In what was called "a milestone event" in China's educational history, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Sunday pledged that the government would eliminate all charges on rural students receiving a nine-year compulsory education before the end of 2007.
The new policy, apparently resulting from the central leadership's latest call for building a "new socialist countryside, " will benefit some 160 million school-age children in the vast rural region, who account for nearly 80 percent of the country's primary and junior middle school students.
"Over the next two years, we will completely eliminate tuition and miscellaneous fees for all rural students receiving compulsory education," said Wen while delivering a cabinet work report to the just-opened annual parliament session here.
"This is an important milestone in the history of the development of education in China," said the premier.
The 2,927 lawmakers attending the session, many from the countryside, warmly applauded the premier's announcement.
The policy's successful implementation, which the premier said requires an increase of 218.2 billion yuan (27.27 billion U.S. dollars) in the central government budget expenditure over the next five years, will basically lift China out of the rank of less than 30 countries worldwide which fail to provide their kids with completely free compulsory education.
Education of the huge population in the countryside, which is now home to some 900 million people, has remained a hard nut to crack for Chinese leaders since ancient times.
Ancient philosopher Confucius (551-479 B.C.), now widely regarded as China's first professional teacher, initiated a model that was followed for more than 2,000 years. He opened a private school in his hometown, the small Kingdom of Lu, and enrolled some 3,000 students, charging each a symbolic "tuition fee" of "10 strips of jerked meat."
Since modern education was introduced to China about one century ago, government-funded, completely-free compulsory education for every citizen has become a long-pursued yet unattainable goal for Chinese educators, who were frequently upset by a lack of funding and government support due to wars, conflicts and other social, economic problems.
In 1986, China promulgated the law on compulsory education, which stipulates that the state should provide a nine-year compulsory education "free of tuition fees" for all primary and junior middle school students.
However, the law has failed to guarantee the funding of compulsory education, thus forcing many schools, particularly those in the impoverished rural regions, to either continue to collect the tuition fees or charge various "miscellaneous fees" on their students in the name of "voluntary donations," "fund-raising for school construction" or "after-school tutoring fees."
Recent surveys conducted by sociologists in several rural areas show that currently the Chinese farmers, whose annual per capita net income stood at a mere 3,200 yuan (400 dollars) in 2005, have to pay about 800 yuan (100 dollars) a year for a child's education in the elementary and secondary stage.
Excessive charges by the schools have become a major reason behind the increasing rural dropouts in recent years. The dropout ratio for rural primary and junior middle schools in 2004 was 2.45 percent and 3.91 percent respectively, while the figure in the less developed central and western regions was much higher.
Premier Wen said in his report that the new policy would be first implemented in the western regions this year and then extended to the central and eastern regions next year.
"We will also continue to provide free textbooks to students from poor families and living allowances to poor students residing on campus," the premier added.
"People at my hometown will be overjoyed to learn this news," said Wang Xiwu, a lawmaker from Huining County in northwest China's Gansu Province. "It means that from now on, all rural children in the western regions can afford basic education."
Wang, deputy headmaster of a local middle school, said that in recent years rural schools in Huining were not only losing students, but also teachers, most of whom only got a meager monthly pay between 200 and 1,300 yuan (25 to 160 dollars).
"The new policy will sure bring more children back into schools, so I think it's also necessary for the government to speed up the upgrading of rural school facilities and raise rural teachers' salaries," said Wang.
Funding the repair and renovation of rural school buildings and guaranteeing the payment of rural school teachers' salaries are also among the measures Premier Wen promised to take in the coming years.