offers new tools for analyzing and diag-
nosing intractable problems which have in the past failed to yield to economic
or political analysis. Crime, poverty, racism, inclusion and disempowerment,
and violence, for example, can all be seen in a different light from a human
development perspective.
According to UNDP Chief Economist, “[t]he success of development policies
becomes the betterment of people’s lives, not just the expansion of production
processes” (Mahbub 2005, p. 18). HDT reinforces the idea that people’s values
are qualitative, not quantitative. Mahbub (2005, p. 17) further stated that “greater
access to knowledge, better nutrition and health services, more secure liveli-
hoods, security against crime and physical violence, satisfying leisure hours,
political and cultural freedoms, and a sense of participation in community activi-
ties” are some of the fundamental elements of this paradigm. The adaptation of
the HDT strategy enables acquisition of basic capabilities by all, builds capacity,
and enhances equity, which in turn overcomes the subjugation of poverty and
also contributes to sustained growth (Geo-JaJa 2007). In this vein, the increasing
emphasis on human development and human development reporting in the world
implies that governments realize that they are responsible for ensuring equitable
access and provision of social security protection and welfare services to
The Human Capital Theory (HCT), on the other hand, focuses on building
individual knowledge and skills through investment in education and training.
The uniqueness of this paradigm is the standard presumption that skills gained
through education and training can alter the wages that individuals receive.
Reward to investment is based on quantitative measures, not qualitative mea-
sures; it is centered on theories concurrent with mainstream approaches to
economic growth. The euphoria with this model was short-lived, as many devel-
opment theorists and policy makers grew disillusioned with economic growth
amidst increasing world poverty. HCT further argues that sustained reduction in
income poverty requires a combination of economic growth and investment in
human capital. This approach, which postulates that expenditure on training
and education is costly and should be considered an investment since it is
undertaken with a goal of increasing personal incomes, is unable to explain
occupational wage differentials. A general problem with this position is that the
target is too wide; arguably, what should be at issue is not growth but the qual-
ity of growth for individual well-being. The HDT and HCT approaches are
obviously indirectly intertwined, with the former being a pre-condition for
achieving the latter.
96 P. Ayoroa et al.
If integrated properly, HDT and HCT can prove mutually beneficial for China.
While the more developed eastern coasts of China are benefiting highly from the
interrelationships among human capital investment and economic growth (HCT
initiatives), the rural areas of western and central China will only benefit from
HCT proposals once HDT is first implemented and changes inspired by the human
development paradigm prepare an adequate human capabilities foundation for sub-
stantial long-term growth. HDT directly affects a country’s economy by enhancing
people’s capabilities and therefore their productivity and creativity. Health and
education, primary HDT components, can influence a work force’s abilities for
potentially increased productivity, product quality, and expansion of trade that
might result in quality growth. However, HDT alone cannot bring about sustained
economic growth. It is widely acknowledged that cultural factors as well as a responsible
government can play a major role in human progress and social and cultural develop-
ment. Consequently, these outcomes depend substantially on a properly integrated
combination of HDT and HCT principles to create an “enabling environment” for
expansion: the environment of government policy, the quantitative and qualitative
expansion of educational facilities, and available technology. We rank education
and government higher than any other factor.
Social and economic change begins with national restoration. However, in
China, government economic reforms have proved inadequate for successful real-
location of assets, including educational funds and resources (Tsang 1996, 2002;
West 1997). Although China’s many disparities are culture and location-specific,
the current issues concerning unequal distribution are clearly reflected in China’s
rural education enrollment and drop-out rates as well as in the levels of schooling
attained by rural children. There is, however, a consensus that in the case of clos-
ing the education gap, with free and compulsory education for children declared
a fundamental right, and with the ambitious target to have all children in school
by 2010, human development paradigm seems best to guarantee the attainment of
such social goals.
7.2 China’s Context of Disparities Explained
7.2.1 Disparity of Access and Participation
China’s education system suffers from serious imbalances – not only between
urban and rural areas and between regions, but also in the access and quality of
education. This leads to great differences in individuals’ capabilities between the
rural/urban households. Also, biases against minorities and the poor have attrib-
uted to the urban/rural disparity; as a result, Chinese minority groups have a low
rate of access and participation in China’s education system, especially in rural
areas. Rural areas have also been slow to achieve universal 9-year compulsory
education: By 2002, 15% of counties had failed to reach the goal. This failure
977 Education in China: The Urban/Rural Disparity Explained
affected 108 million people in poor and remote rural areas, roughly 9% of the
total population.
Poor minority women are not only the most discriminated against but also the
most excluded from basic privileges in society. Within the adult population, the
illiteracy rate of females is 2.6 times that of males. Despite the government’s
efforts, females still have fewer educational opportunities than males. The dispar-
ity is greatest at institutions of higher learning, where in 2002 only 44% of stu-
dents were female, and in special education only 36% were females. The statistics
for women from poor rural areas are much higher. Bauer explains:
Beliefs of parents about the innate intellectual inferiority of girls influence enrollment
rates. Because women are likely to find sex discrimination in the labor market after gradu-
ation, the return to investment in a daughter’s education [in general is] lower than that for
a son. If parents can only invest in one child, it is therefore more prudent to do so in sons,
where they themselves will benefit from the investment. So although state policy in theory
provides equal educational opportunities for men and women, the support of the family – in
the form of fewer chores or more private tutoring for sons than daughters – influences the
educational opportunities of sons and daughters differently (Bauer et al. 1992, p. 349).
Several laws, including state equal education and access laws, have been adopted
to provide opportunities for, and raise the status of, ethnic minorities, the poor, and
women. Addressing poor minority women’s interests and rights should be a priority
because they are the most vulnerable of all classes. Preferential treatment of males
over females is enforced at home, at school and in the work place. Data show that
less-educated fathers are more likely to send their sons to school rather than their
daughters: of the children born to less-educated fathers, 42% of the sons were
enrolled in secondary schools while only 35% of the daughters attended school.
This represents a large portion of the Chinese girls because about 43% of them have
fathers with no education higher than the primary level and 15% more have illiter-
ate fathers. This means that if the daughters are not acquiring an education at
school, they are not likely to get an education higher than the primary status at
home (Bauer et al. 1992, p.347). The following table displays China’s current laws
that advocate the plight of (poor minority) women:
Unfortunately, educational institutions and central/local governments reinforce
these outdated societal biases which exclude minorities, women and the poor from
schooling, work and market opportunities.
[This] is a human rights problem, a population problem, a women’s problem, and a
problem of poverty that are all bound up in education. [For example], advancing girls’
education and enhancing how girls are valued becomes a way [to enable] women to take
their place in society and fully utilize their potential … to lay the foundation for true equality
of the sexes, to end poverty, and to bring about the advancement of all areas of society
(Zhou et al. 2001, p. 7).
The poor will not send their children to school because they cannot sacrifice
the financial support that these children provide through home labor. In the case
of poor minority women, parents do not send their daughters to school because
women are discriminated against in the work force. Chinese women occupy less
than half of the work force positions. As the chart illustrates (Figs. 7.9–7.10),
98 P. Ayoroa et al.
Women in the work force (1999)
Percent of tot. work
Percent of men's
pay women receive
Percent of women
position jobs
Fig. 7.9 Caption (from Zuckerman)
Students' opinions: why they drop-out
Believe can't
find work later
House work
Farm work
Fig. 7.10 Caption (from Xiao)
although there is a small percentage of women in higher-class professions, in
general, most women receive 75% or less of men’s total wages. The plight of
poor women is just one example of the inequality within China’s education
system and its increasingly negative results: a disparity of access and participa-
tion as China’s rural population experiences increased dropout rates and low
school attendance. The right to gain an education is a basic human rights issue.
Equal access in education is the foundation for a developed society; only
through education can individuals, communities, and nations enhance human
capabilities and expand opportunities.
997 Education in China: The Urban/Rural Disparity Explained
China’s disparity is rooted in its unequal education system: “Reasons for the
high dropout rates [include] inadequate provision of school places, poor teaching
quality, irrelevant curriculum, lack of textbooks, shortage of labor in the household
economy and the distance, both physically and culturally, between home and
school” (Postiglione 1999a, p. 321). High dropout rates and low enrollment rates in
China are outcomes of the central government’s inability to incorporate their ethnic
minorities into one multi-cultural society. Although the central government is
providing funds for these underdeveloped areas, obstacles such as corruption, low
productivity, and local interest (based on a lack of cultural sensitivity) have hin-
dered their efforts. Every year nearly 1,000 students discontinue their education
because administrators or parents convince them that it is more practical to quit.
Because the local governments have high levels of corruption, they are not able to
properly regulate the schools and their curriculums.
In an effort to counter the disparity, the central government has encouraged com-
munities to send their youth to urban areas where schools are known for their higher-
quality schools. Ultimately, this just creates a new cycle of unskilled graduates:
Students who attend secondary schools in urban areas are pulled away from traditional
family and community life, making it more difficult for them to integrate back into agri-
cultural and nomadic life … the education they received leads them back to traditional life
with no skills to contribute and new attitudes resistant to agricultural labor (Postiglione
1999a, p. 332).
These unskilled graduates cannot find jobs in urban areas and so return home,
unable to participate in family occupations.
7.2.2 Disparity in Teacher Quality
In addition to the urban/rural inequality in access, rural/urban gaps are further
reflected in the quality of teachers. This is especially true in western China where
poor rural teachers, particularly woman teachers and minority teachers, find little
means to improve themselves. According to Yao and Yin (2002) in urban primary
schools, 57% of teachers have been educated to above junior college level, while in
the rural areas and country side the proportion is only 25% and 11%, respectively
(see Figs. 7.11, 7.12). Various studies exist to demonstrate the link between student
achievement and teacher quality: teacher qualifications and teacher knowledge of
subject matter have been linked to higher student achievement and educational
attainment (Sargent and Hannum 2005, p. 176). Efforts in recent years to improve
teacher quality suggest that China’s government understands the importance
of teacher quality in determining the overall quality of education. The significance of
teachers in determining the quality of education is, thereby, emphasized and
reflected in government policies and regulations – raising the standards of teacher
qualifications, and continuing professional development of teachers are the priorities
in China’s educational development strategies.
100 P. Ayoroa et al.
China, like many other countries, recognizes that educational quality changes only as the
transactions between teachers and students at the classroom level change. Consequently, an
important part of the government’s effort to raise school quality has been a substantial
investment in expanding teacher training (Chapman et al. 2000, p. 301).
Teacher's Education
3% 4-year College Degree
3-year College Degree
Secondary School
Less than Secondary
School Level
(Sargent, 2005)
Fig. 7.12 Caption (from Sargent)
Causes of High Drop-out Rates
Lack of/Inadequate facilities
Poor Teaching Quality
Irrelevant Curriculum
Inadequate/Irrelevant Textbooks
Children needed for labor
Inaccessibility of facilities
High Opportunity Cost
Traditional Bias/One Child Policy
Domestic Employment for young girls
Fig. 7.11 Caption (from Postiglione)
1017 Education in China: The Urban/Rural Disparity Explained
Gongban (Certified) Teachers
Participated in In-Service
Never Participated in In-
Service Training
(Sargent, 2005)
Fig. 7.13 Caption (from Sargent)
China recognizes the importance of teacher quality, but vast room for improvement
remains in the training and certification of teachers. The lack of certified and qualified
teachers is most prevalent in the rural areas of China, greatly attributing to the urban/
rural disparity of educational quality. According to Sargent and Hannum (2005):
The distribution of quality teachers is an essential factor driving the transmission of
inequality, because the recruitment and retention of qualified teachers tends to be problem-
atic in areas of high poverty, such as … rural areas. … This leads to a situation in which
the neediest children are often paired with the least qualified teachers (p. 173).
China’s rural/urban education disparity is thus perpetuated as areas with lower-
quality education are provided with less-qualified teachers. China’s rural areas tend
to have less certified, or “gongban” teachers, and more non-certified teachers,
which are sometimes known as “daike,” or substitute teachers. Daike teachers may
have “only a junior middle school or high school level of education and little or no
formal teacher training” (Sargent and Hannum 2005, pp. 184–185). According to
official statistics, only 88% of teachers in rural areas in China are gongban teachers,
and 12% are daike teachers. This is in contrast to the urban areas, where 97% of
teachers are gongban teachers, and only 3% are daike teachers. In the rural areas of
Gansu, however, it is estimated that 28% of teachers are daike teachers, and in the
most remote areas, these percentages may be even higher (Sargent and Hannum
2005, p. 185; see Figs. 7.137.16).
Why do rural areas of China have less certified, gongban, teachers? According to
Sargent and Hannum, this may be attributed to the decentralization of school finance
in China, which has “unbalanced the economic resources available to schools in
different locals” (p. 174). Indeed the situation appears to have worsened in recent years.
In 1980, more than 75% of educational funding came from the government; by
2000, however, this had dropped to just 54%. School resources are beginning to vary
at the same time that teacher labor markets are evolving. This means that “good
102 P. Ayoroa et al.
Where are Education Funds coming from:
Familes with
income: 220
yuan or less
Familes with
income: 400
to 499 yuan
Familes with
income: 500
yuan or more
Fig. 7.15 Caption (from Zhou)
Daike ( Uncertified) Teachers
Participated in In-Service
Never Participated in In-
Service Training
(Sargent, 2005)
Fig. 7.14 Caption (from Sargent)
teachers are gaining greater flexibility to move to better jobs within the school
system” (Sargent, p. 174). This also means that schools with fewer resources, i.e.,
schools in poor rural communities, will have a harder time retaining qualified teachers
as they have to compete with richer communities with more financial resources to
support teachers and education and collect more funds from extra-budgetary funds.
Because rural areas in China have difficulty recruiting and retaining qualified
(gongban) teachers, poor rural communities make up for the teacher shortage by
hiring “substitute or temporary (daike) teachers, who generally have lower levels of
education and little or no formal teacher training” (Sargent, p. 176). Even with rapid
economic growth in China, poor and minority children still do not receive equitable
distribution of highly qualified teachers.
Even in the USA the same practice is true. According to, students who live in
the areas of highest poverty are twice as likely to be taught by unqualified teach-
1037 Education in China: The Urban/Rural Disparity Explained
ers and students that are within a minority group are three times more likely to be
taught by teachers of low quality. A large body of research shows that students
taught by a highly qualified teacher perform significantly better than those that
do not receive such training. These studies suggest that, indeed, the quality level
of the teacher is the single most important factor in educational achievement, and
the effects are cumulative in nature.
While significant progress has been made in narrowing the wide achievement
gap in student performance in China, the challenge of providing quality teachers in
every classroom has not been reached in the rural areas, and what remedy may be
applied by the government towards this end? Candidly, if the problems associated
with the education of the rural poor and minority children were typical of the urban
affluent one can only imagine how quickly the issues regarding equity in education
would have been addressed.
Can the poor quality of teachers in rural China be attributed entirely to a lack of
training? A recent study suggests that it cannot. The study found that while
teacher training has a positive impact on their instruction capabilities, it is not as
profound as might be expected (Chapman et al. 2000, p. 326). The study investigated
the extent to which teachers in rural ethnic minority areas differed in their overall
allocation of professional time and the extent that teachers differed in their allocation
of in-classroom instructional time. Findings suggest that teacher training makes only
a slightly positive difference in rural areas. Therefore, the disparity between teacher
quality in urban and rural areas must be attributed to other causes other than the lack
Students Enrolled in school
Han Chinese
Fig. 7.16 Caption (from Chaodang)
104 P. Ayoroa et al.
of teacher training; rather, it is rooted in school resources and teacher qualification.
We suggest that the low quality of teachers is rooted in rural China’s lack of resources,
affecting both class instruction and teacher satisfaction. The inferred message from
other studies is that the state should take a closer look at the lack of a coherent and
cohesive funding and teacher-quality policy to address equity in education.
7.2.3 Disparity of Resource Quality
The quality of education is inextricably tied to the financing of educational expen-
ditures. Despite obvious policy relevance of fiscal decentralization that has been a
key feature of China’s economic reform that has lead to the devolution of responsi-
bilities over both revenue collection and public expenditures to lower levels of
government, there is still great disparity in the amount of resources available for
urban versus rural schools in China. However, there are indications from the data
and from announced recent initiatives that the Chinese government is playing a
more prominent role in equalizing educational resources across regions, but the
gaps remain large and merit priority attention. It is not surprising that this led to the
overall low quality of the rural education system (Tsang 1996; West 1997). This
lack of resources as previously indicated contributes to rural schools’ inability to
recruit and retain quality teacher. According to Sargent and Hannum’s (2005)
recent study on teacher job satisfaction, “the most consistent school-level factors
predicting satisfaction are on-time payment of salary, school resources, and school
expenditures per student” (p. 199). Furthermore, “more satisfied teachers appear to
teach in schools where financial resources for the support of teachers and learning
are more available” (Sargent and Hannum p. 197). One crucial illustration of how
deficient resources have had a negative effect on education in China’s rural areas is
the lack of funds for teacher salaries (Postiglione 1999b, p. 331).
In most rural areas, schools and classrooms are fortunate if they have blackboards,
quality teachers, learning materials, and adequate infrastructures (Chapman et al.
2000, p. 325). This brings the argument for a more effective allocation of resources
within education levels and across education sectors.
According to Postiglione (1999b):
The school buildings were broken down with no electricity and had few or no chairs, desks,
and blackboards. In some cases the building would only have three walls, exposing the
students and teacher to the outside yard. In addition, the schools were not provided with
basic supplies such as chalk, pens, paper, or dictionaries (p. 323).
The shortage of adequate funds and equipment available to schools in China’s rural
areas greatly contributes to the overall urban/rural disparity of education. By only
being able to offer low salaries and few teaching and learning supplies, it is made
impossible for rural schools to attract or retain qualified teachers. Furthermore,
those teachers employed in rural schools are unable to apply what knowledge they
1057 Education in China: The Urban/Rural Disparity Explained
may have gained in training courses and students lack the basic supplies necessary
to enhance education. The above imbalance indicates the need for mobilizing
resources and illustrates that the way finances are allocated within a sector and
among regions have important social and productivity implications. As will be
argued, many countries have systems for arranging public spending that reflect a
segmented social structure. Such systems as in the case of China institutionalize
patterns of inequality that has reinforced and legitimized educational poverty of
some groups in the rural areas (Tsang 2002). Case studies in specific regions that
found very large differences in educational expenditures within provinces, and even
within counties, also provide strong support of continued disparities (West 1997;
Saith 2001). The government itself is recognizing the significant importance of this
on future economic growth and has started to allocate more targeted funds to reduce
growing inequities.
7.3 Disparity in Curriculum Relevance: Chinese Curriculum
The disparity in curriculum evidenced in rural China’s poor-quality education sys-
tem has its roots deeply planted in Chinese history and leadership policy making.
China has a long history of strong cultural unity and national pride; China has
sought to create national unity by integrating Chinese culture into the curriculum
of schools throughout its urban and rural regions. This standardized curriculum,
however, is not location-specific – it only focuses on the culture and history of the
majority Han Chinese, excluding most Chinese minority groups. There is a higher
population density in rural areas than in urban regions (Lin 1997), meaning, despite
China’s current “One Child Policy,” rural peasants and minority families continue
to have more than one child. More rural minority children means more children not
enrolling in school, more children not going on to higher education or more
children returning home with worthless education that inadequately prepare them
for a life centered around local manpower needs in the informal sector. The urban/
rural disparity is especially apparent by the choice of language in which local
curriculums are taught. The Chinese government enforces the use of Mandarin
(China’s official language) by all people regardless of their native tongue, com-
bined with low teacher quality, lack of funds, and social discrimination inhibiting
minority access and participation in China’s education system.
The Chinese traditional curriculum was originally implemented in an attempt to
unite China during times when other countries had significant world influence.
Traditional curriculum included 2 years of literacy training and memorization of
selections from the Confucian canon. Teachers in urban and rural schools also
taught chess, calligraphy, painting, and poetry and prose (Hung-Kay Luk 1991). All
these subjects may have cultivated Chinese pride and culture but they were useless
106 P. Ayoroa et al.
Tibetan Junior High Students
Percent of Tibetan
students who do not go
on to junior high
Percent of Tibetan
students who go on
Fig. 7.17 Caption (from Johnson)
to most minorities in rural areas. One goal of this type of education was not learning
and knowledge but enabling the students to master China’s imperial exam. The
standardized educational system only focused on exam scores and the number of
years completed, rather than on human diversity, or on student behavior and atti-
tudes and interests.
At the secondary level, Han Chinese cultural traditions were taught through
national literature and history. It was the government’s goal not only to pro-
vide knowledge to the students but also foster national identity and preserve
ancient Han Chinese morals in a struggle against the threats of western values.
The school system was greatly influenced by China’s leaders who had different
priorities than the people they were “educating.” As Postiglione (1999b) states:
Educational systems expand in reaction to a market of demands. Individuals and employers
demand practical skills, social groups demand status culture, and the state demands
national unity and social control. Representations of ethnic culture in school curricula are
greatly affected by the market of demands. Within China the market is heavily influenced
by the state (p. 3).
Based on this traditional, yet inflexible, biased curriculum, which is still in use in
many parts of China, the Chinese minorities of today are still at a great disadvantage
within the education system and the work force. Many textbooks are still only available
in Mandarin, the formal language of the Han Chinese. If educational quality is measured
by test scores, the urban/rural disparity has greatly disadvantaged minorities; national
standardized tests are geared towards majority groups in the language used as well
as the questions focused on. Few minority children master the standardized curriculum
1077 Education in China: The Urban/Rural Disparity Explained
because it is not culturally sensitive to their diverse needs. This in turn also creates
difficulties when minorities attempt to rise to higher levels of education because they
have to compete with the Han majority. Figures 7.17 and 7.18, sheds light on the
probable impact of the culturally insensitive curriculum and enrolment of ethnic
majority (Han) and ethnic minority (Tibetans) students that enroll in secondary
junior high schools throughout China. This outcome in turn affects their self-esteem,
confidence and overall performance. It is often reported that some minority students
consider themselves inferior to Han majority and undervalue their own cultures and
languages. Some take great pains to hide their ethnic identities by not wearing their
ethnic clothes and by changing their accents.
7.3.1 Recent Curriculum Changes
In 1998, attempting to foster better relations with its minority groups, China‘s
government provided them bilingual education. As recent studies have suggested,
the reasons for this new government policy reform may be more concurrent with
the HDT rather than HCT: China’s administration is acting in the best interest of
itself, allowing ethnic minority students to communicate with, and ideally assimi-
late into, mainstream society for social stability and national cohesion. To the Han
majority, bilingualism has remained a remote notion and has hardly, if ever,
appeared in their education literature. Although this may be the main motive of
China’s administration in allowing minority languages to be taught in rural schools,
there is a positive HDT outcome: minority groups can now enjoy equity, have
self-confidence, and be empowered, which in turn will give them a secure sense of
identity and self-esteem so as to enable them to participate competently in the
education process to control their own lives.
Regardless of the fact that the Han majority still see ethnic minorities as
“primitive, dependent and educationally poor,” China’s new bilingual policy is a
Percent Tibetan children enrolled
Illiteracy rates Junior
Fig. 7.18 Caption (from Postiglione)
108 P. Ayoroa et al.
major step towards overcoming past injustices of exclusion and marginalization
against its minority groups (Lin 1997, p. 194). Nevertheless, today dropout rates
continue to be disturbingly high in rural communities; a closer look into the
curriculum of minority schools may reveal why. The graph below illustrates
the above-mentioned low enrollment/high drop-out rates, specifically referring to
one of the largest ethnic minority groups, that of Tibetan children.
The most used model of teaching in rural and urban areas uses Mandarin texts
and language as the main teaching tools. The said curriculum is centralized, taking
a customized non-localized approach to educational development. The same textbooks
used in urban areas are used in rural minority areas – all of which are in Mandarin
Chinese. Uniform core subject matter is enforced throughout China, leaving little
room for schools to localize the curriculum to their local needs and interests.
This constrains minority children’s access to functional skills and knowledge and
to ebbed appropriate behaviors for better integration into society. They are made to
learn unfamiliar history in an unfamiliar language, whereas Han Chinese children
can build upon their previous informal education of their own history in their native
The Chinese government has made steps toward incorporating minority culture
and history into the curriculum through teaching methods and subject matter. But
in reality, if minority history is taught in local schools, it is rarely mentioned and
when it is, it is only in reference to the Han Chinese. Some national textbooks (such
as reference books and dictionaries) have been translated into minority languages;
however, their availability is limited based on the lack of trained translators and
printing costs. For these reasons, a new style of rural curriculum has been intro-
duced in minority communities. This teaching method introduces the Mandarin
language into the curriculum only after a firm foundation in the minority language
is created. This style’s end goal is fluency in both the localized minority language and
Mandarin, opening doors for minorities to enter higher levels of education while
also increasing their chances of passing entrance exams.
The government has attempted to narrow the learning gap between minority and
majority Han Chinese students in higher education by conducting entrance exams in
ethnic languages. Once a minority student is admitted they are given the choice of
taking some classes in their indigenous language or taking all classes in Chinese.
Minorities who decide to take the examination in their minority language are referred
to as min kao min; min kao han references minorities who take the exam in Mandarin
(Sautman 1999). The Chinese government also introduced quotas for universities.
This gave preferential admission treatment (in spite of lower test scores) to minority
candidates, students from disadvantaged areas, and those who agreed in advance to
work in less-developed regions after graduation. This positive discrimination of
ethnic minority students or “zero some game treatment” is needed to propitiate equal
opportunity with equality of result as the eventual goal (Sautman 1999, p. 174).
Furthermore, this option will significantly enhance minority groups’ opportunities to
undertake the actions and activities that they want to engage in and become who they
want to be. As a result, individual well-being will benefit as well as to society as a
1097 Education in China: The Urban/Rural Disparity Explained
whole. In other words, this widening of opportunity for minority groups will provide
freedoms and valuable options from which minority groups may choose.
7.3.2 Religious Curriculum
Religion is a core element of minority education. The most prominent religions in
China are Islam, Tibetan, and Buddhism (Mackerras 1999). Over the last 2–3 decades,
a wide range of Islamic educational opportunities have been developed to meet the
needs of China’s population. Many minority groups value religious education more
than the national secular curriculum. Thus, state schools often compete with religious
institutions for students. Minorities are committed to their religious beliefs and would
rather turn to informal forms of education like a monastery or mosque than attend
a school that did not teach religion. Minorities viewed education and religion as
inseparable parts of life until the Han Chinese forced their secular curriculum on the
whole nation. Minority groups living in rural areas have different priorities than
the Han majority, making standardized curriculums difficult and ineffective.
Although China claims to have freedom of religion, it is severely restricted.
State leaders put their own interests first by allowing religious tolerance when it
helps the Chinese image, such as when it increases tourism, but then later attacking
freedoms regarding religion when it becomes damaging to the state. Thus, even
with a declaration of religious freedom, there is no merging of state and church; the
curriculums of both urban and rural schools remain mainly secular.
7.4 Suggestions for Change
Although idealized, our suggestions for further improvement provide many proposals
China can link according to their regional, community, and individual needs. The
proposed suggestions contribute towards valuable and substantive opportunities for
minorities to be the person they want to be, make choices and control their own desti-
nies, and will also enable China’s leaders to remain culturally sensitive. In order to
bridge the gap between the quality of urban and rural education systems, compensa-
tory targeted cash or program interventions for higher-quality education for China’s
rural population, which fosters capabilities and development, is suggested. These are
the most effective, least costly, most socially inclusive, and enhance policy for the
poor and disadvantaged communities. In the case of rural China, these interventions
would target ethnic minorities, the poor, and women. Zhou et al. (2001) emphasizes:
If we want to completely enhance the educational environment, the initiative of parents,
students and people from all walks of life must be harnessed. Solving the plight of the most
disadvantaged areas to defeat poverty and ignorance, we first [must] rely on the hard
work of the community in these poor areas … the support and assistance of foreign coun-
tries and all levels of the Chinese government (Zhou et al. 2001, p. 13).
110 P. Ayoroa et al.
While education enhances knowledge, skill, and capabilities, what is ultimately
important is that people have the agency. Once they effectively have these substan-
tive opportunities, they can choose those options which they value most. Education,
which focuses on the standard of living that relates to one’s life or that which allows
people to make the choice which they value the most, is the first step to achieve its
valued outcome. This depends on the leadership and the ability of Chinese to rise
above current biases and discriminations against ethnic minorities and the poor so
that it is possible to maximize potential and valued opportunities, particularly
rights to culturally sensitive quality education. This reform will help compensate
for long time held biases in schools and the work place. As for the poor, targeted
compensation for the loss of farm and home labor needs to be made for families
who send their children, especially daughters, to school.
If minority student health and basic social needs are met, productivity, test
scores, and enrollment rates will increase. Government leaders and foreign donors
must work with local leaders to be stakeholders and allow them to actively participate
in the decisions that affect their lives and communities. A localized school curriculum
that is adaptable to culture, language, and social environment will lead to employ-
ability and functionality, as well as enhanced substantive opportunities.
Specifically referring to China’s debilitating gender gap, more female teachers,
especially in rural schools, can serve as role models and mentors. Female teachers
can also potentially increase female student enrollment rates as well as the number
of women pursuing higher education and higher-quality occupations. Better
enforcement of state equal access and education laws will give women and minori-
ties’ confidence and support.
Other suggestions include providing basic infrastructure necessary for proper
development and increasing the number and quality of vocational schools. The
Chinese government has already started to vigorously pursue the transformation
and integration of its western regions by seeking to raise the standard of living of
people in its west, at the same time raising the level of national understanding. The
view of the Chinese government is that, with the approach of balancing traditional
and western traditions, which contrasts to the tradition of competition (HCT), it is
possible to lead to economic prosperity, social stability, and ethnic unity in the
region. It is in this vein that the assertion is made that valued opportunities need be
placed in the hands of the rural Chinese minorities regardless of whether they
develop or not. Tian put it best: “Their ultimate salvation does not lie in favorable
treatment or another project but in their own ability to improve their investment
environment, establish effective rule of law, improve education and curb corrup-
tion” (2004, p. 636). However, it is important to note, that an approach that is
distinctively different from HDT for developing the Western region could acceler-
ates growth but may at the same time deepen the social exclusion of certain groups,
especially of the minorities, and might also widen the gap between the rich and the
poor, between urban and rural populations in China.
Incorporation of minority culture and language seems to be a valid solution to
the quality of the curriculum. Another positive result of incorporating minority
culture and language into the curriculum is greater integration into the broader
1117 Education in China: The Urban/Rural Disparity Explained
economy. This is a logical policy for the state to apply to education since its goal is
to generate greater national unity. The state has little chance of national integration
if minority groups are not in school to gain knowledge and attitudes necessary for
national unity. With a comprehensive culturally sensitive curriculum and the use of
their language, minorities may feel more of an attachment toward the schools and
being understood and recognized by the government. The Yi schools of the Yan-
yuan County in China exemplify this assertion. They saw education as a way to rise
out of poverty, a path to social mobility, and a way to eventually counter repressive
Han rule (Harrell 1999). It is also important to make certain that modifications to
the urban and rural curriculums are permanent and involve all aspects of education.
In the past, the government has reformed the education system but it did not change
underlying goals of the standardized system.
Although the curriculum should contain aspects important to minority life, it
should not be the only part of the curriculum. It is important to teach smaller groups
the majority language, in this case Mandarin Chinese, in order to ensure access to
employment and participation in the greater society. This could be achieved through
more translated textbooks, supplying quality teachers and providing targeted inter-
ventions for relocation into rural areas, making schools more appealing to quality
teachers, and increasing minority participation by making bilingual education a part
of every curriculum. Furthermore, this will be equally beneficial for all students
both of the minority or majority group as it creates greater tolerance and under-
standing between the peoples. Minorities will also be more enabled and more likely
to participate in their schools and society. This in turn will result in the opportunity
for minorities and majorities to gain equal social and economic benefits.
Finally, improving teacher quality is vital in improving the quality of education
for China’s rural population. In order to attract quality teachers to China’s rural
areas, we suggest offering incentives for teachers in rural areas. These would
include higher salaries that are paid regularly and on-time, as this has been an
important issue lately for teachers in rural areas. To improve job satisfaction and
teacher retention in rural areas and to improve the quality of overall education for
students, teaching materials must be provided, including technology equipment
and textbooks. Of course, these changes cannot be instituted without increased
governmental funding. The national government must allocate more funding to
public expenditure and target this funding specifically to education and technical
programs aimed at traditional livelihoods, raise educational consumption, as well
as technological levels, to become better equipped to be self-sustaining. Over time
all these efforts will help overcome existing ethnic roles and pre-dispositioned
society biases that reinforce China’s disparity. Clearly, the foundation to all these
suggestions, we argue, is better integration of social policy, education policy, and
economic policy with ethnic groups at the local level – the only way to mitigate the
disparity gap, and maintain growth and social stability and national unity in China.
In our opinion, these suggestions would boost valued opportunities and empower-
ment, and economic growth in a sustainable manner, and help instill pride and
dignity, alleviate poverty, and social exclusion. In any case, with the new HDT
approach, change is already here, and it will continue.
112 P. Ayoroa et al.
7.5 Conclusion
Education is a serious problem in the western region because of government policy,
the shortage of funding, unqualified teachers, and degraded school buildings.
Education of the ethnic minorities, women and the poor in rural areas is also
identified as a significant challenge. According to Goodman (2003) and others,
ethnic minorities value education, but often they would prefer different kinds of
education to that which is offered. This could explain the low participation of ethnic
minorities in primary school education. As China has continued to modernize,
growth generated has not translated into social well-being; rather it has caused
social exclusion, poverty, unemployment, and income disparity in the western region,
particularly among the ethnic minorities in the rural areas. As argued by many scholars,
we hold the same opinion that expanded but localized educational opportunities are
the best way to achieve economic and social progress in rural areas.
The disabling inequality that exists between the urban and rural regions, the
disparity in the quality of education, and the widespread poverty in rural regions of
western and central China with large ethnic minority populations are inextricably
tied to non-localization of curriculum and reform policies, as well as inequity and
mismatched financing of education. All these culminate into educational poverty
and high opportunity cost. According to Geo-JaJa and Mangum (2003), expanding
and improving education quality is of core significance in the responsibility of
ensuring equitable access to social services and improving human development.
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enable the attainment of the much cherished goal of increasing valued opportunities
and which will bridge the ethnic and regional educational poverty and produce
sustainable development. In order to improve education in rural China, we suggest
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Saith, A. (2001). The Cost of Schooling in Jingning County, Gansu, mimeo.
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L'objectif principal de cette etude est de demontrer et de justifier les implications politiques chinoises en matiere d'investissement dans la formation des enseignants et la consideration de ce processus en tant que mecanisme permettant d'ameliorer la qualite de l'enseignement. Malgre tout, les interrogations subsistent sur l'efficacite de ce systeme et sur la rentabilite de ce choix...
The paper examines economic poverty and educational poverty in the Niger Delta, a region endowed with enormous, but misused, resources. The National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategies (NEEDS) is contrasted with other poverty reduction strategies. The blindness of NEEDS to the complex causes of the situation in the Niger Delta is noted. The issues analyzed concern the emphasis placed on market forces, the schemes used to finance education, and the choice of provision of education towards equality. The final section of the article gives a critical reading of the strategy currently adopted to reduce the incidence of poverty in Nigeria and its failure in the Niger Delta. The paper rejects the NEEDS framework of rolling back the state in favor of market forces as an ineffective education and economic plan for an already disempowered and impoverished region. The paper argues for a targeted, broad-based NEEDS strategy that is focused on re-orienting values, reducing economic and educational poverty, creating wealth, and developing a strong state for mobilizing resources for economic empowerment and sustainable development. Cet article examine la pauvreté sur les plans économique et éducationel dans le Delta du Niger, une région nantie de ressources énormes mais mal utilisées. Les stratégies NEEDS (National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategies) se heurtent aux autres stratégies pour la réduction de la pauvreteé. Les auteurs remarquent que les stratégies NEEDS ferment les yeux aux causes complexes de la situation au Delta du Niger. Les problèmes analysés sont centrés sur l'emphase placée sur les forces du marché, les programmes pour financer lèenseignement, et sur le choix des provisions de l'enseignement vers l'égalité. La dernière section de l'article offre une critique de la stratégie présentement adoptée pour réduire la pauvreté en Nigérie et son échec au Delta du Niger. L'article rejète le cadre de travail de NEEDS dans lequel le rôle de l'état cède le pas aux forces du marché. Pour les auteurs, ceci est un plan inefficace pour l'enseignement comme pour l'économie pour cette région déjà démunie du pouvoir et déjà appauvrie. L'article propose pour les NEEDS, une stratégie mieux axée sur les buts et aux bases plus enlargies, et qui est centrée sur la réorientation des valeurs, la réduction des pauvretés économique et éducationnelle, la création des biens, et le développement d'un état fort pour mobiliser les ressources capables de créer un pouvoir économique et un développement continu.
Gansu, Qinghai, and Guizhou provinces and the Ningxia Institute of Educational Research's joint study, entitled "Investigation of Rural Girls' Education: Problems and Countermeasures," was a key theme in the Eighth Five-Year Plan for philosophy and social sciences. This topic, the problems of girls' education in the poorest minority areas in western China, was a breakthrough study. After four years of hard work, this innovative experiment in girls' education has been a pleasant success.
The authors document the change in female education and labor force participation in urban China and report the extent to which gender inequality still exists. They then examine occupational differences between men and women in urban China after their entry into the labor force and find that women's disadvantage is most evident in their severe underrepresentation in the more powerful, political, positions. This is the case not only because women generally receive less education. Even after controlling for education and experience, men are more likely to occupy more important positions. The enormous increase in the level of female labor force participation has not necessarily been accompanied by gender equality. -from Authors
Bilingual education for minorities in China has always been closely linked with political policies held by the government. Since 1980, bilingual education has been provided in some minority schools as a part of the government's policy to improve relationships with ethnic minorities in China. Chinese scholars have argued that bilingual education is necessary to advance learning among minority students. However, schools attempting to implement bilingual teaching are faced with many problems- notably with respect to curriculum, textbook publishing, teacher training and instructional adjustments. Even greater problems lie within society at large, where minorities still suffer discrimination and bias.
This paper offers a review of the motivation, policy priorities and prospects of China's Western Development Strategy. Focusing on construction of infrastructure projects, restoration of the ecological environment, restructuring of existing economic sectors and promotion of science and technology in the western region, the Western Development Strategy symbolizes a reorientation of China's development strategy from an emphasis on fast growth of the coastal area to a more balanced development. However, the launching of a new policy does not guarantee its success. Government financial constraints, weakness of the non‐state sector, lack of enthusiasm by foreign investors, poor human resources and a dire ecological situation can all pose formidable challenges to the success of this strategy.