书评：Invisible China，也许可以译为《看不见的中国》。作者是斯坦福大学的两个经济学家Scott Rozelle and
OECD (经济合作与发展组织)的PISA排名，即Program For International Student
Invisible China. By Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell. University of
Chicago Press; 248 pages; $27.50 and £22.
The china that most foreigners see is modern and metropolitan. The
skyscrapers glitter. The bullet trains are fast and comfortable.
Anyone who visits only Beijing, Shanghai or Shenzhen would conclude
that China was already a rich country.
Yet there is another China: poor, rural and scarcely visible to
ecially when covid-19 has made travel so hard. Toilets can be holes
in the dirt, tricky to find in the dark. Women sometimes break
river ice to wash clothes by hand. In many villages, most
working-age adults have moved to the cities, where they lay bricks,
deliver packages and only occasionally return to see their
children. “It’s a hard life being away from your family so much,”
one migrant in Hebei province told this reviewer.
Granted, rural Chinese are far better off than they used to be. In
the 1950s, when Mao Zedong forced them onto collective farms, tens
of millions starved to death. Now they generally have enough to
eat, and proudly insist that guests in their draughty homes have
second helpings of oily noodles. But a crisis is brewing in these
villages, argue Scott Rozelle of Stanford University and Natalie
Hell, a Californian researcher, that could prevent China from
attaining Xi Jinping’s dream of widespread prosperity. Two-thirds
of Chinese children are rural, partly because rural parents have
more babies than urban ones. And rural Chinese children—the
workforce of the future—are doing terribly at school.
China has invested huge amounts in physical infrastructure, but
neglected its human capital. Do not be fooled by league tables,
such as the oecd’s pisa rankings, that show Chinese high-school
students outperforming those of nearly every other country. The
Chinese figures are not for the whole country, but only for the
better schools in the richer cities.
The children of rural migrants are barred from such schools, thanks
to China’s brutal hukou (household registration) system, which
excludes people with rural origins from many public services in big
cities. Migrant workers’ children must either pay to attend awful
urban private schools or stay back in the countryside with grandma
and go to a mediocre government school there. Such discrimination
is keenly resented.
Healthy bodies, healthy minds.
After decades of research, Mr Rozelle and Ms Hell present some
startling data. Their team gave an iq-like test to thousands of
rural Chinese toddlers. They found that more than 50% were
cognitively delayed and unlikely to reach an iq of 90 (in a typical
population, only 16% score so poorly). There were several reasons
Half of rural babies are undernourished. Caregivers (often
illiterate grandmothers) cram them with rice, noodles and steamed
buns, not realising that they also need micronutrients. Studies in
2016 and 2017 found that a quarter of rural children in central and
western China suffer from anaemia (lack of iron), which makes it
hard for them to concentrate in school. Two-fifths of rural
children in parts of southern China have intestinal worms, which
sap their energy. A third of rural 11- and 12-year-olds have poor
vision but no glasses, so struggle to read their schoolbooks.
Some of these problems would be laughably cheap to fix. A pair of
glasses costs $30. Multivitamin pills are a few cents. De-worming
tablets cost $2 per child each year. One reason the problems
persist is that harmful myths abound. Many rural folk believe
that—as a grandmother told this reviewer—glasses are bad for
children’s eyesight. Some fret that de-worming pills reduce
fertility in girls. A recent study found that 99% of Chinese
farmers gave their pigs de-worming drugs, but hardly any did the
same for their children.
Rural children fall behind long before they are old enough to go to
school. Whereas urban parents constantly talk to their babies,
rural grandmothers often strap them to their backs while they work
in the fields, keeping them safe but barely stimulating their
minds. The segregation of rural children into second-class schools
then widens the gulf between the two Chinas.
Among the entire labour force in 2010, 44% of urban and 11% of
rural Chinese had graduated from high school. Among the current
crop of students, the figures are much better: 97% of urban
students graduated from high school in 2015, and 80% of rural
children went to a high school of some sort. But the rural “high
schools” were often dreadful, opened rapidly to meet official
targets and staffed by teachers with little interest in teaching.
The authors tested thousands of children at “vocational” rural high
schools, and found that 91% had learned practically nothing: they
scored the same or worse on tests at the end of a year of schooling
as at the beginning.
Currently, 70% of the Chinese workforce is unskilled. Such
labourers can do repetitive factory work, but as their wages rise,
those jobs will move to poorer countries such as Vietnam. To escape
from what economists call the “middle-income trap”, China needs
rapidly to improve its people’s skills, so that they can handle
more complex tasks. Yet its workers are far less educated than
those in other middle-income countries, such as Mexico, Turkey and
South Africa. They are also less educated than workers were in
countries that recently grew rich, such as Taiwan and South Korea,
when those places were no better off than China is today.
Much of the blame for all this rests with Mao, whose Cultural
Revolution was “perhaps the largest intentional destruction of
human capital the world has ever seen”. But the authors also blame
“an almost unbelievable oversight” on the part of China’s more
recent leaders. Correcting that is arguably the most important
challenge facing China’s current rulers. They have the resources to
succeed. A country that invests a whopping 43% of gdp can surely
afford to spend a bit less on bridges and a bit more on its
people’s brains. The authors offer sound prescriptions: improve
rural schools, end discrimination against rural children, teach
rural parents to read to their babies (instead of policing how many
they may have), and so on.
If rural Chinese do not learn essential cognitive skills, the
authors predict mass unemployment, social unrest and perhaps a
crash that would “lead to huge economic shocks around the world”.
China’s rulers should order crates of de-worming pills—and copies
of this book.