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    Families Are Abandoning China’s Rural Schools. Here’s Why That Matters.

    School closures and consolidations are pushing rural families into towns and exacerbating the rural-urban divide.

    In the 1990s, millions of rural Chinese left their homes and poured into cities in search of work, leaving hollowed-out villages in their wake. Three decades later, jobs aren’t the only reason residents are abandoning the countryside: With many rural schools struggling, families are hunting for better options elsewhere.

    Some send their kids to boarding schools. Those with more resources are buying or renting homes in nearby towns and cities. The mothers or grandparents accompany the kids, taking care of them while they study, a practice known in Chinese as peidu.

    This has led to a vicious cycle. From the perspective of individuals and families, moving to the city offers the possibility of higher incomes and greater opportunities for their children. As the rural labor and brain drain intensifies, however, rural communities are driven further into decline, worsening the structural inequalities between the countryside and the cities and pushing more residents to migrate.

    The history of peidu bears this out. In order to improve the quality of education and optimize resource allocation, the State Council — China’s cabinet — ordered a round of rural school closures and consolidations in 2001. The number of primary schools in rural areas shrunk from 416,000 in 2001 to 155,000 in 2012.

    The side effects of the new policy, however unintended, were hard to ignore: Dropout rates rose rapidly and young students in remote areas faced staggering commutes. The central government itself repeatedly criticized the unreasonable closure of many schools.

    In 2012, after a spate of accidents involving school buses, the State Council abandoned the policy and ordered localities to reopen rural primary schools. But the closures continued: An estimated 16 rural primary schools shuttered every day in 2018, according to a major think tank.

    The disappearance of rural primary schools helped spur the rise of peidu, as parents went where the educational resources were. But this process may not have been entirely organic. Ye Jingzhong, a professor at China Agricultural University, argued that the migration of students and their parents from the countryside to townships was not a side-effect of urbanization, but the means by which urbanization was carried out. Using good educational resources as a carrot, local governments drew rural residents into county towns, where they could contribute to urbanization and economic growth.

    Ye’s claims were highly controversial in mainstream Chinese academic circles, where rural decline is typically attributed to urbanization and low birth rates, but a follow-up study by Zhang Yulin, a professor at Nanjing University, found some evidence for his argument.

    A member of the party committee of Dapu County, Guangdong province, said in a speech to government leaders that, “If Dapu wants to develop, it must bring all the children from the countryside to the county seat.” The party secretary of Pingguo County in the neighboring Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region likewise stated: “Developing education in the county seat ... can also attract people to the county to promote consumption, while simultaneously helping to develop the services industry and urbanization.”

    Urbanization is key to stimulating development in poorer regions. But one less-acknowledged beneficiary of rural-to-urban educational migration is the real-estate sector. That’s because peidu moms and their children generally need to rent or buy an apartment near a school. In our fieldwork in a central Chinese county, we found that educational migration was a driving force in the local real estate market. One government official there told me: “If it wasn’t for these students, a lot of homes in the county would go unsold.”

    Spending by peidu families in towns and county seats drains the countryside’s already limited wealth. We found educational migrants spent an average of 12,600 yuan ($1,800) per family per year in townships and 21,300 yuan in county seats at a time when the average annual income of the county’s rural residents was just 10,340 yuan. Two-thirds of the households we surveyed relied on money sent home by migrant workers — money that was quickly poured into the urban housing market.

    At a time when the central government is stressing the protection of agricultural output, the migration of peidu families causes all sorts of problems for the countryside. The large-scale migration of rural laborers has led to reduced agricultural production, as well as increases in land transfers and idle land. Although previous waves of migration also shrunk the rural labor force, the current educational migration wave is even pulling the elderly and mothers out of rural China, further exacerbating the shortage of agricultural labor.

    One peidu mother said she no longer had time to manage her tea trees after moving to the county seat. A peidu grandmother said that her income from farming more than halved, from 9,000 yuan to 4,000 yuan, because she didn’t have enough time to go home and tend to the fields.

    Because most peidu parents rarely return to their villages, many either rent out their land to others or simply let it go idle. Finding willing renters isn’t easy. For example, a 63-year-old peidu grandmother complained that she was unable to find anyone to farm her land. “The young people have left to find work, and those in their 50s and 60s have gone to the cities to care for their grandchildren at school,” she said. Almost all the village leaders we interviewed blamed the peidu phenomenon for the increase in unfarmed land. According to data we collected, over 25% of land owned by peidu households is idle, compared with just 7.7% in non-peidu households.

    In the end, the outflow of people from rural areas is being caused by farmers’ extreme anxiety for agriculture. Their long-term goal is to lift their children out of agriculture and into the urban middle class. Yet, while practices like peidu offer a way out of farming for rural families and their children, their promotion only makes closing the rural-urban gap harder.

    This article was co-authored by Teng Yuan, an assistant professor of education at Central China Normal University.

    Translator: David Ball; editor: Cai Yiwen; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.

    (Header image: A “peidu” mother helps her daugther do her homework in Lu’an, Anhui province, 2019. Wu Wenbing/VCG)