Economist Scott Rozelle of Stanford University was at Taipei American School yesterday, where he gave a presentation on economic development in China.
Rozelle, who studied Chinese in Taiwan in the mid-1970s, is adjunct professor at six universities in China and heads Stanford’s Rural Education Action Project there. In 2007, he won the inaugural Chinese Academy of Science Collaboration Award for Science Research and last year received the Friendship Award from Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶).
There is no doubt, Rozelle said, that China has undergone an economic miracle, which finds many parallels in the miracles seen in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan a few decades ago.
From 1978 until 2004, the size of China’s economy grew 10 times, a feat that took the US 100 years to accomplish. Of the 200 million people worldwide pulled out of poverty in the past two decades, most were in China, he said.
The key component to that growth was not government anti-poverty programs — which Rozelle said had barely had an impact — but migration from rural areas to the cities. In 1980, Rozelle said, only 4 percent of Chinese workers had full-time work outside a farm; by 2007, more than 90 percent of households had at least one family member working off a farm.
Mei Xiaoyuan, a young Chinese interviewed by Rozelle, highlighted the challenges and opportunities faced by migrant workers. Mei, who left her rural home a few years ago, works at a factory owned by a South Korean firm in a Shanghai suburb. Working between 12 and 14 hours a day, 29 days a month, Mei makes NT$100 a day.
While complaining about lice and substandard living conditions, Mei said she would never go back home — an answer that contrasts with what migrant workers would have said 10 or 15 years ago, when they would move to the cities for a few years before returning home.
Mei can now send money back home and even buy cosmetics for herself.
However, while migration drives wages and increases people’s purchasing power, “demography is destiny,” Rozelle said, adding that in 1990, 20 million babies were born in China, a number that would drop to 6.5 million this year. Twelve to 15 years from now, there will be no population growth in China, he said. Demand will rise, supply will drop, causing an increase in wages.
To sustain this, China will need to ascend the production ladder to standards seen today in countries like Taiwan and South Korea, Rozelle said.
China has the entrepreneurs and the money to make this happen, Rozelle said, but it remains critically weak in one respect — education. While in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan education from kindergarten to grade 12 was almost universal by 1978, in China today, less than 2 percent of Chinese in rural areas receive higher education and only 8 percent of junior high graduates go to senior high.
Education at a rural high school costs US$160 a year, which, in US terms, is the equivalent of sending a child to an Ivy League university. Adjusted for purchasing power, putting a child in high school represents decades of work for an ordinary worker in rural China, he said.
For those who cannot afford it, migratory schools — private and unsupervised by the government — are available, but conditions there are deplorable, Rozelle said.
Besides the poor quality of education at schools in rural areas, 26 percent of students have anemia or intestinal parasites (40 percent in Gansu), with serious implications for performance, development and cognitive abilities: A survey of 600 children aged four showed that while 6 percent of children in urban areas were deemed “unprepared” for school (about 10 percent in the US), that figure was 65 percent in rural areas. All start behind, many never catch up, Rozelle said.