China Invisible: How the Urban-Rural Divide Threatens China’s Rise by Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell revised by Vincent Kolo
“Why should I talk to my baby? a young mother from rural China laughed at the question. “She can’t answer!” Scott Rozelle, who wrote this book with Natalie Hell, has spent more than 30 years researching the Chinese labor force and its rural-urban divide. He recounts how parents in the village reacted with bewilderment and even laughter when he asked them if they talked or read stories to their babies.
“You see, the baby can’t understand words. He can’t even follow simple instructions like “don’t go out”. So how could he follow a story? explained a grandmother, surprised at the stupidity of the question. This is the reality of rural China which is still far behind its modern cities economically and socially. A study of rural parenting by the authors found that only 5% read to their children, only 10% told stories to their babies, only 30% used toys to play or sing to their children. “This problem is systemic in every village in Invisible China,” they say, pointing to an “emerging development crisis” in the country.
For context, we must see that rural China is still mired in poverty and has been robbed of resources and labor to fuel the development of Chinese capitalism. This is especially the case with the massive migration of the younger generation to work as migrant workers in Chinese cities. More than 70 million rural people live on less than US$1 a day, according to the World Bank. Childcare and preschool services in China are mostly private and expensive. Only about a fifth of childcare services are run by local government. For most rural families, it simply does not exist.
Many villages are populated only by old people and children. There are 60 million children ‘left behind’, separated from one or both parents for long periods of time due to migration. Most of China’s 280 million migrant factory and construction workers return home to their villages once a year for the Chinese New Year holiday. As the authors point out, a fairly common sight in the countryside is a grandmother working in the fields with a baby strapped to her back. “The baby is close to Grandma, safe and warm, but immobilized and staring at the back of her head for hours without mental stimulation or social interaction.”
30 million more words
Similar problems arise in all capitalist societies. American research has shown that babies from wealthy families hear 30 million more words in the first three years of life than babies from poor families. The class divide for newborns is even more extreme in China. The misery of rural people – what the authors call “invisible” – China has created an educational and economic time bomb. Rozelle and Hell call it “the biggest crisis facing China today.”
According to their findings, “at least half of children in rural Chinese villages have sufficiently low scores on cognitive tests that it is unlikely (without immediate intervention) that they will ever reach an adult IQ above eighty- ten. The IQ is scaled such that an IQ of ninety or less places the wielder in the lowest 16% of a normal population.
Too sick to study
Most people familiar with China know that it is now a predominantly urban society – nearly 65% of the population lives in cities. But as Rozelle and Hell point out, more than 70% of children are born with a rural hukou. This is China’s apartheid-like system of household registration, which divides the population into urban (“first class”) and rural (“second class”) citizens. This staggering statistic means that more than two-thirds of China’s future workforce is growing up facing massive and systemic educational disadvantage. In fourth grade, students in rural primary schools were more than two levels behind their urban counterparts in math, according to a study in central China. The book explains how, while the government has invested billions in education, including upgrading most rural schools, it hasn’t really solved anything because it doesn’t address the root cause. It is not just about new school buildings and higher salaries for teachers, but also about the impact of lifelong poverty, demographic distortions and the very absence of basic social benefits.
The latter is inextricably linked to the crisis of infant development and education. “Put simply, children in rural areas don’t learn because they are sick,” they explain. More than half of China’s rural babies are undernourished, Rozelle research teams have found, while more than 30% of children in grades four to eight have vision problems but lack glasses. This is two to three times higher than the rate of poor vision in other countries.
A third and perhaps even more shocking “invisible epidemic” identified by the authors is the prevalence of intestinal worms among rural children. In Guizhou province, one of the poorest, 40% of rural primary school students were infected with parasitic intestinal worms, according to a provincial-level study in 2013. Similar rates of 40% or more were reported in rural areas of Sichuan, Fujian, Hunan and Yunnan. Worms cause malnutrition, dizziness, and impaired physical and cognitive development. In China, until the 1980s, school children were dewormed at school twice a year using drugs. But it was interrupted. Although the authors do not mention it, the timing is a good one – one of many examples of the effects of capitalist restoration and the collapse of rural health care and social services that accompanied it.
While China’s urban population enjoys as good or better educational attainment than the United States and other Western countries, rural students – the majority – lag behind. This means that only 12.5% of China’s labor force has a university education and only 30% have completed high school, according to the 2015 national microcensus. This puts China behind all other middle-income countries, including the Mexico, Thailand and South Africa. The book warns that this educational black hole could frustrate the Chinese regime’s ambition to achieve advanced economy status.