China’s School of “Hard Knocks”

As China tries to graduate from the world’s factory to a nation with a strong middle class, its peasants still aren’t ready to make the leap. According to official statistics, China’s urban-rural income gap reached 3.33:1 in 2009, the widest since 1978, if not before. And as the gap increases, poor peasants are becoming marginalized in higher education, closing off one of their best opportunities for advancement. 

China’s education system, where peasants can get a rudimentary education before populating thousands of factories along its eastern coast, suited it when the country sought to be the world’s sweatshop. At the same level of development in their history, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. had practically full enrollments in high school. By contrast, only 60 percent to 70 percent of China’s current high-school-age students are in high school. Yet factory jobs will continue to migrate to places like India. Wages in China will continue to rise. And as long as China finds no better way to educate its rural poor, it’s staring down a future with a 100 million-strong underclass.

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