CHINA: Rural students remark highlights role of blogs

When Wang Ping, a delegate to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, said rural children should not be encouraged to go to university, her remarks were picked up by China's growing blogosphere, attracting a large amount of comment that would never have appeared in the country's tightly controlled newspapers.

Wang, Curator of the China Ethnic Culture Park, told the annual session of the consultative conference, or CPPCC - a broad-based advisory body to the party leadership - that rural children should not be encouraged "because once rural children go to university they won't be able to go back to their hometowns, which is a tragedy".

Most of them would end up staying in cities as second-class citizens, rather than returning to their villages, she said. In addition they would be unable to help their families who may have fallen into poverty because of increasing tuition fees. Keeping rural children on the farm, she argued, would also help rural families avoid the financial burden of paying for college and alleviate chronic unemployment among recent college graduates

Her comments, although not initially reported in full, provoked immediate reaction on China's microblogging site Sina Weibo, similar to Twitter (which is blocked in China). Weibo has 100 million users and more than 100 million posts a day.

Wang's remarks were nominated by bloggers as the most crass suggestion made during the annual joint meetings of the National People's Congress and the CPPCC, which met in Beijing from 6-14 March.

One blogger wrote: "People say three generations back, all our ancestors were farmers. How then did CPPCC member Wang Ping enter the city? 'Don't encourage rural kids to attend university' is another way of saying 'powerful people are born with power'.

"If they [CPPCC delegates] can't think of any good proposals why don't they just resign? We don't need these kind of ideas!"

Yu Jianrong, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute for Rural Development, who started a microblogging campaign against the abduction of rural children, blogged sarcastically on Weibo: "Of course it's not deputy Wang Ping's fault. It's the rural kids who want to go to university who are causing all the trouble."

Responding to a Weibo survey of around 1,800 users, around 93% wanted Wang to step down as a CPPCC member, a position that accords considerable status, though little power.

But Wang's comments had also been disseminated officially because she had also raised a crucial issue about equity in China's universities - that tuition fees have become unaffordable for many rural families, whose incomes have lagged dramatically behind those in cities and booming industrial areas.

Rural incomes are now around a third of urban ones, and the gap is growing, official figures show. "As the gap increases, poor peasants are becoming marginalised in higher education, closing off one of their best opportunities for advancement," the Global Times official newspaper reported recently.

Even Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said in a speech in January that when he was a university student "almost 80% or even higher of my classmates were from peasant villages". He noted that the percentage had dropped drastically in recent years.

When universities reopened in the 1970s after being closed for a decade during and after the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the vast majority of students were from the countryside. During the Mao era, being of peasant background was a badge of honour and top universities were full of young people from farming families.

Now, according to official statistics, around one in five students at China's leading universities are from rural areas. But that is an average.

"The rural population is much lower in Tsinghua and Peking universities than the national average of 20%," Xiong Bingqi, deputy head of the 21st Century Education Research Institute said.

Both universities have refused to divulge the latest data on enrolments of rural students, even to official media, as it was "too sensitive to be published", the official China Daily newspaper reported.

Some blogs suggest it could be as low as 1% in these top institutions - a shocking statistic if true. The rural population is still over 56% of the country's total population, but accounts for just half of all 'university' students - a definition widened to include sub-degree vocational programmes in which the majority of rural young people are enrolled.

One official report said the proportion of rural students enrolled at China Agricultural University had fallen from 39% in 2001 to 31% in 2007, the last year for which figures were provided. Although known for some time, it had not provoked as much debate as this year on blogs and micro-blogs.

As the furore about Wang herself died down, discussions on the state of rural education continued, perhaps more widely read as a result of the Wang debacle.

It is a new situation. The release of the Chinese government's first-ever white paper on the internet last June praised internet use by people to 'supervise' public officials, as long as it did not 'subvert' the state, undermine 'state honour' or be used to spread rumours or defame individuals.

Like many websites which are blocked in China, internet blogs are subject to official censorship, and in common with all social networking companies, they must have a 'monitoring department' to comply with government regulations.

Even so Chen Tong, chief editor of Sina Weibo, said in a recent speech that microblogging has been tremendously empowering in China. Despite all the policing and round-the-clock censorship, internet users feel they can participate in public discourse and even bring issues to national attention, he said.

Experts said this was in keeping with the government's strategy to allow people to use online fora to publicise social issues or petty injustices at the local government level.

It makes most people "a lot less likely to join a movement calling for radical political change. In many ways, the regime actually uses the internet not only to extend its control but also to enhance its legitimacy," said Rebecca Mackinnon, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, which among other things researches use of the internet.

MacKinnon, who formerly worked as a journalist in Beijing, said China was pioneering "networked authoritarianism".

It "accepts the internet's inevitable consequences and adjusts - a lot more give-and-take between government and citizens than in a pre-internet authoritarian state," she said.

Sina Weibo has become more popular than newspapers for following dry political stage-shows such as the NPC and CPPCC annual meetings, although the majority of the population relies on television for political news.

Wang told reporters she would watch her wording, but did not blame bloggers for taking her words out of context. "People need a channel to speak and discuss things," she reportedly said. "I might open a Weibo account myself to communicate better with the public."

The issue of rural education - something that the party wants provincial governments to tackle - was pushed to the fore. But whether rural education actually benefitted from the outcry is highly debatable.