Jinting Wu

 

On her book Fabricating an Educational Miracle: Compulsory Schooling Meets Ethnic Rural Development in Southwest China

Cover Interview of January 04, 2017

The wide angle

Between 2009 and 2010, I spent 16 months conducting intensive fieldwork in a Miao and a Dong minority village-town in Qiandongnan Prefecture, Guizhou Province. Situated closely above the southwest border of China, Guizhou is a resource-stripped mountain region in China’s hinterlands, where a large number of ethnic minorities reside. Statistically speaking, Guizhou is portrayed in numbers that fetishize rural poverty and underdevelopment. School enrollment rates in the province are also among the nation’s lowest. Alarming dropout rates in the secondary level climbed to a 30% high during the time of this research. With collective anxiety, the Chinese state promotes compulsory basic education through ninth grade and market development to bring social mobility and economic wellbeing to Qiandongnan. Education is perceived as an agent of change, a ticket out of poverty, and a pathway into mobile, prosperous, cosmopolitan citizens. Market is also regarded as a necessary remedy to plug the vast rural base into China’s speedy economic engine.

Yet, as the book shows, compulsory education and rural development programs have brought unintended consequences and become part of the problems they are charged to address. Despite the political slogan, “Today’s education is tomorrow’s economy,” pessimism and ambivalence towards schooling has been growing, culminating in massive rates of attrition among junior secondary students. Many dropouts take up low-end service work as migrant workers and form a new segment of the working class population laboring in China’s coastal cities. With the declining values of credentials and the ever-greater obstacle to “making it” in the exam-focused educational system, motivation to succeed in academics continue to wane. In people’s practical reasoning, they are better off by embracing work as a more realistic path to social mobility.

In recent decades, “ethnic issues” (minzu wenti) and “rural issues” (nongcun wenti) have become focal points of social debates and state policies. With China’s transition from planned economy to market economy, the rural ethnic minorities are increasingly seen as the “holdout” population that needs to be transformed from the national burden to the national asset. Partially moored in the development mantra of contemporary China, Guizhou Province is featured in popular media as the exotic tourism paradise with quaint environment, idyllic scenery, and unsophisticated folk customs. The promotion of rural tourism does to some degree bring the hoped-for economic gains, yet pits local communities against bureaucratic and commercial restrictions. In recent years, ethnic tourism rides the high tide of theme-park-style construction. The attempt of the villagers to renovate or rebuild their own houses can lead to fine, demolition, and even eviction, if the houses are judged incompatible with a traditional architectural idiom that tourism planners aim to preserve. Schools in both villages are forced to evacuate from the village centers, along with other public facilities such as medical clinics and government offices, to make room for commercial ventures. The public good collapses into striking irrelevance against the backdrop of commercial success.

Education and tourism in Qiandongnan are contextually bound. Just as village teachers are increasingly drawn to moonlighting opportunities on the tourism market, tourism also attracts, to the burden of local schools, a higher number of officials, who come to conduct school inspections so that they can also enjoy free-ride tourism. Meanwhile, dropout students are lured by jobs on the tourism market and make a living as souvenir vendors, hotel janitors, and restaurant workers. Tourism becomes a distinct background where individual aspirations, bureaucratic agendas, and commercial interests are entangled in an educational space with declining legitimacy. The theatrical display of manicured landscape in tourism is also seen in the on-stage and off-stage work by school actors, as described below.