PROBLEMS IN CHINESE SCHOOLS: CHEATING, EXPLOSIONS, CORRUPTION, VIOLENCE AND BUS ACCIDENTS

CHEATING IN CHINESE SCHOOLS

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student essays
Authorities reroute traffic and halt construction so students are not disturbed when taking the exams. In Shanghai, there is a city ordinance that bans honking or construction work near a testing site when university exams are given.

In a survey of 900 college students by the China Youth Daily released in 2008, 80 percent of those polled admitted to cheating on exams. Organized cheating rings have been uncovered. Students in Guangdong Province were caught using two-way radios to communicate during the exams.

Cheating is common in secondary schools, universities and in society as a whole. Andrew Jacobs, wrote in the New York Times, “Many educators say the culture of cheating takes root in high school, where the competition for slots in the country’s best colleges is unrelenting and high marks on standardized tests are the most important criterion for admission. Ghost-written essays and test questions can be bought. So, too, can a hired gun test taker who will assume the student’s identity for the grueling two-day college entrance exam.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, October 6, 2010]

“Then there are the gadgets---wristwatches and pens embedded with tiny cameras---that transmit signals to collaborators on the outside who then relay back the correct answers. Even if such products are illegal, students spent $150 million last year on Internet essays and high-tech subterfuge, a fivefold increase over 2007, according to a Wuhan University study, which identified 800 Web sites offering such illicit services.” [Ibid]

“Academic deceit is not limited to high school students. In July, Centenary College, a New Jersey institution with satellite branches in China and Taiwan, shuttered its business schools in Shanghai, Beijing and Taipei after finding rampant cheating among students. Although school administrators declined to discuss the nature of the misconduct, it was serious enough to withhold degrees from each of the programs’ 400 students. Given a chance to receive their M.B.A.’s by taking another exam, all but two declined, school officials said.” [Ibid]

Cheating appears to be not that big of a deal among students. Arthur Lu, an engineering student who last spring graduated from Tsinghua University, one of China’s top universities, told the New York Times it was common for students to swap test answers or plagiarize essays from one another. “Perhaps it’s a cultural difference but there is nothing bad or embarrassing about it,” said Lu, who is working on a master’s degree at Stanford University. “It’s not that students can’t do the work. They just see it as a way of saving time.” [Ibid]

Cheating and falsifying credentials also occurs outside the education system. In 2009, state media warned that growing competition for government jobs appeared to have encouraged cheating in the civil service entrance exam, with about 1,000 cheaters caught over a four month period. After a plane crash in August 2010 killed 42 people in northeast China, officials discovered that 100 pilots who worked for the airline’s parent company had falsified their flying histories. It has also been revealed that Tang Jun, the millionaire former head of Microsoft China and something of a national hero, falsely claimed to have received a doctorate from the California Institute of Technology. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, October 6, 2010]

Stephen Wong wrote in the Asia Times, “Exam cheating has deeper roots in the moral decay of today's Chinese society. The Chinese, long proud of the Confucius virtues of honesty, courtesy and loyalty, have been experiencing a moral and ethical void ever since those values were broken by the Cultural Revolution and replaced by a feverish pursuit of money and power. The order of the market economy, however, is yet to be fully established. Thus cheating becomes widespread - not only in the exam venues, but also in the academic field and in the government itself. Cheating has become so widespread that the cheaters no longer feel shameful.” [Source: Stephen Wong Asia Times, August 22, 2009]

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a high school

Cracking Down on Cheating in China

In January 2008, China’s Education Ministry drafted legislation to fight widespread cheating “To curb the rampant cheating, Chinese lawmakers and scholars are calling for heavier penalties against the cheaters,” Stephen Wong wrote in the Asia Times. “In most cases, if they are unlucky enough to get caught, they simply get their scores canceled or certificates revoked. Lawmaker Zhang Zhao'an proposed an examination law at this year's national congress. In fact, Chinese lawmakers have been mulling an examination law since 2002 and even completed a draft in 2005, but so far the law is yet to come out.” [Source: Stephen Wong Asia Times, August 22, 2009]

But many people doubt whether a new law would deter the cheaters.. It is not uncommon in China that even where legislation is strong, the means of enforcement are helplessly weak.

Some places have resorted to using informers and fake test takers and even child monitors to crack down on cheating.Stephen Wong wrote in the Asia Times, “The government of a district of Wuwei, in northwestern Gansu province, hired 18 pupils to watch over a promotion examination for 265 police officers, judges and procurators. The pupils were sent to nine exam rooms, where they watched over the examinees together with adult invigilators. The result - nearly 10 percent of the exam participants were caught cheating red-handed.[Source: Stephen Wong Asia Times, August 22, 2009]

“The pupils, averaged 12 years old caught 18 cheaters, whilst their adult coworkers caught only seven. Each student was awarded with stationary worth 50 yuan (US$7.32). The authorities annulled the cheaters' scores but did not issue any further penalties. The government hired the pupils because “adult invigilators are often very careful and cautious” and sometimes “sympathize with the cheaters”, according to Huang Ni, human resources chief of the Liangzhou district of Wuwei city. Innocent pupils, however, are fearless.” [Ibid]

“The incident triggered nationwide discussions on moral bankruptcy in the adult world. Internet forums and newspapers are full of criticism against the cheaters - cops, judges and procurators - as they are professionals who are supposed to enforce law and justice. The Liangzhou district government is also being criticized for laying its responsibilities on minors.” [Ibid]

“A commentary of the national Guangming Daily newspaper stated that adults don't lack the eyes to see problems. They lack the courage to expose them. The Chengdu Commercial Daily criticized the adults for disrupting social morality while expecting children to help them restore it.” [Ibid]

“The Liangzhou government has good reason to distrust the adult invigilators, however. In a society that values guanxi, or interpersonal relationships, many are often reluctant to expose the cheaters. They have good reasons to fear. Zheng Hong, a female invigilator in Songyuan, Jilin province, was beaten up after expelling a cheater from the college entrance exam venue in June. Her shoulders were scratched and her legs kicked by the cheater's mother, who thought her son was “unfairly” treated...In Liangzhou's case, authorities turned to pupils because the adult invigilators are public servants who would be reluctant to offend their colleagues.” [Ibid]

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Hong Kong Primary Scholl Opening Day

High Drop Our Rate and School Weariness in China

A study released in May 2010 by the Institute of Rural Education at Northeast Normal University, found that the dropout rate in some rural areas was as high as 40 percent (although official Ministry of Education estimates are 5 percent in urban areas and 11 percent in rural areas). The survey of 17 junior high schools in 14 counties in six provinces and found that even in relatively prosperous areas, the dropout rate could sometimes hit 40 percent. [Source: : Mitch Moxley, Asian Times, July 2010]

The report attributed the high drop out rate to “school weariness”--- fatigue and disinterest caused by rote learning and cramming. Tao Hongkai, a sociology professor at Central China Normal University, told the Asian Times, “Examination-oriented education imposes too much pressure on students,” Tao, who has decades of experience in high school education in the United States, directs the university's quality education research center. “Students feel some courses are difficult to learn, and the knowledge they grasp isn't useful in real life. They lose interest, which leads to dropouts.” [Ibid]

A 2009 survey found that 50.4 percent of high school students suffered from school weariness in China, which education experts blamed on existing education methods, notably the cramming method of teaching and the intense focus on exam scores. [Ibid]

In his blog, Guo Zaoyang, a teacher at Huangchuan Middle School in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province, wrote: “Examination-oriented education opens the doors to hell. The teaching methods teachers use are the cramming method, spoon feeding method...Students memorize and examination scores are closely related to how much time has been spent on the course. China's schools teach their students nothing, what these schools are best at is making students lose interest and hate their studies.” [Ibid]

With an emphasis on test scores, students are sometimes discouraged from writing exams entirely, lest they bring down a class' average score. In one case, Xiao Zhen, a sixth grade student in Shaanxi province in northwest China, was banned by his teachers from taking exams for an entire year because of his poor study skills, according to China Business View magazine. [Ibid]

School Files in China

Everyone in China who has been to high school has a file---a sealed Manila envelope stamped top secret, containing grades, test results, evaluations by fellow students and teachers, and if they have one a Communist Party application and proof of a college degree. Sharon Lafraniere wrote in New York Times, “The files are irreplaceable histories of achievement and failure, the starting point for potential employers, government officials and others judging an individual’s worth. Often keys to the future, they are locked tight in government, school or workplace cabinets to eliminate any chance they might vanish. [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, July 26, 2009]

The files are crucial for getting any kind of good job. Heaven forbid if they ever get lost . But that is exactly what happened to Xue Longlong and 10 others, all 2006 college graduates with exemplary records, all from poor families living in Wubu, a gritty north-central town on the wide banks of the Yellow River. With the Manila folders went their futures, they say. [Ibid]

“While not quite as important as in Communist China’s early days,” Lafraniere wrote , “when it was a powerful tool of social control, the file, called a dangan, is an absolute requirement for state employment and a means to bolster a candidate’s chances for some private-sector jobs, labor experts say. Because documents are collected over several years and signed by many people, they are virtually impossible to replicate.” [Ibid]

“Today, Xue, who had hoped to work at a state-owned oil company, sells real estate door to door, a step up from past jobs passing out leaflets and serving drinks at an Internet cafe. Wang Yong, who aspired to be a teacher or a bank officer, works odd jobs. Wang Jindong, who had a shot at a job at a state chemical firm, is a construction day laborer, earning less than $10 a day...If you don’t have it, just forget it! Wang Jindong, now 27, said of his file. No matter how capable you are, they will not hire you. Their first reaction is that you are a crook.” [Ibid]

Sale of School Files in China

“Local officials said the files were lost when state workers moved them from the first to the second floor of a government building,” Lafraniere wrote. “But the graduates say they believe officials stole the files and sold them to underachievers seeking new identities and better job prospects---a claim bolstered by a string of similar cases across China.” [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, July 26, 2009]

“When the central government talks about the economy and development, it sounds so great, said Wang, the day laborer. But at the local level, corrupt officials make all their money off of local people.” [Ibid]

“Student files are a proven moneymaker for corrupt state workers. Four years ago, teachers in Jilin Province were caught selling two students’ files for $2,500 and $3,600; the police suspected that they intended to sell a dozen more. In May, the former head of a township government in Hunan Province admitted that he had paid more than $7,000 to steal the identity of a classmate of his daughter, so his daughter could attend college using the classmate’s records.” [Ibid]

Seeking Compensation for Lost School Files in China

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In September 2007, when one Wubu graduate sought work at a local bank and discovered that his file was gone, word spread fast. For the next two years, his parents and a group of other parents in similar straits said, they sought help at every level of the bureaucracy. The government’s answer, they said, was to reject any inquiry, place the graduates’ parents under police surveillance and repeatedly detain them. Last February, they said, five parents trying to petition the national government were locked in an unofficial jail in Beijing for nine days. [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, July 26, 2009]

“We are so exhausted, said one tearful mother, Song Heping. Our nerves are about to snap from this torture. The officials who were responsible not only have not been punished, they have been promoted....One Chinese television journalist said the official told him they had resolved the matter simply by creating new folders. But families say the folders held nothing but brief, error-riddled résumés that employers reflexively reject as fake.” [Ibid]

“The parents are uniformly poor: one father drives a three-wheel taxi, earning just 15 cents per passenger. Xue’s parents sacrificed even more than most, in the belief that education would lead their children out of poverty. They earn just $450 a year growing dates, and live near a dirt mountain path, drinking well water and cooking over a wood fire.” [Ibid]

“Mr Xue, the oldest child, wore secondhand clothes and skipped meals throughout high school. When he won admission to a university in Xian, 400 miles away, his parents borrowed to cover the $1,500 in annual expenses. Initially, it seemed the bet would pay off: he said he had had a chance to work at an oil company with a monthly salary of $735.” [Ibid]

“But the job evaporated with his dangan. It was a catastrophe, he said. Now he earns a base salary of $90 a month as a door-to-door salesman and lives in a tiny, dingy room in a Xian slum. The woman he hoped to marry left him because her parents said he would never have a stable job. His mother suffered a nervous breakdown, and the family debt ballooned. His father, Xue Ruzhan, said he owed more than $10,000---more than twice what his property is worth.” [Ibid]

“What is the point of continuing to live?” the father said. Sometimes I want to commit suicide. These corrupt officials destroyed all our hopes.Including, it seems, the hopes of Longlong’s younger sister, Xiaomei, an 11th grader who once thought she would follow him to a university degree. No more. I want to quit, she said during a school lunch break. My brother graduated from college. What good did it do him? [Ibid]

Corruption in Schools

Schools routinely solicit off-the-book donations for books, uniforms and lunches. Teachers who teach classes in subjects heavily weighted on entrance exams can solicit large bribes. One education official told the Los Angeles Times, “If there are 50 students and 40 give gifts, you definitely don’t try very hard with the other 10. Unfortunately, that’s our system.”

Describing how the education system works in Foshan, city in Guangdong Province, one mother told the Los Angeles Times that when her son was ready for primary school she was worried about him getting in so she found a friend who knew a senior local education official. The mother visited the official’s office, left about $70 on his desk, didn’t say much, and left. Her son was accepted. When it came time for her son to enter middle school she had to work harder because her son didn’t do so well on his entrance exams. Friends of hers were enticed wine and dine key officials and pave the way for distributing $1,200 among education officials and make a $1,600 “donation” to the school he son won admission to. When it was time to enter high school, she spent thousands of dollars in an attempt to get him into a first-rate school but ultimately failed and had to settle for a less prestigious school.

Liao Mengjun, a 15-year-old middle school student in Foshan, was found dead with his forehead bashed in, his right knee bones jutting through his skins, two broken arms, stab wounds and internal injuries, His index finger had been slashed in what may have been an attempt to get him to write something in his own blood. His parents think his killers were his teachers who were upset by the parents’ public complaints about unauthorized fees and systematic corruption in schools. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, January 2009]

Liao Mengjun’s father, Liao Zusheng, a former soldier and Communist Party official, drew the ire of his son’s school, Huangqi Middle School, after he spoke out against the school for trying to collect a $3,000 “selection fee” the school tried to collect without a receipt. He also posted several essay on the Internet that complained about corruption and fraud in China as a whole.

The school said Mengjun was caught stealing, attacked his teacher and committed suicide. His parents did their own investigation and determined that a dean at the school, two teachers and school guards beat up their son. They worked tirelessly and were able to gain access to their son’s autopsy report and gather testimonies of witnesses before they were intimidated by police. When they began pursuing the issue they were offered $20,000 by local officials to keep quiet and then that sum was jacked up to $50,000 and then $70,000 when they refused and continued push forward for justice.

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Child Run Over and Dragged by a Car in a Chinese School Playground

Didi Kirsten Tatlow wrote in the New York Times: “For several angry days last December, one of China’s top state elementary schools, Fangcaodi International School, nearly became a statistic in the rising number of "mass incidents" here. At a stormy meeting on December 3, some parents threatened to demonstrate at the school gates unless the principal agreed to ban cars from driving throughout the campus, after a first grader was nearly killed in an accident involving a school car on the playground the month before. [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, New York Times, May 18, 2011]

“On November 15, a school driver had driven over what he apparently believed was just a pile of children’s coats. But 6-year-old Julien Glauser, a half-Chinese, half-Swiss student, was lying on the coats. Dragged along the ground for more than 8 meters, or nearly 28 feet, underneath the black Toyota Camry, Julien suffered severe spine, lung and head injuries. He is expected to make a good recovery---a miracle, doctors in Switzerland, where he was treated, later told the parents, Olivier Glauser and his wife, Hong Li. The car---whose driver was never identified to Julien’s or other parents, and who so far has not been charged or punished, the school said---had driven in a broad arc over the playground, with the driver unaware that he was dragging Julien underneath.” [Ibid]

“Glauser told the New York Times the Swiss doctors “told us they normally only see such injuries in autopsies,". Six months later, Mr. Glauser and Ms. Li are accusing the school of a cover-up, lack of accountability, failing to voluntarily improve safety and refusing compensation for medical expenses,” they said. “Sue us,"Mr. Glauser said. Contacted by the New York Times the school said it would indeed compensate the victim’s family.” [Ibid]

“In interviews, parents, who requested anonymity because they have children at the school, called the incident typical of the lack of transparency and responsiveness at many state-run institutions in China, which are unaccustomed to any form of public scrutiny. Speaking at a meeting with parents in March, Ms. Li said: "I’m fighting for school safety not just for my son, but for all children in China." For two weeks after the accident, "nothing changed at the school," said Mr. Glauser, a venture capitalist. "Cars were still coming in and out." [Ibid]

“That was when parents got involved. As word spread, slowly---the school informed parents about the incident, in sketchy terms, only on Nov. 30, after some of them had read a blog by Mr. Glauser and demanded answers---the principal, Liu Fei, agreed to the meeting on December 3. He defended the school’s policy of allowing cars on campus. "Please understand the problems teachers have finding places to park their cars," he said, according to several parents who attended.” [Ibid]

“According to a recording of the meeting, his words provoked fury and derision. "Your parking problem is nothing to do with us," parents are heard shouting. "What’s more important to you, cars or children?" "We will come out on Monday morning and demonstrate at the school gates and ask all Beijing media to join us," they threatened. Mr. Liu said that, immediately after the accident, the school started looking for additional parking in the neighborhood, including at a paramilitary barracks opposite the school. But the problem remained unresolved. [Ibid]

“Again, parents threatened to demonstrate, to boycott the school, to talk to reporters. After nearly half an hour he gave in, leaving the room to consult with others, possibly, parents speculated, the school’s Communist Party secretary, Su Guohua. Every school has a party secretary who outranks the principal, ensuring control over education.He returned to announce that the school would ban cars from campus, effective immediately. In the aftermath, parents say cars on campus have decreased significantly but are not entirely gone.”

“The Glausers’ lawyer, Ge Xiaoying, said this week: "They tried to cover it up." The cover-up included not explaining even to Julien’s parents exactly what had happened, said Mr. Glauser, despite repeated questions. "They just said there had been an accident with a car, and I thought he had just been sort of hit." "As a lawyer, we see so many of these kinds of incidents," said Mr. Ge. "The only thing that is different about this one is that a foreign child is involved." [Ibid]

Violence, Injuries and Labor in Chinese School

The death of a nine-year old from injuries inflicted by a teacher in Heilonjiang province in 1995, focused attention on the use of corporal punishment---which is officially banned but still practiced---in Chinese schools. The child fell into a coma after being beaten on the head with a birch rod after failing to get 100 percent on a test. In an interview after the incident the teacher told a local television station, "There is no better method I have found to discipline kids."

Knife attacks, See Crime

Many rural schools receive so little funding they resort to forced labor to make money. Work study programs in rural China often involve leasing students to factories to work, presumably to help the school earn some money and help the children pay their school fees. Children have been recruited to disassemble electronic trash and make little tinfoil papers used in honoring the dead. Children as young as seven have been recruited to make as many 800 tinfoil papers a day.

Explosions, Violence, Firecrackers and Rapes in Chinese Schools

Attention was focused on this issue of children working in schools after 42 people---four teachers and 38 children---were killed in March, 2001 in an explosion in an elementary school in Jiangxi province where children were making fireworks.

There were 190 people in the two-story school building---including children inserting fuses in fireworks---when the explosion took place. Most of the deaths were third and forth graders studying in four classrooms. The working students sat at desks and made 200 fireworks a day. Their teacher sold the fireworks to middlemen.

One parent of a dead child told the Los Angeles Times, "I send my children to school to receive an education. Who thought it would be for them to make firecrackers. We tried to protest to the county government, but the township officials blocked us. Once they see that you're just villagers and that you've come to complain, they pay you no heed.”

After the explosion police quickly cordoned off the village and bulldozed over the school to prevent reporters from snooping around. The incident caused great embarrassment to Prime Minister Zhu Rhogji who initially said the explosion was caused by a deranged local man named "Psycho." He said the bomber “had grievances and he had mental illness. He transported these fireworks to the ground floor. He lit them and blew himself up." Later Zhu Rongji made a nationally-televised apology.

In February 2008, a school teacher in Chongqing accused of raping 23 schoolgirls between 2001 and 2004 was sentenced to death. He lured the girls by offering to help them with their studies,

In September 2008, thousands of students attacked government offices in Shenqan County in Henan Province, breaking windows, setting fires and clashing with police over a plan by a developer to build apartments on the school’s sports ground. The students became enraged and attacked the government buildings after two girls were injured in scuffles.

In December 2008, 11 schoolgirls died from carbon monoxide poisoning from using a charcoal heater in their dormitory in a middle school in Yulin city in Shanxi Province. The sole survivor, an 11-year-old, was in coma. Three school officials were detained in connection with the accident.

Poor Education in Rural Areas

Tania Branigan wrote in The Guardian,”Education has always been the great hope for China's poor. Villagers have built schools themselves to improve their children's opportunities. But rural scholars lag behind their peers from the start. Experts say the disparity between rural and urban educational standards is one reason why the proportion of rural students in universities---particularly the top ones---is falling rapidly. According to Chinese media , pupils from the countryside made up 62 percent of those sitting national college entrance exams last year, but only 17 percent of those entering the elite Tsinghua University. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, October 2, 2011]

Describing a typical underprivileged student Tania Branigan wrote in The Guardian, “Zhao Ai's father died in a mudslide; his mother is a migrant labourer hundreds of miles away. He is one of China's 50 million "left behind" children, raised by grandparents because the hukou system makes family migration difficult. They have inferior educational results and more behavioural problems than the average child. Relatives can be unable or unwilling to care for them properly; sometimes, they are carers for sick and ageing grandparents. With few adults around, they must help with household chores and farming before they can turn to homework.

Zhao Ai is lucky; his family make up in warmth what they lack in income. But he is an anxious child, noticeably quieter than his boisterous schoolmates. He struggles on the steep climb back home, a punishing scramble through woods and fields, on an empty stomach.

Education officials want to build a boarding school and have even found a company willing to donate 400,000 yuan (about £40,000)---but would need three times that to pipe water to the site. So for the foreseeable future, Zhao Ai and his friends are stuck with their long journeys and school days in an ageing, cracking building with no running water or heating. Finding suitable staff is hard because few young graduates want to live somewhere so remote. English is compulsory, but Ruiyuan has nobody capable of teaching it.

Twenty-Three Children Killed in Horrific School Bus Crash in China

In November 2011, a nine-seat van badly overloaded with 62 kindergartners, along with a teacher and the driver, careened down a foggy street and crashed head-on with a coal truck in Gansu Province in northwest China . The van was demolished, killing 23 passengers (21 children and two adults), and injuring everyone else on board.

The China Daily reported: “The bus, with just nine seats, was crammed with 64 people, which obviously contributed to the number of fatalities and the seriousness of the injuries suffered by some of the children. Forty-four of those on board, mostly children, were hospitalized and 10 of them are seriously injured.

According to Xinhua the accident occurred in Yulinzi township of Zhengning County. Parents of students at the kindergarten said school bus overloading has been a problem for years, despite repeated complaints. An initial investigation showed that the school bus had its seats removed to make room for more passengers and was speeding in adverse weather conditions.

The government took swift action, the New York Times reported, as it often does in cases of public embarrassment. The Education Ministry ordered a national inspection of school buses, and four local officials were suspended pending an inquiry. [Source: Michael Wines and Ian Johnson, New York Times, November 18, 2011]

Internet and Weibo Response to the Horrific School Bus Crash in China

Michael Wines and Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times: The news ignited indignant postings on China’s major social media platform, Sina Weibo. One of the country’s most influential bloggers, the social scientist Yu Jianrong, wrote that school buses were notoriously overcrowded, while government officials built themselves palatial offices and bought luxury cars. Microbloggers posted photographs of an elaborate new government office building in Qingyang, the poor town where the accident occurred. A post on the blog of Caixin, a business magazine known for its rule-bending investigations, reported that the building’s garage and ventilation systems alone cost more than $2.2 million. [Source: Michael Wines and Ian Johnson, New York Times, November 18, 2011]

By Thursday, the discussion in China’s blogosphere had turned sharply against the government. A microblog post by local officials in Gansu Province that hailed the swift official response to the disaster was hooted down by critics and was subsequently withdrawn. Commentators asked why countries like the United States had enormous, high-riding school buses instead of shoddily built microvans.The magazine News Weekly posted a rhetorical question on its blog: “Why doesn’t the flower of the nation have a proper flower pot?” and posted next to it a picture of a big yellow school bus.

Other bloggers were even more blunt. “Qingyang is nothing but a representative of tens of thousands of places in China. It’s no more than the tip of an iceberg,” wrote one poster who called himself Kuaile de Jingling Laodie. “No matter how poor we are, or how much hardship there is, we cannot let the leaders suffer.”

Horrific School Bus Crash as a Symbol of Injustice in China

Days after the accident the 21st Century Business Herald---a state-run, reliably nationalistic newspaper---did something extraordinary, Michael Wines and Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times. In one column, the paper recounted recent school-bus accidents in which about 60 children had died. In an adjacent column, it listed the sums that selected Chinese government departments had lavished on new cars in 2010. No Chinese citizen needed a pencil to connect the dots. [Source: Michael Wines and Ian Johnson, New York Times, November 18, 2011]

Since the accident, the New York Times reported, China’s Twitter-like microblogs and other social media sites have been alight with heartbreak and outrage over the tragedy---and they have been subsequently red-carded by government censors for unpatriotic emotion. But there are few more devastating statements about what gnaws at modern Chinese than the state-run newspaper’s two columns of numbers.

As China sped toward its new status as the world’s second largest economy, the already yawning gap between the rich and poor grew wider. By sociologists’ calculations, income inequality here is not that far from levels that have spurred social unrest in other nations. But some things are not easily reduced to statistics. There is an argument, buttressed by the Gansu tragedy, that what truly eats at people here is not so much the rich-poor gap as the canyon that separates the powerful from the powerless. “Most Chinese aren’t angry about rising inequality,” said Martin K. Whyte, a Harvard sociologist who specializes in research on Chinese social trends. “It’s not rich versus poor. It’s the system of power and procedural injustices that they?re upset about.”

After a young man fled last year from a hit-and-run accident by invoking his father’s rank as a deputy police chief, the phrase “My father is Li Gang” became a national catchphrase for using connections to escape responsibility. After a much-publicized high-speed rail crash in the eastern city of Wenzhou killed 40 people in July, online critics and journalists contended that corruption had enriched powerful officials at the expense of safety or had encouraged cover-ups of officials’ misbehavior.

Ineffective Efforts in China to Improve School Bus Safety

The dangers facing students in substandard school buses were known to government officials, Wines and Johnson wrote in the New York Times. In July 2010, the national government ordered that buses carrying primary school students meet strict safety standards that included emergency exits, seat belts and data recorders to track drivers’ behavior. Unregistered minibuses were outlawed. [Source: Michael Wines and Ian Johnson, New York Times, November 18, 2011]

Some were skeptical that the new standards would have much effect. “The biggest problem of China’s school bus industry is not the lack of a standard, but the rampant use of illegal vehicles,” a prescient vehicle-rental businessman from Beijing, Zhang Jie, told China Daily, a state-run English-language newspaper, at the time.

Without enforcement, he said, new standards would represent “just a piece of paper” and data recorders expensive decorations. Five months later, 14 students died when a three-wheel farm truck being used as a school bus tumbled into a river in Hunan Province. And in September, police officers in Hebei Province stopped an eight-seat van in Qian’an with 64 preschoolers stuffed inside.

“The government should not wait for more fatal crashes to occur to take whatever steps are needed to ensure that the nation’s children are as safe as they can be,” China Daily stated then.

The Gansu tragedy prompted Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to promise more government funds to provide improved school bus services. The school bus crashes also reflect the growing trend in rural China for schools to be concentrated in larger towns, abandoning villages where the population has been shrinking. Children then have to travel long distances to school or board away from their families.

China Daily on School Bus Crash in Gansu

There are few more emotive subjects than the safety of children, and for parents school transport gives cause for concern. On too many occasions, fatal accidents have proved safety standards for school buses in rural China are too lax. Such accidents are an unimaginable heartache for the children, their families and the country. [Source: China Daily, November 18, 2011]

School bus safety is a pressing issue, and it is up to the government to design a reasonably safe bus system for schools. Most of the school buses run by kindergartens and primary schools in rural areas are poorly maintained and overcrowded. In response to the tragedy in Gansu, the Ministry of Education has sent a task force to investigate. The ministry has asked all the education departments, kindergartens and primary schools to examine the safety of school buses.

This effort shouldn't be temporary. It is time we made sure our school buses and other vehicles that carry students are safe. The Gansu crash was another black mark for the country's school bus safety record. The government shouldn't wait for more fatal crashes to take whatever steps are needed to ensure that the nation's children are as safe as they can be.

It is reported that the Chinese government's traffic security officials visited the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles in the United States this month to learn about the state's school bus safety program and discuss student transportation safety issues. Clearly the government is aware that school bus safety is an issue, and it is endeavoring to design a reasonably safe bus system for schools.

But if the rules need to be tightened or new safeguards need to be put in place, the measures can't be introduced soon enough. Proud of her country's school bus safety, Canada's former transportation minister, Kathleen Wynne, said traveling on a school bus in her country is 16 times safer than traveling in a car. When will our officials be able to make a similar claim?

Kindergarten Chairman Detained in Connection with the Gansu School Bus Accident

Xinhua reported: “The head of a kindergarten in northwest China's Gansu Province has been detained after a school bus accident that killed 23 people. Li Jungang, chairman of the Little Doctor Kindergarten in Zhengning County in the city of Qingyang, was detained because of liability issues, Zuo Jianghua, a spokesman for the Qingyang city government, said. [Source: Xinhua, November 17, 2011]

Fan Jungang, the driver of a truck that collided with the school bus, was also detained for causing the accident, said Zuo. Two deputy county chiefs and the heads of the county's education bureau and traffic department have been suspended from duty following the accident.

Lu Huadong, chief of the Education Bureau of Qingyang, admitted that the city, a poverty-stricken area, had a limited education budget on preschool education. According to Lu, the city has only some 40 public kindergartens and some of privately-run kindergartens often ignored safety rules to overload school buses in order to reduce the cost.

The Little Doctor is the only kindergarten in Yulinzi township. With over 700 children, the privately-run kindergarten has only four vans. All seats have been removed so more passengers can be crammed in. "Merely three days before the accident, we discovered overloading of kindergarten school buses and ordered rectification, but the operators just ignored our request for the sake of profit," Lu said.

In Zhengning, many privately-run kindergartens have emerged to look after preschoolers as many of their parents work away from home in cities. "In the beginning we sent and picked up our kids ourselves by bicycle. Later private kindergartens vying for business started school bus services to enroll more children," said a local resident who did not reveal his name. "Most of the 'buses' are actually vans, which are frequently overloaded," said the villager.

Another School Bus Crash Sparks Fury in China

About three weeks after the Gansu crash, Reuters reported, “Fifteen children were killed when a school bus crashed in China's eastern province of Jiangsu, the latest in a string of accidents fanning public fury across the country. The bus rolled into a ditch as it veered off the road to avoid a pedicab, the Xinhua news agency said. At least eight children were injured in the accident, state media said. [Source: Reuters, December 13, 2011]

"Students became trapped at the bottom of the overturned bus and drowned as water gushed into the wreck," Xinhua reported, citing Zhang Bin, a deputy head of the Fengxian county, where the accident happened. The driver, he said, had been detained. Xinhua gave conflicting accounts on the number of children on board the bus, but all the reports suggested it was not overloaded. Xinhua last reported that 29 were on board.

Two other accidents involving students were reported. A bus crash in Zhumadian city in central Henan province killed two students on Tuesday and injured 20 people, seven seriously, Xinhua reported. The bus had been rented by a middle school and was carrying 50 students and teachers when it rammed into a truck. A few days before a school bus carrying 59 children collided with a truck in Guangdong Province, in China's far south, injuring 37, media reported.

The deaths and injuries are sure to amplify calls for more spending on education and children's safety. In 1993, the Chinese government vowed to dedicate 4 percent of GDP to education. "Close to 20 years have passed, and this has still not been achieved," said an editorial in the China Information News on Tuesday. "For some local governments, the proportion of GDP spent on education has actually fallen."

Chinese microbloggers were quick to express their anger about the Jiangsu crash. "Another school bus accident kills 15 children. It's just a number in the eyes of Chinese officials. The only thing they care about is whether it impacts their future career," wrote Huiji Flying on the Twitter-like Sina Weibo microblog. "Nothing is safe in China apart from leaders' cars, houses, money and concubines," added Yiran Anki.

High Rates of Nearsightedness in China Linked to Studying All the Time

David Pierson wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The children at the Bayi Xiwang elementary and middle school are doing something revolutionary by current Chinese standards: They're playing outside. Singing and skipping in the dizzying southern Chinese humidity, these students have been given 45 minutes a day to frolic under the sun while peers across the nation remain indoors, hunched over books or squinting at blackboards. By forcing youngsters to put down their pencils and expose their eyes to natural light, researchers think they can stem an explosion of nearsightedness in China. [Source: David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, July 5, 2012]

“By the time they complete high school, as many as 90 percent of urban Chinese youth are afflicted by the condition known as myopia, in which close objects can be seen clearly but things just a few feet or inches away start to blur. That's about three times the rate among U.S. children. Even more troubling is the severity of the Chinese cases. Between 10 percent and 20 percent of nearsighted Chinese children are expected to develop "high myopia," which is largely untreatable and may lead to blindness. [Ibid]

“The problem for China is really quite massive," said Ian Morgan, a visiting professor at the Zhongshan Ophthalmic Center at Sun Yat-sen University who helped organize the three-year clinical trial in Guangzhou. "Their best-educated kids---kids who are going to be the intellectuals or political leaders---are going to be progressively losing vision as they get older." Even China's authoritarian leaders have had to ask schools to ease off. In 2010, several provinces banned public preschools from instructing 3-year-olds to memorize 10 Chinese characters a day. [Ibid]

“Myopia has steadily increased in concert with China's urbanization and intensified academic competition. It's not uncommon for children in China to study four hours a day at home on top of a full day of school as well as attend several hours of tutoring on weekends. "Parents want their kids to get into the best primary school so they can have a better chance at the best high school that can help them get into Beida, Tsinghua and Fudan," Morgan said, referring to China's three elite universities. "Educational pressure and the disappearance of a strong preventive agent---time outdoors---is driving kids to myopia.” [Ibid]

China’s Solution to It Myopia Problem: Study Outside

David Pierson wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Beijing restaurateur Wang Jiali said she's convinced that too much studying ruined her eyesight. Growing up in Jianyang in western Sichuan province, she studied in a classroom from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., followed by four hours of homework under poor home lighting. [Source: David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, July 5, 2012]

“By age 11, Wang strained to read the blackboard. By age 12, she was wearing her first pair of glasses---a pair of cheap red frames whose lenses cracked twice in the first three months. She hated the glasses instantly and feared they would make her eyes bulge. "I worried I was going to get goldfish eyes," said Wang, now 32 and part-owner of an American-style grill in Beijing. She recently paid $2,134 to receive laser corrective surgery. "The first thing I did was watch 'American Idol,'" Wang said. "I was so excited I could see properly.” [Ibid]

“Despite a 2007 order by Chinese authorities to boost physical education in schools to combat obesity and deteriorating eyesight, many educators---and parents---have resisted. Morgan and fellow researchers at the Zhongshan Ophthalmic Center had to negotiate hard to persuade six schools to allow students a daily recess break. (Another six signed on as "control" groups, making no changes to their routines.)

Morgan wanted more than an hour of outdoor exercise a day. The schools agreed to 45 minutes and structured lessons in the open air, sometimes with singing, dancing and the occasional hula hoop. "We roll out a blackboard onto the playground and create situations where the students can practice English with each other or draw outside," said Wang Xiaojia, Bayi Xiwang's principal. [Ibid]

“The researchers acknowledge this may be as close as they get to giving young Chinese eyes a break. "If your prescription at the end of the day is making Chinese care less about education, then it's not going to happen," said Nathan Congdon, a professor at the Zhongshan Ophthalmic Center. "That's like telling Americans to like basketball or football less.” [Ibid]

Image Sources: Landsberger Posters http://www.iisg.nl/~landsberger/; Columbia University University of Washington; Ohio State University, Wiki Commons, Asia Obscura http://asiaobscura.com/ ;

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2012


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