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Steep Ladders

Poor rural students are offered more opportunities at China’s top universities. But poverty is not the only hurdle for the lucky few who make it.

By Fu Yao and Li Jia Updated Nov.4

My hometown has two specialties: education and apples,” Han Chuyin, a high school student, told the examiners questioning him about his home county in the mountains of Gansu Province in China’s underdeveloped northwest. The interview at Tsinghua University in 2015 would decide whether he would fulfil his dream of being admitted to one of China’s most prestigious universities that summer.  

A few months later, Han heard his name spoken by Tsinghua’s president Qiu Yong at the welcome ceremony for more than 3,300 freshmen on August 20, 2015. In his speech, Qiu praised the young man for working toward his goal of attending Tsinghua through bumpy roads and freezing cold boarding schools in the mountains. “The president’s open praise was a big, big happy surprise for me,” he told NewsChina, shyly excited.  

Once at Tsinghua, the road was not easy, either. He struggled to catch up with other students, from doing algebra homework and PowerPoint presentations to making speeches and organizing activities. “Sometimes I even asked myself, ‘How can they be so brilliant?’” he recalled, talking of the depression he suffered in his early days at Tsinghua.  

Han did not give up. He has rebuilt his academic confidence and is working on helping China’s rural poor. Now he is looking beyond Beijing at the wider world. As a member of a college students’ delegation from the Chinese mainland, he heads out on a visit to Japan, Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan in the next few months.  

Han’s story is typical of the more than 300 poor students who have been accepted by Tsinghua through a special enrollment policy since 2011. They were awarded extra marks on the gaokao (the national university entrance examination) in recognition of their hardship. As Han explained to his Tsinghua interviewers, his fellow villagers regarded a good education as a life-changing opportunity. The special enrollment policy adopted by some top universities in the past few years has made this possible for poor students like Han. However, for numerous poor students in China, the road to good colleges remains hard, and has grown even harder in recent years. And the lucky ones also have to go through a tough time during and even after college.  

Plan B 
A typical Tsinghua student is “born in a city to parents who are civil servants or teachers, travels with parents at least once a year, or has at least one study tour abroad during high school,” Jin Jun, Tsinghua associate professor for sociology, concluded in a survey in 2010. Some of them have the opportunity of joining Tsinghua’s Plan A, initiated in 2011, for future leaders.  

Candidates of Tsinghua’s Self-enhancement Project, also initiated in 2011 as a Plan B for poor students, provide a sharp contrast. Between 2012 and 2014, Peng Ling, a Tsinghua enrollment official in Chongqing municipality in China’s southwest, conducted field investigations with her colleagues to assess the academic record, family financial background and perseverance of local candidates. For example, neither Zhang Huafeng, one of the most qualified students, nor his teachers, knew about the investigation until Peng’s team arrived at Zhang’s school. As Peng told NewsChina, this was to avoid fraud. After visiting Zhang’s elementary and middle schools, they went to his home.  

They were shocked and moved by what they saw there. In the deep mountain with a muddy road linking it with the outside world, there was a clay house with the wind blowing through empty windows. “The two kids of the family [Zhang and his younger brother, a junior high school student] sat on tree stumps and used a bench as a desk when they studied,” Peng recalled. Zhang was awarded the highest possible bonus marks for hardship, and was admitted to the physics department at Tsinghua. He was the first Tsinghua student from his hometown in six decades.  

Like Han, Wang Chao, the best student in the high school in his county in Hunan Province in central China, had to ask for help from his teachers and other fellow students with computers to type and submit their application documents to Tsinghua. They did not have a computer or know how to use one.  

The interviews were very difficult for them due to their limited understanding of the outside world. Peng Ling was impressed by the glittering resumes, self-confident behavior and vivid descriptions of overseas experiences of candidates in Tsinghua’s Plan A project for top students. By contrast, candidates for Plan B often stumbled in interviews. “They just repeated the introduction that had been prepared with the help of their high school teachers; then they could hardly respond to further questions,” Peng told NewsChina. A girl once told interviewers that students in her high school never read newspapers, listen to news on the radio or watch TV.  

Successful candidates feel under great pressure as soon as they start at Tsinghua. Sometimes Wang Chao struggled with ideas that his fellow students had already learned in middle school. The Tsinghua student center conducted a survey in the engineering physics department where the share of poor students was high. The results showed that nearly 3 in 5 of the poor students found it hard to keep up with the curriculum, double the percentage of other students, and half suffered from low self-esteem, compared with 1 in 5 of other students.  

Good College, Better Life 
In China’s relentlessly tough labor market, undergraduates from ordinary colleges find it difficult to get decent jobs worth the high cost of their college education. In recent years, many employers have shown a preference for candidates with a bachelor’s degree from a good college over candidates with a master’s degree from an ordinary college. They believe the national entrance exam to college is the fairest, though not a perfect way, to test a person’s talent and fortitude. Some rural families have chosen to give up on high school education. They simply do not want to take a risk that would not only drain their savings, but also forego the chance of making more money immediately on an assembly line instead of waiting to get a poorly-paid office job with a worthless college diploma. While blue collar workers in China have been enjoying rapid salary rises in recent years, college graduates regard such jobs as below their status and unpromising for their long-term career development.  

This is why good higher education as a way for rural students to move up the social ladder has increasingly attracted public attention. In 2005, research by the 21st Century Education Research Institute, a think tank in Beijing, showed that rural and urban students’ chances of entering college were more equal than ever thanks to expansion of colleges in the late 1990s, but the chance of studying in colleges and majors with better academic resources and career prospects had become slimmer than ever. Various studies showed that the situation deteriorated in the following years. Another widely cited piece of research was conducted in 2011 by Peking University. Based on data from between 1978 and 2005, it found that the share of rural students at Peking University dwindled to 10 to 15 percent after 2000, from a high of 40 percent in the 1980s.  

In 2012, the Chinese government implemented a special policy to have more rural students from less developed western areas admitted to good universities that typically provide better education and enjoy public funding support.  

Good universities are also acting themselves. Tsinghua included all the 592 impoverished counties identified by the central government into its Self-enhancement Project in 2012, and expanded it to 832 poor counties around the nation in 2014. Renmin University of China and Peking University launched similar projects in 2012 and 2015.  

Not Daddies’ Fight 
There is no doubt that the fundamental solution lies in improving the competitiveness of poor students, not special enrollment policies for them. As the poor candidates at Tsinghua have shown, they are disadvantage not only on paper, but also in their limited understanding of the rest of the world. This is why public attention is shifting from fair education to family background.  

A survey by The Paper, a news portal, on more than half of the provincial champions in the national college entrance exam in June 2017 shows that most of them were born to well-educated upper-middle-class urban parents. Those families normally provide not only better living standards and schools, but also, and more importantly, a better home education atmosphere for their kids. “It is increasingly difficult for rural students to be qualified for good colleges,” Xiong Xuan’ang, a champion student in the liberal arts from an upper-middle-class family in Beijing, told media. His remarks that “Nearly all champions today have a strong family background” have been headlined by public media and widely circulated on social media. Most online responses agreed with his observation.  

All this has fueled the already heated debate on the chances, or lack thereof, of social mobility through education. The term “fight between daddies” has been coined and become popular. In July, a post on social media after the national entrance exam criticized many poor parents for “fishing, playing mahjong and video games while other parents are working hard for the future of their kids.” It argued that it was actually fair for poor students from those families to lose out to students with parents working hard for the success of their own life and their kids. The post won a lot of applause from middleclass netizens smugly confident in their own status.  

A commentary in China Youth Daily on July 12 objected, saying such generalized blame aimed at poor parents “selectively plays down” the development gap and unequal educational resources among different regions and classes. It took the example of workers on construction sites and couriers. Most of them work hard in cities for a better life for their families, but their kids rarely have access to schools in the cities.  

Once in Tsinghua, students with problems have access to help. Most of them are doing well with the support. Peng Ling remembered a rural student who was dubbed an “alien” with no idea about how to turn a computer on and off at the beginning. He graduated with a master’s degree seven years later. In 2015, the Tsinghua enrollment office surveyed the students entering Tsinghua as part of the 2012 Self-enhancement Project. It showed that 67 percent of them had an academic record above average despite the hard time they’d had at first. Peng Ling has noticed that once poor students catch up with others in terms of the curriculum, they are ready to enjoy campus life and broaden their vision. Wang Chao was in the top 30 percent of students at the end of the first semester thanks to his hard work. He enjoyed visiting sites in Beijing, including the Palace Museum (or Forbidden City) and the National Museum. He has become a big fan of Jim Parsons, star of the US sitcom The Big Bang Theory. His new hobby is computer programming. He has got both welfare funds and a scholarship from Tsinghua, and will spend the summer holiday on a research program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, US. 

Han Chuyin has also restored his self-confidence through academic progress and taking part in campus activities. As a person who has received a lot of help, now he wants to help others. He has led several events for his classmates, including voluntary teaching in elementary schools in his hometown and purifying polluted water for villagers in Shanxi.  

In 2016, the iTsinghua Classroom project was initiated. So far, professors and top scientists from Tsinghua have given about 160 lectures in middle schools around the country, with more than one third in poor counties. “For those students, this may be the only chance in their lifetime to listen to a lecture by a top scientist, but it may sow the seeds of a dream for them,” said Liu Zhen, head of Tsinghua’s enrollment office.  

For poor rural students, a diploma from a top university can help a lot in terms of their future life and career. But they are still facing more hurdles than their urban middleclass peers. They are often described as hard working, but focusing too much on short-term interests and taking too much responsibility to take care of the whole family. That’s a common problem for first-generation college kids worldwide, who find themselves looking after poor parents and relatives as well as trying to make their own way in the world. This stereotype has left them worse-positioned in the job and dating markets than their urban peers.  

As the rise of populism across the world shows, a widening wealth gap is harmful for society. For poor students, rural and urban alike, support and equal chances of a better life is as important as their own hard work.