Jinting Wu

 

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

Cover Interview of January 04, 2017

A close-up

It is early May 2009, only a few days before the impending school inspection by the provincial delegate. The Dong village of Longxing has been selected as one of the sites on the delegate’s itinerary, an “unfortunate” event according to the teachers who have grown weary of frequent school audits by different levels of government officials all year long. Both the primary school and middle school (the only two schools in the village) have spent weeks and months preparing for this significant event, as the delegate’s grand tour in the region will declare whether the policy goals of universal basic education have been achieved. In my observation, the preparation entails several interlinked aspects involving school administrators, teachers, and students. Firstly, numerous forms regarding enrollment data need to be carefully doctored, as a 30% dropout rate will decisively invite official sanction and jeopardize the teachers’ and the schools’ future. Secondly, the dilapidated school compounds – in part due to the capricious tourism planning that threatened to take over the schoolyards for commercial purposes and thus delayed the much needed renovation perpetually – are to be carefully groomed to conceal the disrepair. Thirdly, the physical absence of dropout students needs to be filled by substitutes to match the now close to 100% enrollment data on the paperwork. Village schools assign full-time data administrators to prepare various forms and rosters, and deploy the strategies of borrowing students from each other or turning returned migrant workers into one-day students on the inspection day.

On the morning before the delegates arrive, both schools in Longxing cancel classes to enlist students’ labor in the final round of cleaning, mopping, and decorating. Red banners inscribed with welcome messages are hung up on the school walls. Science labs and libraries, rarely used and covered in dust, are wiped spotless. The usually dreary and congested teachers’ offices are freshened with flower bouquets. A steady stream of youngsters arrives to report their attendance; they are either summoned from nearby villages or sent by parents or guardians of dropout students to sit in for the day. A student performance team undertakes one last round of dress rehearsal to get ready for staging their welcome in the evening. Dinner banquets with ethnic specialty dishes and locally brewed rice wine are meticulously arranged. Teachers explain that these days they have to focus more on dinner tables than classrooms. That the student dorms are battered and crumbling, that the playground is dug up and at risk of becoming a tourist parking lot, that students are alarmingly disengaged, that the teachers are demoralized and attended to their job only half-heartedly are inconvenient truths quickly swept under the carpet. What is immediately at stake is the need to fulfill the planned quota (100% grade promotion and zero attrition) as set in the national policy agendas. This form of performance audit has its historical antecedent during the Maoist era when pre-set production quotas dictated local self-reporting. As a legacy of centralized planning, the audit rituals function to demonstrate accountability, yet conceal the painstaking work involved in staging a political spectacle.