Opinion\Reporter Journal\Zhao Huanxin

Fast-developing China pays price in human capital: economist

China Daily USA | Updated: 2017-09-27 10:53

Stanford University economist Scott Rozelle caused a sensation recently with his stark statistics on what he called the human capital crisis in China.

He told an online audience in Beijing earlier this month that only 24 percent of China's labor force has at least a high school education, lower than any country at China's current level of development.

What can these people do in 2030 and what will happen when low-wage, unskilled jobs disappear in China, while a prosperous, high-income country calls for high-caliber workers? asked the director of Stanford's Rural Education Action Project (REAP).

"The growth that took hundreds of years in Europe and the US happened in a few decades in China," Rozelle said.

The result is that people raised in a poor country are responsible for raising children who will have to make it in a rich country, with the human capital that requires.

"Only the state can bridge this gap, by providing the education and health resources that the common people need," he said.

Rozelle said he drew the statistics from China's 2000 national census. He also claimed that more than half of toddlers in China's extreme poor areas are so cognitively delayed that their IQs are unlikely to ever exceed 90 - and having a grandmother as a caregiver is a factor. Anemia strikes at least one-third of babies 6-18 months old in those areas, he said.

Chinese newspapers like the Beijing News, and some readers expressed appreciation that Rozelle and his team have been working to systematically understand and describe rural China over the past 30 years. They also questioned how he defines the rural poor, and the accuracy of his data.

When I met Rozelle in Washington at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Sept 14, I told him the data he used for the presentation on "the growing problems in rural China" could be outdated, such as the one for "low high-school graduation rate", which is at least seven to eight years old.

Besides, I was raised by my grandmother, and it seemed that I had not been "cognitively delayed" as a result.

Rozelle said he has given more than 100 presentations in China and elsewhere.

"No matter the audience, these presentations are met with disbelief," he said.

Which is why he is writing a book analyzing the "invisible crisis" and providing solutions.

As to the 2000 national census data, Rozelle said that he believed the current situation hasn't changed much, even if it's not getting worse, and that I was lucky to have a "fantastic" grandmother.

Rozelle's team found that an overwhelming proportion of caregivers leave their babies alone; only one in 10 would read a book to a baby, and less than 5 percent would tell a story.

China has up to 4 million children ranging from infants to 6-year-olds among the 35.59 million extremely poor people.

In the 2011 Early Childhood Development and Education in China report, the World Bank estimated that one-third of rural children are left behind by parents who have migrated to work. Those children usually are cared for by their grandmothers.

Even when they are with their parents, about 73 percent of children reported their parents were "rude" to them, and only 2 percent said their parents would play with them, according to the report Nutrition and Child Rearing Situation on 0-6-Year-Olds in Rural Poor Areas in China.

The report, released in 2015 based on a survey by the All-China Women's Association and China's National Health and Family Planning Commission, didn't specify how many children were sampled.

The survey found the anemia prevalence in rural children under age 6 ranged from 19.6 percent to 26.8 percent between 2006 and 2009.

It also found that the six-months-of-exclusive-breastfeeding rate was 24.8 percent in the rural poor areas compared with the world average of 38 percent and the national average of 27.6 percent.

Rozelle and the World Bank report have cited neuroscientists to conclude that prenatal care and experiences in the first six years of life affect physical and brain development, and investments in early childhood are most cost-effective to improve productivity and social cohesion.

I expect that between the covers of Rozelle's forthcoming book are pages with down-to-earth analysis and practical solutions, shedding light on how China could develop its human capital to avoid the middle-income trap.

Such a book, even without dramatizing, will be welcome by many in years to come.

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