Illiteracy Jumps in China, Despite 50-Year Campaign to Eradicate It

Shi Yong Xun, left, is one of several young teachers in Liupu, China, who give up evenings to tutor older women.
Shi Yong Xun, left, is one of several young teachers in Liupu, China, who give up evenings to tutor older women. (Photos By Maureen Fan -- The Washington Post)
By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 27, 2007

LIUPU, China -- Last year, finally, everyone in Liupu village was able to read and write 1,500 Chinese characters, a census showed. Village leaders threw a big dinner to celebrate, presenting commemorative teacups to the last two adults to make the grade.

But ask Zhao Huapu, the earnest principal of Liupu Shezu Girls School, how many people here can actually read and write, and he gives an embarrassed smile. Nearly 30 percent of Liupu's adults are illiterate.

"That's just reality. . . . A lot of them can't read and write," said Zhao, who acknowledged that the census is based on a test that fails to measure adult literacy accurately.

Illiteracy is increasing in China, despite a 50-year-old campaign to stamp it out and a declaration by the government in 2000 that it had been nearly eradicated. The reasons are complex, from the cost of a rural education to the growing appeal of migrant work that draws Chinese away from classrooms and toward far-off cities.

In many cases, as in this farming hamlet in China's southern Guizhou province, villagers whose education ended in elementary school have simply forgotten basic skills.

From 2000 to 2005, the number of illiterate Chinese adults jumped by 33 percent, from 87 million to 116 million, the state-run China Daily reported this month. The newspaper noted that even before the increase, China's illiterate population had accounted for 11.3 percent of the world's total.

"The situation is worrying," Gao Xuegui, director of the Education Ministry's illiteracy eradication office, told China Daily, blaming the increase on changing attitudes toward knowledge in a market economy. "Illiteracy is not only a matter of education but also has a great social impact."

Gao's remarks echoed concerns voiced by literacy researchers and served as a reminder of the challenges facing China's mostly rural population.

This country is proud of its traditional focus on education, as well as more recent efforts to raise standards, such as passage of a law that says every child has the right to nine years of schooling. Yet in many rural areas, such schooling remains unavailable or prohibitively expensive.

In 2000, officials announced that the illiteracy rate in Tibet, the worst in China, had dropped to roughly 42 percent from 95 percent about 50 years earlier. From 2001 to 2005, China educated nearly 10 million adults who couldn't read and write, the Education Ministry said in September. Authorities have also boasted of higher enrollment figures in primary and middle schools.

Experts, however, contend that official reports are sometimes unreliable. Local officials are pressured to inflate enrollment figures, and students who are enrolled often don't bother to show up, they say.

There are also questions about how literacy statistics are gathered. In Liupu, for example, Zhao and other local leaders go door-to-door each September, asking the village's roughly 300 families how many people are in each household and what type of education they have. Those who can show they have graduated from primary school are not counted as illiterate, regardless of whether they can actually read or write.

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