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Coming out in the countryside

Several years ago, when I was working in a very rural university, I hosted a group of college graduates from the United States. They were invited to visit with the students, and one of them became very popular with the girls in class. He always had more attention than any of the others, perhaps because he was incredibly friendly, had a bright smile, and was by most accounts handsome. However, what the fawning girls didn’t notice was that my friend was gay.

So after a week or so of having girls ask for his QQ number, I asked if he would be willing to host a very special English corner. Even though it was specifically in my contract that I was not to challenge traditional Chinese ideas about homosexuality* (which Richard Burger would point out, are actually a new construction), I decided that the students would find such a conversation interesting and hoped that it would expand their world view.

So after closing the doors and the windows, my friend explained to fifty students from rural China what it meant to be a gay man in the United States. He wasn’t quite sure what their reaction would be, but it was far more supportive than either one of us had expected. The students didn’t seem to understand why anyone would care. The questions focused mostly on how his family reacted, and several students wondered whether or not I was scared to be friends with a gay man. One girl after the session, who clearly didn’t quite get it, slipped him a note telling him how attractive he was and gave him her number just in case he wasn’t really gay.

Several hours later I received a text from a student who had grown up in the countryside asking if he could meet with my friend and I. That night he told us a truth about himself that he had never admitted to another person, that he too was homosexual. He said it was something he had always known, but had been too afraid to say out loud. That was until he heard a story that sounded so much like his own.

My friend, who was leaving the next day, worked frantically with this student to try and come up with some sort of plan. They knew it was too risky for him to come out to his classmates even though it meant suffering through another two years of people wondering where his girlfriend was, and his only hope was to move to a big city like Shanghai or better yet, overseas. The student though was far more realistic, he said, “I should just marry a woman, it would be too hard for my family to accept a gay son.” None of us tried to deny the fact that homosexuality is not tolerated in rural China, but we also didn’t want him (and his wife) to live that lie.

As Richard Burger details competently in his book, Behind the Red Door, attitudes towards homosexuality are changing quickly in China and this seems to be supported (not everywhere), but not when it comes to one’s own family. The sentiment seems to be “why would I care if someone in another family is gay?” but there’s a markedly different attitude if it is their relative. As my student lamented, “My parents want me to have kids, and I should just make them happy.” To which my friend replied, “But what about your happiness?”

I’m glad to say several years later my student has given up the notion that his parents’ desires for his life trump who he is.

*This part of the contract was not from my church, we believe that all people are created by God as they are.

Where good news is disappointing and bad news is hopeful

Just a quick thought today:

As I tell people in the States, when it comes to China, seemingly good news is often bad, and seemingly bad news is often good. In many cases, like increased numbers of AIDS cases, higher numbers of people living below the poverty line, and shrinking college admissions, bad news can actually be signs of problems being acknowledged and addressed. On the other hand, reforms to the criminal code, the completion of bridges and rails, and “elections” often serve as reminders of how far China has to go in terms of human rights, safety, and developing a gov’t that is actually selected by the people.

In a story published the other day in People’s Daily, the gov’t announced that it planned for every other village in China to be staffed by at least one college graduate. This seems like a rather necessary step, as one begins to realize that the statement means that at the moment most villages in China do not have a single college grad on staff (not that they are necessarily qualified to lead either, but would likely bring new ideas). Surely, this kind of policy would help to spark innovation and develop the countryside.

However, as the article goes on, it seems to be another well-intentioned, but poorly thought out policy. It’s a rather transparent effort to create 400,000 jobs for college grads to stem the growing number of unemployed students (this article is explicit in the intent). Again, it seems that the raw number is more important than whether or not these individuals are actually improving services in these areas, and with that bulk of new employees it’s hard to imagine that they will be very carefully screened for their abilities instead of their connections. As one applicant said in another article on the topic, “becoming a civil servant means a lifetime of insurance, stability and being relatively well-paid.” Such a program will further strain local budgets that already fail to adequately cover education and health care.

So what may look at first glimpse as good news, may actually be another costly policy that looks better on paper than it does in practice.

On the other hand, today People’s Daily reported that a Professor had plagiarized his student’s work and then claimed that he won an award with it (although PD found no evidence that he had actually won.) The article doesn’t do much to help with the underlying problems as it still refers to the man as an “award winning professor,” and includes a quote from a school official that seems to imply the award was what really mattered.

It seems at first like another example of the rampant cheating that happens in China’s universities, but in this instance the student has vocally opposed his former professor. Even after the prof. apologized and added the student’s name to the project, the student has continued to reject these attempts to calm the story.

This is not the first instance of a student rebuking a teacher for claiming their work, even though the students could face rather stiff punishments from their schools. To me it is a great example of the awakening in China of individual rights, and the value of creativity.

China weathered the economic storm with college enrollment and household consumption

Yesterday we started looking at some of the strategies China has used to weather the first financial downturn. Today we’ll continue that by looking at two other strategies as well as their potential benefits and costs.

One of the major things that was supposed to happen after the economic downturn was that China was going to shift from being the world’s factory to a position higher up the production chain. The idea was that many of the factories on China’s east coast were shutting down, but increased domestic consumption and new college graduates would soon alleviate the slowdown.

Increased College Enrollment

When I arrived in 2007, my average class size at the rural college was 35, by the start of the 2009 school year that had jumped up to nearly 50. I didn’t need to read the papers to realize what was happening; college enrollment was being increased to absorb high school students who wouldn’t be able to find a job in the cities.

From 2005 college enrollment increased from 23 million to 31 million in 2010. University and junior college enrollment jumped 43% and graduate students had increased by 57%. Such a massive shift in just a few years meant an explosion in the number of private and public schools that were meant to train the next generation of Chinese scholars who would pull China’s economy up to the next level.

For the last few years, China’s colleges have succeeded in keeping the youth occupied.

But there was a major problem; as the college students began graduating they realized there were few jobs that actually required degrees. Students regularly discussed their disappointment in the fact that their high school educated friends were earning ~2,000rmb/month working in factories in Guangdong, but with a college degree they would be earning almost an identical amount. In fact many of them went on to low level sales positions, and a few ended up working in hotels.

Unemployment figures were also disguised (in rural areas unemployed migrant workers are simply reclassified as farmers). I knew of several colleges in 2009 that were struggling to place their graduates, but were facing tremendous pressure to report good employment rates. The practice they devised made it so a student would not be able to graduate until they had found a job. So even in the middle of the recession my campus claimed a nearly 100% employment rate, despite the fact that many of the students were no longer “graduating.”

This is an issue that still hasn’t been corrected. Just this weekend a friend was telling me that several of his graduate level classmates were disgusted with their new jobs that paid roughly 2,500rmb/month. They wondered what the point was of delaying their entrance into the job market by 6-7 years if there weren’t even jobs available (in this same time frame housing prices increased over 400% in some areas).

Now at some point, China will need a better educated workforce but as my friend said, “It seems very dangerous for the gov’t to have encouraged the creation of such a large pool of well educated and poorly paid scholars.” I share the concern that this is going to create an awaking in China similar to that seen in Occupy Wallstreet (which was buffeted by a similar demographic).

Domestic Consumption

One way of thinking about a country’s economy is by considering three major forces: government spending, household spending, and exports. With a Keynesian view of the economy, which China’s gov’t seems to endorse, when foreign exports drop like they did in 2008, gov’t spending and household spending need to increase to make up the difference.

Unfortunately, China’s gov’t made up almost the entire difference, and household spending (as a percentage of GDP) fell over 11% from where it was in 2000 to ~35%. This means that when foreign countries’ economies falter, China can’t rely on its own consumption to weather the storm. This is a major force behind China’s infrastructure projects, without the gov’t spending billions of dollars every year, the economy would come sputtering to a stop.

The gov’t has tried numerous subsidies to boost domestic demand on things like appliances and automobiles, which have worked to a large extent, but gov’t spending increases are outpacing these gains. The success of these projects can be seen in every traffic jam and polluted sky.

These gains however, were the easy gains. Now that many of China’s rural consumers have purchased household appliances like refrigerators, washing machines, and televisions, consumption will start to drop again as these subsidies expire.

One of the major limits on increasing household consumption is that China’s social security programs are still weak. Families realize it is necessary to save large portions of their salaries for unforeseen illnesses or losses. In the US there was much discussion of China’s personal savings rates, which many of us saw as a symbol of how out of control American spending was, but these same savings are also a limiting factor for China’s economic growth.

Conclusion

To me, it seems that these short-term solutions (including the one discussed yesterday) have helped China survive the economic crisis in 2008. If the rest of the world had taken similar steps, and the world economy was back on track, China would be in the perfect position to leap ahead. However, if the economy falters once again, China will be faced with massive local debt, infrastructure projects that have suffered from diminishing returns, a large educated but underemployed section of the population, and families that are still saving for a rainy day.

China survived one downturn, but in my opinion, it would be incredibly difficult for it to survive a double-dip recession without making drastic adjustments to the economy.

I am in no way “rooting” for China to falter, the losses in the countryside would undo many of the gains that I’ve worked for in the countryside. The destabilizing effect could also cause massive social upheavals that could have very ugly outcomes. 

Christmas in the Chinese countryside

Being thousands of miles away from home isn’t exactly how most people picture celebrating Christmas. In fact, it’s a holiday that can be pretty hard to enjoy without family.

So, like many expats, I did my best to recreate the Christmas experience with my students and co-workers. For the four weeks leading up to the holiday, we spent the last 10 minutes of every class practicing a few festive songs. I think for the most part the students enjoyed the challenge, and the rest liked having the time to make noise.

Finally, on Christmas day, we made a call from the classroom to my grandparent’s house where my whole family was and surprised them with a seasonal medley. It was a moment I’ll never forget; 30 students huddled around a microphone, trying their best to get through Jingle Bells, Deck the Halls, and Frosty the Snowman. I swear I could hear my grandmother smiling on the other end of the line.

In the countryside, it was easy to get away from the commercial season that Christmas has become in the West and in China’s urban areas. We focused instead on the festive spirit that comes with the joyous birth of Jesus Christ, although the students mostly focused on the first part (My post on Teaching Christmas to Communists).

Teaching in rural China was one of the happiest times in my life, but the students all realized that Christmas was hard for me. So on Christmas Eve, they surprised me with this video to cheer me up. It made the thousands of miles of separation from the life I formally knew completely worthwhile.

I hope you and your families have a very Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, or any other holiday you might celebrate. If you aren’t religious, I hope you will still take a moment to stop and appreciate the wonderful gift that family is.

-Tom

China isn’t safe?

The other day I was visiting my favorite jianbing salesman (煎饼 a delicious crepe type breakfast food), and he asked me if America was safe. I told him that regarding food and transportation, America is pretty safe, but we still have too much violent crime. I figured this was a fairly safe answer, China has been plagued by food safety problems and fatal accidents in the double digits are fairly common. It would have also played into the stereotypical idea that America is dangerous because we all have guns, which would make it easy to believe (more on that tomorrow). Instead the chef just shook his head and said, “China isn’t safe”. His two female co-workers agreed. “Too many thieves,” one said.

Even in the tiny town of Longzhou many students feared for their lives off campus. They had been told by school officials that virtually every place in town was a hot bed of criminal activity after dark. It seemed like a ridiculous effort to keep the students from wandering too far away, but there was no way of knowing for sure. The students laughed in my face when I suggested that perhaps Longzhou wasn’t as dangerous as they had heard.

In Yizhou I found the students to be under the same impression, but when I questioned them about it, they started sharing their tales. Countless Mp3 players had been stolen at the market, money had been taken out of bags on buses and trains. The students unanimously agreed that going into town alone was a terrible choice. They “knew” none of the local people would help them if they were assaulted.

I’m guessing a few of you are starting to shake your heads, and you would be right to, since for a foreigner China is one of the safest countries I’ve ever been to. I can walk home in the middle of the night without the slightest worry. I think this is because foreigners live in a bit of a bubble when it comes to safety. We generally live in the nicer neighborhoods and are more likely to take some of the safer forms of transportation (e.g. avoiding 12 hour hard seat train rides).  I get the impression that foreigners are less likely to be targeted for violent crime. It is likely that the gov’t would punish such an “international” crime more harshly since it is eager to show its best face to the outside world. Additionally, English newspapers in China rarely report on local crime.

In fact, crime lurks just behind the veneer of safety. This is fostered by two major factors, one being that people feel little sense of duty to strangers (which I discussed last week), and the growing gap between rich and poor on China’s East Coast.

If you spend any amount of time at a Chinese train station you’ll see countless warnings about watching your goods. According to the video thieves had become more creative than most of my students in their pursuit of ill gotten wealth. It showed staged fights and elaborate costumes and fake ID’s to trick unwitting marks in to leaving their valuables undefended.

It seemed less fun after my friend was robbed on a two hour bus ride. Unfortunately she didn’t realize this in time to take any real action. The bag she had stored under the bus had been broken into by a thief (probably a child) who had been stowed under the bus as well. The police were largely uninterested in helping her, until they realized that she was an overseas Chinese.

Another friend felt endangered when a group of merchants selling sliced fruits strongly he suggested that he buy some after offering a piece on the end of a sharp knife. He told me he was helpless knowing that no one around him would come to his aid, but he did manage to get away. Now I don’t know whether or not he was in any real danger, but the fact that this scared him so badly means that crime is a real worry.

However, nothing really highlights the problem like my co-worker who has had 3 bicycles stolen from the hospital campus in as many years.

Again, as a foreigner China seems like one of the safest places in the world, and compared to many neighboring countries, it is. But for the average Chinese person petty and violent crime are of real concern, even if we don’t usually hear about it.

Teaching in the countryside: Why teachers can’t wait to leave

Last week we looked at my first hand experience in a rural college, and we explored the current state of rural schools and a few of the underlying problems. Today we’ll be looking at why there are few great teachers in the countryside.

Two kinds of teachers

The first type is a “certified teacher”, and is considered to be on par with other gov’t employees. These positions are very stable, and the pay is decent. It is a coveted position, with 60% of the salary guaranteed by the national gov’t.  However in rural schools this kind of teacher can be hard to find.

Village teachers only earn 1/3 of what they could earn at a county level school. This has led village teachers to move from rural to urban areas, and from the relatively poor west to the much richer east. It is a sad fact that many village teachers could earn more working menial factory jobs, so many actually leave the field of education. English teachers have the highest rate of flight from village schools because of the allure of foreign companies (I personally know a handful of these former teachers).

The second type of teacher is known as a “substitute teacher”. These are uncertified, unofficial school employees, meaning that most of them do not have even a 2-3 year degree. They earn roughly 1/3 of what the certified teachers make, but have no health benefits or pension. The schools use these teachers to cheaply staff their classes (largely due to a restricted budget) even though the practice is considered illegal. The school will fire these teachers just before an inspection to clear them from the records, and then hire them as soon as the inspectors are gone (I covered school inspections earlier).

These teachers accept these conditions because they hope to some day be hired as certified teachers. They also often work in multiple village schools and teach a variety of subjects, which they may have had no prior experience in.

Virtually all high school teachers are expected to work more than 50 hours a week (sometimes 60-70 hours), in order to supervise the students’ preparations for the college entrance exam. Standards from the city to the countryside also vary widely. In Guangxi several colleagues told me that they had accepted the position in the college, because in their home province they would only have been qualified to work in high schools, and they didn’t want to work that much.

Due to these often uninspired teachers, some counties have student dropout rates nearing 50% in extreme cases.

A tiny ray of hope

Increasingly universities and local gov’ts have created programs for recent graduates to work in rural schools. Many of these teachers only stay in the countryside long enough to qualify themselves for special treatment in graduate school programs. While most of these grads come with the best intentions, local teachers often criticize them for being naive and lacking experience.

According to a reliable source, there is a major obstacle to overcome to solve these problems in education: Local gov’t officials are only looking for short-term solutions, since these gains net them handsome promotions. China’s educational system needs major long term reform, which will offer no direct benefit to these local officials. Local officials also recognize that improving education means that more of their villagers will leave, and the town will not recoup their investment in these children, so they allow educational funds to be “borrowed” by other local ministries to be spent on infrastructure and new projects. This money is never returned to the struggling schools.

Until the National gov’t makes teaching positions in the countryside attractive, and provides the funding to actually hire qualified teachers, students in the countryside will face massive hurdles when trying to work their way up in the new China. Local gov’ts also need to be made accountable for hiring uncertified teachers and skimming money from the already small pool of educational funds.