Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
The accepted narrative is that China is an unstoppable juggernaut. It will continue to surge ahead … China's rise will change the world is the mantra. Yet there are underlying issues that China must overcome if it's to realise its potential. It is possible that China may stagnate with progress derailed. That would be a terrible outcome after the record-breaking progress of 68 years. One issue that needs addressing, and soon, is the plight of the rural poor.
The images of China display vast cities, linked by high-speed trains. Modern airports, infrastructure projects and advances abound. High-tech factories spew forth gadgets, whilst its military has advanced in leaps. Since 1949 China has made great strides. These accelerated in the 1980s as the economy opened up to investment. In the process, millions rose out of poverty in a stunning achievement.
None of this changes the fact that 75% of China’s population is rural. And the majority of that rural population remains in poverty.
Whilst the urban classes benefitted the most, the rural communities lagged behind. Many factors are at play. What is certain is that this disparity needs addressing. Otherwise, China faces untold challenges in advancing further.
Education and access to learning appear to be the crucial factor. Currently, only one-quarter of China's rural poor go to High School. This has a profound impact on the ability of China to advance its economy to the next level.
In the past, the uneducated rural communities could rely on mundane work. You don’t need a high IQ to follow a bull around a field or for grinding physical labour. Likewise, when the first wave of factories appeared skilled workers were not needed.
In fact, for repetitive work, many companies screened out people with higher IQs. They wanted worker drones to make those iPhones and all that other stuff. Workers with high IQs soon became bored, disruptive and unwelcome. That’s not conducive to keeping the production lines running.
Thus, your rural worker was well suited to the mass production tasks that fueled China’s growth. With minimal training, a rigid routine and dorm living these folks excelled. With this came the mass migration of young people from the countryside to industrial centres. This brought a degree of wealth that trickled back to the villages. Except, in the process, the workers did not upgrade their skill sets.
Trouble is, those jobs are drying up. Samsung has removed its entire production operation out of China. Apple is looking to do the same. As China advances it prices itself out of those rote low-paying jobs. Thus, those rural poor are no longer so employable. With no work, an uncertain future awaits.
Stanford University has intriguing findings around education and China's rural communities. These results are disturbing. Yet, within them rests the answer to avert a crisis.
First, things we need to understand. Some 90% of your IQ gets developed in the first 1000 days of life. Two factors are at play, nutrition and the level of stimulation a baby receives. Most brain development happens before the age of three. The experts assess this as the most crucial window of development. Studies have shown that poor nutrition and a lack of stimulus during this period predicts a low IQ.
Moreover, it's known that for every dollar spent on educating a three-year-old, society gets an $18 return. That’s a pretty good investment. For pre-school, the return is $8 and elementary school is $7. By the time a kid hits college the return is parity, and here’s the killer … adult education gives a negative return. Whilst adult education has other tangible benefits, in economic terms, it's a waste of time.
This is important when you consider what’s happening in China. Currently, the urban rich are spending vast amounts on taking care of their kids. Good nutrition, loads of activities and stimulation through playgroups and toys.
In the rural areas, that expenditure is not taking place. Moreover, in many instances, babies are not receiving any stimulation. Often brought up by grandma kept swaddled in dark rooms. Nobody is reading to them, playing games or music.
In a multi-region study, rural babies exhibited significant cognitive development delays. Whilst urban kids match world standards, 53% of the rural poor have developmental issues. The data is telling. In Yunnan Province, in the 6-18 months old group 73% suffered from anaemic conditions. Poor nutrition is the cause. These babies are unable to develop at the normal pace with their IQ held back at a very early age. The parents don’t know because there are no outward signs. Fat, yet lacking key nutrients, these kids are sick.
The other big factor is an absence of a stimulating environment. Researchers found only 10% talked to their child on a daily basis, whilst 3% read them a book. In rural areas, 70% of households have zero or one book. Plus, with half of rural babies raised by grandma, this has negative consequences. When grandma is the caregiver a child's IQ is a full 10% less than when raised by mum.
Moreover, training mums to talk to babies and play games creates stimulation. The result is the kids IQs jumping. When mom is the main caregiver IQs are in the normal range assuming nutrition is adequate. None of this implies parents don't love their kids. The opposite is true. Generational conditioning coupled with a fear of harm is holding parents back.
Across China, it’s estimated that between 400-500 million people suffer cognitive handicaps. The potential impact of this on social order, crime and stability are disturbing.
In recent years, structural changes have had unforeseen consequences. There is nine-years free education with good quality buildings in most rural areas. Yet, since the year 2000 over 100,000 rural secondary schools shut down to merge with facilities in town. This has resulted in kids as young as seven leaving home for boarding school.
Also, there are no high schools in rural areas. This ignores the fact that three-quarters of China’s kids are in rural communities. All this means educational outcomes have not been promising. This compounds the disadvantageous state of the rural poor in a vicious cycle.
The economists talk about improving ‘human capital’ if countries are to advance. In layman’s terms that means improving IQs, skills, creativity and those things that produce value. Education at an early age is a key driver. For that formal education to work the child must arrive at school fit and ready to learn. Unfortunately, that’s not happening in rural China.
Starting school having had little or no simulation as a baby, a poor diet and anaemia casts you to the back of the class. And there you remain. For all that, the picture is not bleak.
If any nation can address this, China can. It’s shown time and time again an ability to tackle the difficult protracted issues with resolve. As the message spreads, things are changing. Abandoned secondary schools get converted into days centres for coaching mothers. The results are almost immediate with measurable improvements in wellbeing and child IQs.
The economics of investing in the rural poor education makes sense. The returns are significant and better than interventions later. Simple things have the greatest impact. Talk to your baby, read and play. All have remarkable, positive outcomes. Even now, as China continues with white-hot growth, the countryside is the site of the next evolution. There resides the majority of its population and there resides the future.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.