China is in the middle of a massive demographic transition, as millions of workers move from rural regions to the cities. The U.S. faced a similar shift decades ago and adopted strikingly different policies.">
A school in rural Kaifeng, Henan, China.
Beginning this month, 150 million students in rural China will have their school tuition paid by the government. In most Chinese cities, kids and their parents pay for school and books. In rural China, every student is now assured of a free education.
The offer of free schools would appear to be an incentive for Chinese families to move to rural communities. It’s not. The Chinese government is encouraging rural workers to move to the country’s smog-belching and massively-growing cities. Some 200 million farmers are moving to cities, according to The Wall Street Journal, but the country’s laws make it nearly impossible for these economic migrants to bring their children.
Rural communities are filled with “left-behind children," orphans of a massive movement of workers into the cities that has been encouraged by the government. To make it easier on those who have moved to the cities, China is willing to pay for the education of 150 million rural children.
It’s hard to imagine a rural policy more different from that followed in the United States. For the past 50 years, the United States (and the states themselves) have passed laws, issued reports and sponsored programs meant to keep people in rural communities. Doctors and teachers can pay off their tuition by spending a few years after graduation in a small town. States offer companies millions of dollars to build a new factory (or call center or warehouse) in a thinly populated county.
The U.S. approach didn’t work. The cities grew and rural areas lost population. Newly industrializing countries have all gone through the same painful sequence: Machinery replaces hands in fields, mills and mines. Rural areas don’t need the people, so they wander off to the cities where new jobs are being created and wages are higher.
The dislocation of millions of people is disruptive, of course, and, for that reason, dangerous. President Lyndon Johnson was convinced that the influx of untrained field hands into the cities was fueling the urban unrest that afflicted cities in the mid-1960s. In 1966, he appointed a commission on rural poverty to conduct a “comprehensive study and appraisal of the current economic situations and trends in American rural life”¦"
The commission was headed by an economist, a son of rural South Carolina and a graduate of Kentucky’s Berea College. Dr. C. E. (Ed) Bishop would later become president of two universities and served as an advisor to four presidents, and in 1967 he delivered to Johnson an honest report.
"Rural poverty is so widespread, and so acute, as to be a national disgrace," the commission proclaimed in its 1967 report, The People Left Behind, “and its consequences have swept into our cities, violently." Urban riots in the summer of 1967 reinforced Johnson’s belief that there was a dangerous connection between urban and rural poverty.
Bishop didn't buy into Johnson's premise ¬— that people could (or should) be kept out of the cities. Too much had changed in rural America. "We aren't talking about reversible changes," Bishop told me years later, echoing the recent decisions of the Chinese. "They are irreversible." The People Left Behind’s recommendations weren’t designed to save rural places from inevitable economic change, but to help the people who suffered the economy's consequences. "We emphasized that government had to cope with poverty, real poverty," Bishop recalled.
"When I think of real poverty," Bishop told me in the 1990s, "I think of a paucity of assets. You just don't have anything to sell." Bishop believed it was the government’s duty to offer everyone marketable skills, to give each person something to sell. In the language of the economist, Bishop said, “We've got to find a way to make the human resource more productive."
Quadruplets Cheng Tianqing, Cheng Tianqi, Cheng Tianshu, Cheng Tianhua (from left to right) hold hands at a rural primary school in Lianyungang, East China's Jiangsu Province.
Johnson didn’t like Bishop’s prescription because it didn’t promise to keep poor, rural people out of the cities. In fact, it encouraged people to move. “They were looking for something that kept people in the rural areas," Bishop said. “They wanted a short run solution for a long run problem." (Also, LBJ, the cat-smart pol, realized rural congressmen might object to a report that urged their constituents to move to another district.) So the report was buried, surfacing only when a reporter happened upon a copy in a library.
The migration out of rural China is massive. Currently, 60 percent of China’s 1.3 billion people live in rural areas. In the next ten to 15 years, the country expects the rural proportion of its population to drop to 40 percent. The consequences of such rapid dislocation are cruel. The Wall Street Journal reported that the suicide rate in rural China is three times that of the cities. And rural women are 25 percent more likely to commit suicide than rural men. The most common method of suicide in rural China — 58 percent of all cases — is to swallow pesticides.
Unhindered by democracy, the Chinese are hastening — heartlessly at times — what they see as an unstoppable demographic process. Rural workers displaced by machinery are forced to move to the cities, but under the hukou system they are not allowed to bring their children. The Chinese solution is to educate the next generation of rural children so that when they move to the cities they will have skills to sell.
"Rural education serves as the foundation, the driving force and an important factor that influences the overall building of a well-off society in an all-round way," China’s State Council declared in 2003. Ed Bishop said the same thing, in the United States, in 1967.