(Commonground radio, USA, 23/03/2004)
« MCHUGH : A little known fact of life in China came to light when the diary of a 14-year-old peasant girl made it from a remote town in rural China made it to the bestseller lists in France. The book, which has now been published in 16 countries around the world, tells the story of a young girl who is desperate to stay in school, despite the problem of sky-high school fees, which her parents cant afford. As Celia Hatton reports from Beijing, the book highlights a much larger problem in China, where rural schoolchildren cannot afford to complete even the most basic levels of education.
[The sound of people speaking Chinese in a busy room]
CELLIA HATTON : Excitement was in the air at a recent book launch in Beijing, as the long-awaited diaries of a 14-year-old girl were released in China. The diary of Ma Yan details the daily life of a schoolgirl from a remote, impoverished part of China who longs to stay in school, despite the fact that her school fees are crippling her parents.
[The sound of Ma Yan crying as she relates her story to the crowd at her book opening]
HATTON : At the launch, Ma Yan wept as she told the audience about a friend who was forced to leave school in the fifth grade and is now married with a baby. Often, parents are forced to choose which of their children will be allowed to continue studying, usually allowing boys to stay in school while girls are forced to marry into other families. Just before Ma Yans book fell into the hands of Pierre Haski, a French journalist traveling through her village, she had been told that she would not be allowed to continue with her education. Haski included excerpts of Ma Yans diary in the French newspaper Liberation and soon returned to the girls village to convince Ma Yans family to allow him to publish the entire diary in France.
Although Ma Yans story has a happy ending, she is just one of millions of children in rural China who must fight to remain in school, even in the first nine years of Chinas supposedly compulsory education system. One Ministry of Education study last year found that five out of seven children in a region of Chinas poor Anhui province had dropped out of school because their parents could not afford to pay tuition fees. United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, Katarina Tomasevski, was invited by the Chinese government to rate Chinas compliance with its agreed international human rights obligations in education. She explained that the financial obstacles to basic education were her principle concern and criticized the Chinese government.
UNITED NATIONS SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR KATARINA TOMASEVSKI : The government of China is in a fairly comfortable position relying on the fact that most parents will do whatever they can to provide the best possible education for their children, which makes the life of the government very easy. It can mismanage budgetary allocations because parents will step in and provide as much as they can.
HATTON : Education funding was a casualty when China began to liberalize in the 1980s. As the economy began to open up, shrinking government budgets shifted the responsibility for education funding from the central to local governments. Bankrupt townships in rural areas eventually forced parents to cover most school expenses. French journalist Pierre Haski, who discovered Ma Yans diaries in rural Ningxia, says that in Ma Yans case, the tax-strapped government paid to build the school structure and now, only pays the meager salaries of the teachers who work there.
PIERRE HASKI : Everything else has to be provided by the parents. That means to pay for the electricity, to pay for the maintenance, to pay for the books, to pay for everything, they rely on the fees. And these fees are equal in that case to one years income of a villager.
HATTON : Katarina Tomasevski argued to the UN that the Chinese government needed to increase the allocation of funding from just over three percent of its gross domestic product to the internationally recommended minimum amount of six percent. Most developing countries are able to contribute four percent, Tomasevski says. In response to the UN report, the Chinese government issued its own statement highlighting strides that the education system has made in the past few years, including decreased illiteracy rates for women and higher enrollment rates for girls stretching from primary school to university. There are also signs, however, that the Chinese government is beginning to take note of the problem of rural school fees. In September, Chinas Education Minister, Zhou Ji, promised to tackle the school fee problem by ensuring teachers salaries and eliminating random charges at primary and middle schools.
It will be difficult to improve education much, however, without committing more money. According to Chinas state-run newspaper, The China Daily, China uses 1.4 percent of the worlds educational funds to support 22.9 percent of the worlds students. Back in Beijing, the success of Ma Yans book continues to grow. A charity, the Children of Ningxia, has been started in France to provide free education to all primary school children in Ma Yans village, and full scholarships to 50 middle school students in May Yans school, most of them girls. As more publishing houses around the world sign up to print Ma Yans book, the hope is that more children in rural China will be able to overcome the problem of sky-high school fees. For Common Ground, Im Celia Hatton in Beijing.
MORT : For Common Ground, Im Steve Mort at the United Nations in New York.
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