The number of people in China who can't read has shot up to 116 million, wiping out years of hard-won gains against illiteracy as rural poor leave the farm and school for work in the city, state media said yesterday.
Over the last five years, China's illiterate population grew by 30 million, the China Daily reported. According to census data, 87 million adults were illiterate in 2000.
Literacy in China is defined as someone who can read and write 1,500 characters -- a fraction of the 7,000 to 10,000 characters required for college graduates.
Most Chinese were illiterate at the beginning of the 20th century, but the simplification of Chinese characters and education campaigns launched by the communists helped steadily raise literacy levels among adults, hitting about 90 percent in 2000, according to the UN.
The paper quoted an official as saying the main reason for the backsliding was that many young rural poor were dropping out of school to find work in the cities.
Migrant workers in urban centers do not have access to public education, health care and other basic social services.
"The situation is worrying," the paper quoted Gao Xuegui, a Ministry of Education official who focuses on illiteracy, as saying. "Illiteracy is not only a matter of education, but also has a great social impact."
Gao said lack of funding was another reason for the backsliding, and the fact that earlier successes in fighting illiteracy lead some local governments to abandon their literacy programs.
The China Daily said China's illiterate population in 2000 accounted for 11.3 percent of the world's total, but reached 15.01 percent in 2005.