National lawmakers and top political advisers have called on the government to take vigorous measures to improve the country's cash-strapped rural education system.
They warned that, if not reformed, the poor educational system in rural areas may foil the government's efforts to solve rural problems and narrow the widening wealth gap between urbanites and farmers.
"China's rural poverty basically roots in poor education and high illiteracy in the countryside," said Lin Yifu, a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).
"So we should promote better education as key to solving all lingering rural problems and lifting millions of farmers out of poverty."
He told China Daily that only through well-developed education and higher labour quality can the nation help more than 800 million farmers modernize the agriculture sector and take non-farming jobs in cities with better pay.
"Rural education serves as the foundation, the driving force and an important factor that influences the overall building of a well-off society," says Lin, also director of the Centre of China Economic Studies at Peking University.
But Zhou Hongyu, a Hubei deputy to the National People's Congress (NPC), expressed his doubts over the ability of the low rural education standards to meet such a great challenge.
Zhou, who did intensive research on rural education last year, said he is deeply worried about the shortage of funds facing the rural education system, which is still struggling to overcome serious handicaps.
"Rural education, especially compulsory education, has been suffering from a huger and huger financial shortfall over the past few years," said Zhou, also deputy director of Wuhan Municipal Bureau of Education.
His research report suggests that shrinking spending on rural education has caused widespread problems in both student enrollment, the maintenance of facilities as well as the payment of salaries for rural teachers.
Despite the government's strenuous efforts to achieve a nine-year compulsory education programme nationwide, drop-out rates among the country's rural students remains high.
It is estimated that most of the country's 1.1 million dropouts in primary schools are from rural areas.
Zhou attributed the grave situation mainly to a lack of State funding, which currently accounts for 2 per cent of the total rural educational investment.
County-level governments, which now bear the main duties for the administration of compulsory education in rural areas, tend to default on educational spending due to their own financial shortages.
Furthermore, the capital shortage has aggravated in the wake of the ongoing rural taxation reform, which orders the cancellation of educational fees, the main source for extra-budgetary revenues for rural schools.
To address the worsening problem, Chen Demin, another CPPCC National Committee member, urged the central government to shoulder higher responsibility for boosting rural education by diverting more central funding to the sector.
The proportion of state funding in the total rural educational investment should rise to at least 50 per cent from the present 2 per cent, he said.
Chen said the country's rising economic power is now fully capable of providing children of poor rural families with access to free textbooks, subsidies for lodging expenses and exemption from miscellaneous expenses.
The CPPCC National Committee member added that adult education among farmers should also be strengthened, given the fact that there are still over 85 million illiterates among young and middle-age farmers.
Steve K.W. Chan, another CPPCC member from Hong Kong, said the government should encourage more donations for rural education from different sources, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and foreign-funded firms.
"Rich private resources can be given a greater scope for supporting rural education to complement the government role," said Chan, also chairman of Coca-Cola China Limited.
Since 1993, Chan's company has donated more than 35 million yuan (US$4.2 million) to set up 56 Project Hope primary schools in poverty-stricken villages around the country and fund thousands of rural students.
Meanwhile, the foreign-funded enterprise has also established a separate department of community affairs to ensure its consistent participation in the programme.
Chan said governments at all levels should introduce co-operative measures to facilitate the effective use of private donations in rural education.