The new school year of September 2005 in Ningxia is remarkable in a number of ways. Firstly, we have the joy of now counting for the first time a university student amongst our scholarship recipients. Yang Xia, who is from Zhang Jia Shu, Ma Yan’s native village, and who has been supported by the Children of Ningxia for three years already, has been admitted to Yinchuan University in the provincial capital of Ningxia. She will be studying telecommunications there. She is the first girl from Zhang Jia Shu to go this far in her studies, and we are so proud to have accompanied her on this difficult road.
Actually, we have three university students this year, two boys in addition to Yang Xia. Our Parisian friend was in the native village of Bai Juhua, Ma Yan’s mother, on the occasion of a celebration of the departure of one of these boys to university. Everybody gave him a present and wished him luck. It means quite something in these villages to have made it into university. In order to get there, one has to study hard - but also be able to pay for one’s studies. For Yang Xia, we have had to make a bank order for RMB 8100 for one academic year (about 800 Euros), covering the tuition fees as well as modest living expenses for one year in the provincial capital. This corresponds to about 20 years’ income of a peasant in her home village. In other words, without support from the association or from another public or private organization, no child from this district could hope ever to gain access to higher education.
As mentioned in our previous newsletter, the government this year introduced free tuition for the nine years of compulsory schooling in China’s poorest districts, including the one we are active in. We have accordingly made some sensible changes to the way we provide support. From the beginning of the new school year in 2005, we provide support to the three schools with which we co-operate in the following manner:
1) The association takes care of those fees for which the students’ families themselves remain responsible: The fee for room and board for students from faraway villages who only return home on the week-ends. This affects more than one thousand students in Yuwang and Ma Gao Zhuang;
2) For those who already received bursaries from the association, the amount of the payment has been reduced in order to reflect the reduction of costs due to the abolition of tuition fees; but we continue with a smaller payment to allow the children of the poorest families to buy food and clothes;
3) The bursary system remains unchanged for senior high school students; that is, for those who go beyond the nine years of compulsory education;
4) The association accompanies those who succeed in getting into university.
A total of 1200 students will have receive support from the association at the beginning of this new school year, a record number in terms of students and also in terms of expenditure, since we will have spent nearly 14,000 Euros.
For the new school year, the association has also paid for school uniforms (overalls bearing the name of the school) to be made for all the students of Ma Gao Zhuang and Zhang Jia Shu, that is, nearly 600 children. This is what we had already done for the students at the school in Yuwang. We came to realize that these uniforms were an object of considerable pride among the student who never took them off, not even on week-ends back in their villages…
The abovementioned changes in our system thus reflect and complement the step taken by the government toward making education free, which has been promised for the whole of China by 2010 - for the nine years of compulsory education. It has become possible for us to have a more equal impact on the school age population of the district and thus to have a real impact on its society as a whole. And on top of this, the admission of the first bursary recipients to university has been a boost to everybody’s spirits. People are shown a way to break out of a miserable fate, dictated by chronic droughts.
An entirely different event at the beginning of this summer reminded us of the point to which the situation remains precarious in China, and uniquely so in Ningxia. Xiu Xiu, a thirteen-year-old girl in Ningxia, committed suicide. She left a note for her parents saying that since she could not get good school results, she would rather save them the expense of letting her go on with her studies, which she herself put at 100,000 Yuan RMB, that is, at about 10,000 Euros. A few days later, a text posted on the internet forum of the very official People’s Daily bore the title ‘From The Diary of Ma Yan to Xiu Xiu’s Letter.’ The author who signed himself Yun Zhitao, drew a parallel between Xiu Xiu’s tragedy and the lucky story of Ma Yan, of which he remembered the details. He added: ‘No one would have expected that two girls’ stories acquiring nationwide fame would come out of Ningxia within short time from each other – out of a region where nothing ever happens. This is not a mere coincidence. The line from The Diary of Ma Yan to Xiu Xiu’s letter illustrates two things our education system persistently fails to be: universal, and fair.’ He adds further that the reality falls far short of the optimism spread by the Ministry of Education, and reminds us that at a time when the statistics were [also] very good, Ma Yan was obliged to drop out of school because she had no money, and that it was entirely due to the lucky coincidence of her diary’s publication that she could go back to school. The author emphasizes also that the education system is turning less and less egalitarian and more and more elitist, based on money and power. And he appeals to China to invest more in its educational system in order to make education truly universal and fair. This lucid comment is not exceptional in a China that has liberalized too rapidly in certain sectors, it sometimes seems, and that is now beginning to realize this. This summer, China Youth Daily (of 20 July) commented as follows on the problems with higher education: ‘University student poverty is continuously on the rise. This is primarily a result of the increasing disparities between modes of living, and of economic growth, which directly affects the costs of studying. The poor students, who are generally from the countryside, have no access to goods enjoyed by the more fortunate students, and they will therefore tend to isolate themselves from their fellow students. This results in a certain social disequilibrium right inside our universities. The support provided by government is in reality not more than a small compensation for this.’ The magazine Caijing, in turn, criticised the ‘rise of bureaucracy in universities and the end of the public monopoly on education, [which] have turned Chinese university into one of the most expensive in the world.’
Our action, targeting education in a Ningxia district, is taking precisely the direction which numerous participants in this debate have been hoping for, especially the author of the comparison between Ma Yan and Xiu Xiu. It is encouraging to see to what point this debate has progressed since the beginning of our action, and especially encouraging to see that Ma Yan’s Diary has contributed to this progress, and has indeed become a reference point in this debate. Yet now that we have our first university students, and given the costs of studying, we have also embarked on a road which threatens to become a heavy burden on our accounts, since we have several dozens of bursary recipients who will in the course of the next few years be entering university. It is up to us, then, not to disappoint them, and to find ways and means of increasing the association’s revenue from donations, up until now tailored to the far more modest expenses incurred at school. So the association depends on your support more than ever.