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Economic disparity worsens children's growing pains

By Xinhua writers Zhou Yan, Pan Qiang and Li Meijuan (Xinhua)

17:48, May 31, 2013

NANNING, May 31 (Xinhua) -- Wei Yufan stays busy during the week and spends her weekends and holidays at cram schools, taking math, English, piano and Taekwondo classes.

The nine-year-old is chauffeured from one class to another every Saturday, with a short break for lunch at a nearby fast food restaurant. She spends only Sunday afternoons at home, but schoolwork takes up most of the time.

She will have to follow the same routine even on Children's Day, which falls on Saturday this year.

Wei's parents want their only child to excel, or at least, "not to lag behind her peers."

"All other kids are taking many extracurricular classes and she will fall behind if she doesn't take any," said her mother Xie Jing, a government employee in Nanning, capital of south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. "We hope she'll enter the best secondary school and eventually a top university."

But the third-grader makes little of her parents' expectations. Though she never openly defies them, she struggled to hold back her tears when asked whether she enjoys her weekend classes.

"I don't like any of them," she told Xinhua in an interview on Thursday. "They never ask how I feel before they register me."

Xie said she knows her daughter is too busy and "a little bit tired," but she insists that "hard work always pays off." "When she's older, she'll understand."

Wei said she dreads Fridays, which are always followed by two lonely and exhausting days. "It's even worse than normal school days."

If she could choose, Wei said she would rather spend her weekends at home, reading for fun. But her parents say her favorite story books are "rubbish," because they do not immediately improve her grades.

Her frustration is typical of children born and raised in this time of material abundance in Chinese cities. Their parents, who are often college educated, expect them to give outstanding academic performances, speak at least one foreign language well and excel in art and sports.

In Beijing, it is not uncommon for preteens to squeeze advanced math courses alongside computer programming, English, ancient Chinese literature, bridge, piano and golf into their after-school and weekend schedules.

Winter and summer holidays are often filled with intensive training, contests or certification tests that are widely expected to yield award certificates or other credentials that might be an advantage in the child's next round of competition for a place at a high school.

Such training classes, which each cost about 10,000 yuan (1,629 U.S. dollars) a year on average, are also seen as an ideal "caregiver" by working parents, who need to leave their children in someone else's care while they work, assuming that all paid services are good and reliable.

Xie Jing said she felt miserable last week when she was ill in bed. Her daughter dined out alone in a restaurant, totally indifferent to her ailing mother.

"For the first time since she entered school, I doubted my own parenting skills. Maybe it's been a mistake to send her away to classes every weekend and spend no time with her myself."


While urban children hustle to get to everything in their jam-packed schedules, their peers in China's remote countryside are putting their lives at risk by trekking across craggy mountains or crossing rushing rivers to get to school.

Luo Tingxi, 13, is still a third-grader at a village-run primary school in the landlocked southwestern province of Guizhou. He is at least four years behind schedule, as Chinese children normally enter primary school at age 6 or 7.

His schooling was delayed partly because the trip to and from school is laborious and risky for young children. Luo leaves home at 5 a.m. and hikes for more than three hours on the zigzagging mountain roads. When he gets school at 8:30 a.m., he often collapses into his chair, unwilling to move again.

By lunchtime, Luo usually struggles to stay awake. His parents give him 1 yuan a day for lunch, and he can only afford to buy some bread at the grocery store near his school. It's hard to swallow every bite, as the mountain areas are arid and the school has no water.

He dozes off through his afternoon classes, longing to go home.

His teacher never scolds him for being late or sleeping in class. "It's a blessing that they are safe on the way. Many children cut school when it rains or snows," said Wei Yingzhong, headmaster of the Mazhai Primary School in Ziyun County.

According to Wei, at least 80 of the school's 226 students hike long distances to school.

The children live in sparsely-populated villages far from one another, and there aren't enough children to open up new schools in their respective communities, said Wei.

The school has neither room nor personnel to arrange lodging for the students.

Though China ensures nine years of compulsory education for all children, few students in these faraway villages go on to high school at the end of the nine years, said Wei.

Poverty has caused a huge gap in these children's cognitive skills and communication with the outside world.

"What's an iPad? Is it edible?" Ten-year-old Wei Haizheng asked in his ramshackle home in an out-of-the-way village of Guangxi's Dahua County.

Eleven-year-old Fang Yuna said she hopes to grow up to be rich. "I want to buy beautiful clothes," said the third-grader from a mountain village in Jinzhai County in east China's Anhui Province.

Fang knows that her access to wealth depends on whether she goes to the city in search of work, just like her parents who visit home only once a year and leave her and her brothers in the care of their grandparents.

Her teacher said Fang is a smart girl and should go to college someday. "But she longs for money and city life. I doubt if she can finish junior high school."

Earning a living in cities tops the wish lists of many primary school students in the remote villages of Guangxi.

According to Zhang Fayun, an official in rural Ziyun County, only 40 percent of junior high school graduates have gone on to senior high. "Nearly 20,000 students finished junior high school last summer, but only 3,223 were attending senior high schools when the spring semester started in February."

Almost all the others had migrated to cities in search of work. "The students worry about their families' financial burden. Some families live on less than 2,000 yuan a year," said Zhang.

"The students are also aware that it is getting increasingly difficult for even college graduates to secure a job, so they'd rather earn a living at a younger age."


As the world's second-largest economy prepares to celebrate Children's Day, many adults are recalling the good old days of growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, when few families were rich but children were probably happier.

Today, however, "a happy, carefree" childhood seems out of reach for city and rural children alike.

In 10 years, city kids like Wei Yufan will probably be studying at a university in Beijing, eyeing well-paid jobs in big companies.

By then, Luo Tingxi may have become a skilled worker on a factory assembly line or in a coal pit. He might also be married with two children.

If the economic disparity is not lifted by then, growing pains will persist for those on both sides.

While city children fight pains inflicted by demanding parents, rural children's pains often reflect the fast-growing, unbalanced economy, which could backfire and hamper further economic growth, warned Liu Fuxiang, deputy education chief in Yanchuan County of northwest China's Shaanxi Province.

"The yawning rural-urban income gap has worsened disparity in many other sectors, like education, in particular," he said.

Rural children, he said, perform far worse than their urban peers on major tests these days, but not because they are not clever or diligent. "They are victims of an unbalanced allocation of teaching resources."

The rapid urbanization drive has drawn an influx of rural workers to cities and boomtowns, where more schools have been built. "Many rural schools in remote, sparsely-populated villages were closed down and children from several villages have to share one school," said Liu.

As many migrants have taken their school-aged children with them to cities, most village schools in the underdeveloped areas of Yanchuan County are more like daycare centers for left-behind children, orphans and handicapped children, he said.

Troubled by insufficient funding and teachers, it is also hard for these schools to offer many subjects. "Some schools only teach reading and arithmetic. Gym class is all about frolicking and running around," said Liu. "Many children just wait for the nine years of compulsory education to end soon so they can take a job in the city."

The consequences of the disparity could be severe, as poverty could twist the youngsters' value systems. "The children are our future," he said. "Our future will be gloomy if they are not educated properly."

"Children in poverty tend to admire the material abundance in cities and even worship money," said Yang Yuansong, a rural school teacher known for "Left-behind Children's Diaries," a collection of tear-stained diary entries written by rural children whose parents work in faraway cities.

"When young migrants in their village return home with fashionable clothing and stylish haircuts, their value system changes and they long to see the wide world for themselves instead of concentrating on their schoolwork."

Yang said reminding them of the importance of learning and keeping their dreams alive is essential. But often, their parents are not home and schools do not have enough teachers to offer them the proper guidance.

Ding Xueqian, a rural school teacher in Gansu Province and a deputy to the local parliament, has called for more funding from the central and provincial treasuries to boost education in remote rural areas.

"It's important to train adequate teachers and build safer classrooms for countryside schools," he said. "By narrowing the gap between rural and urban education, we can expect to provide quality education to rural students and reverse the widespread prejudice that 'going to school is useless.'"

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