Zheng Qinming, a metaphor for the plight of China’s rural poor

Zheng Qinmeng.jpg
Zheng, 18, killed himself over an $80 debt to his school

The New York Times has begun a new series on the huge economic divide separating China’s urban rich and rural poor starting with a mammoth article by Joseph Kahn and Jim Yardley, including an excellent slide show narrated by Kahn. The story uses the horrifying story of Zheng Qinming as a metaphor for the plight of China’s poor.

PUJIA, China — His dying debt was $80. Had he been among China’s urban elite, Zheng Qingming would have spent more on a trendy cellphone. But he was one of the hundreds of millions of peasants far removed from the country’s new wealth. His public high school tuition alone consumed most of his family’s income for a year.

He wanted to attend college. But to do so meant taking the annual college entrance examination. On the humid morning of June 4, three days before the exam, Qingming’s teacher repeated a common refrain: he had to pay his last $80 in fees or he would not be allowed to take the test. Qingming stood before his classmates, his shame overtaken by anger.

“I do not have the money,” he said slowly, according to several teachers who described the events that morning. But his teacher — and the system — would not budge.

A few hours later, Qingming, 18 years old, stepped in front of an approaching locomotive. The train, like China’s roaring economy, was an express.

That’s just for starters. The story of his family and the situation with the school that led to his suicide is maddening. You want to reach into the past and do something to help him. You feel utterly helpless.

Reading the story is unbearably painful. At times I just wanted to stop; why should I inflict such misery on myself? But I forced myself to read it to the end, for better or worse. We can’t pretend this situation doesn’t exist when it involves such a staggering number of people — at least I hope we can’t.

Thanks to Kahn and Yardley for taking on this huge and depressing subject. I look forward to the next installment, not because it’s in any way uplifting, but because they’re telling a story of which many in the West are ignorant.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 31 Comments

This was a great article — thanks for pointing it out. Some aspects of the higher education system in China are even worse than this points out. For example, because cities pay some money directly to universities, you actually need a *lower* score to get into college if you grow in Beijing than in if you grow up in the countryside.

On the other hand, it’s worth remembering a couple of other points. First of all, the jump from no education to college education in one generation is a bigger leap than most families have made. With a middle school education, he could in fact have probably gotten a very good job in Sichuan and supported his family. Is that fair? Absolutely not. On the other hand, I look at my own family’s story. My parents were both the first in their family’s history to get college educations. In my father’s case, it’s only thanks to World War II that he was able to get an education. He’d graduated from high school and was training as a tool-and-die maker for IBM when the draft intervened. Thanks to ability testing, he was picked to join a program to quickly produce engineers, and thanks to the GI bill he was able to get a college education after the war. But as a white, native born American, he had no expectations of getting a college education before WWII intervened.

I’m glad that the NYT is reporting on the horrible situation of rural people in China, but it would really be naive to assume that there’s a simple solution to it. I get the sense that the new crew (particularly Wen Jiabao) are serious about doing something to address this, or at least realize that the lifespan of their regime depends on their success in addressing it.

July 31, 2004 @ 10:06 pm | Comment

goor stuff,but not so accurate, the article said that many people in city have a better life.

no, i can tell you, peasents in countryside have farm to survive, but laid-off people have NOTHING to survive.

social security number,come on, i only hear this kind of stuff in Beijing.

so Laowai, do not stay in Beijing, it is not China there.

July 31, 2004 @ 11:26 pm | Comment

sometimes ,it is very sad in China ,
people get eucated does not mean they are enlightened, sometimes just means they got a cerfification paper to show that they have got a degree.
the trun meaning of education is to have his own mind, let their brain function, but sadly enough, someguys goy high scores in examination AND DOCTOR degree , but still become a thug of CCP,
so education is the most important thing to CCP, i mean it is a brain wash tool.
so keep your fire on education, guys.

July 31, 2004 @ 11:35 pm | Comment

I guess that’s why so many Chinese I met are still telling me how important CCP( or communism)is for the future of China(developing, well-function), and they don’t really want to rid of communism.

I guess those are indifferent elitists.

August 1, 2004 @ 1:19 am | Comment

losers are always losers, because only losers always bear a negative attitude, complains and critisize all the time without good purpose, this attitude won’t help him successful anyway! becaue i met successful american too, they try to enjoy to good sides, also critisize the bed sides, but speak with good purpose, not like the losers here, complaining the CCP, complaining the chinese people, complaining the house they live, complaining the water they drink, complaining the food they eat here, complaining the taxi, complaining the hospital etc, complaining everything, i just don’t understand if there is nothing good here, why should they come to china??? they even laugh at the poor chinese here as if they were rich, all forgot how much debt they own to the credit card company in their own country, yes, many chinese live in shitty house, but remind losers here, you own nothing, besides, even so, most chinese treat you losers friendly enough, while they are not worth of getting you to laugh at them! losers! asshole!!!

August 1, 2004 @ 3:37 am | Comment

George, as you so aptly put it, “only losers always bear a negative attitude”. Perhaps now would be the right time for you to reflect on all the posts you’ve made on this blog.

*bleh* I don’t even know why I’m responding to such an obvious troll.

August 1, 2004 @ 4:20 am | Comment

because you are an asshole and a big loser!!!

August 1, 2004 @ 7:55 am | Comment

When I think of China moving away (inexorably) from communism to capitalism – after all, the Chinese were once the world’s greatest capitalists, hence this common trait with Americans, besides a love of gambling – I immediately remember Boris Yeltsin and the way he overturned the Russian (USSR) socialist state overnight. Millions of Russian, who formed an intrinsic part of the socialist system, with their employment, livelihood, health and retirement benefits wholly dependent on and tied to the State, were virtually abandoned overnight. I wonder whether Yeltsin did that in one of his many inebriated states, but then he had few other ‘states’.

When a country is not quite prepared or ready for a new system and the old system had been thrown into the rubbish bin, there is in effect no system. The law of the jungle would then prevail, with the survival of the fittest. Under such circumstances, we see not only the inevitable confusion, misery and unimaginable hardships for millions of people, but also the rise of an alternative system, the underworld ‘warlords’ like the Russian Mafia (mainly ex-KGB generals and thugs), who then suck and prey on the common people. Communism/socialism is like addictive drugs – cold turkey treatment either kills or saves the patient.

By comparison, in China’s case, we see a milder form of ideological evolution – maybe the leaders have seen the drastic effect suffered by their Russian neighbour and opted for a different approach. China’s economic policy reversal may be likened somewhat to a slow-release fertiliser pellet – some good/improvements in a slow, steady and prayerfully optimal manner but also carrying adverse circumstances, again prayerfully in a minimised form, for the older citizens, those less able to adapt to new circumstances, or with less initiative, and the weaker.

[During a holiday visit to Beijing last year, my guide informed me of China’s pension system, which scales down from a maximum to zero according to years of service and age. If true, this sounds rather reasonable and caring for a hardnosed govt]

Understandably many of these people yearn for the ‘good(?) ole days’. And we may expect to see more con men, prostitution, drug trafficking, illegal gambling and all the nasties and social ills of ye average free (or freer) society. Yes, some of the ‘bad ole days’ will be with the Chinese before too long.

Scylla and Charybdis, Devil and the deep blue sea, hard place and a rock? Of course, the proven superior system in a human world with human nature is capitalism.

The tragedy of the student suicide for want of $80 is one of those unfortunate effects of the current changeover, a socialist society unable to meet the requirements of a capitalist system.

August 1, 2004 @ 6:53 pm | Comment

no sir.capitalist is a better one that we should sacrifice some people to reach there?

no

no

recommond book
:animal farm”

August 1, 2004 @ 7:05 pm | Comment

I appreciated both the article and the (for the most part) intelligent comments posted about it. I plead guilty to being one of George’s Laowais who complains about everything from the spitting to the garbage people just throw onto the streets where they and their children live, but I am constantlyreminded of the tremendous progress that has occurred. Progress, someone told me, that China has attained with no help (or indeed nothing but obstacles from various quarters) from any one. This article again reiterates how much of a difference giving 600 RMB to organisations for such struggling students can be.

August 1, 2004 @ 10:09 pm | Comment

Dave, if you know of any such organization, and how someone in the US can give to it, please let me know. After reading the article, I wanted to hop on a plane and find the right charity in China that’s helping people like this.

Yes, it’s true that so much is getting better. But one point the article makes is that so many of the peasants’ hardships are brought on by corrupt local officials. So I’m not going to give the government across-the-board kudos for helping its rural poor.

August 1, 2004 @ 10:17 pm | Comment

I’m with Kevin … for all it’s faults, the expansion of education is one of the things that the communist party had justly be proud of. Yes, it is a tool of indoctrination, but if you teach someone to read, then at least that person now has the tools to go out and learn for themselves if they choose to.

I think about my father. He got to leave school when he was 14. His elder sister paid for him to spend one more year at a place that I guess we’d call a “vocational college” these days, to learn a bit of book-keeping etc., and then he was out earning a living. His children all finished high school at age 18, and all have got one or more tertiary qualifications since then. China’s still a long way behind where the west is now … but you don’t have to go far back into western history to find conditions that are worse.

August 1, 2004 @ 11:11 pm | Comment

This is nonsense. My mother wanted a college education, but her parents couldn’t afford it, and yet she didn’t jump in front of a train. She finished high school (and always appreciated the sacrifice her parents made even for that to happen), and went on to lead an organization of thousands of people while raising a family.

While I think it’s sad that Qimgming didn’t get to college, I think it’s sadder that opportunistic journalists are taking his suicide as an opportunity to write crap lilke this.
So he jumped in front of a train because he was dejected about education. When I was a teenager, an acquaintance killed himself when his girlfriend dumped him. I think the two suicides are comparable, being based on immaturity and the unfortunate tendency of teenagers to react in extreme fashion to life’s problems.

If I had to write anything about Qingming, I might write about a spoiled and selfi-absorbed teenager who was so concerned about his ego that he disregarded the extreme sacrifices of his grandfather to give him a high-school education and wasted it all.

Plus the article is full of errors, the main one being here:
“China has the world’s fastest-growing economy but is one of its most unequal societies.”
Actually, China has a Gini index that puts it roughly in line with the United States in terms of inequality, which is to say, roughly the world’s 55th most unequal society, but that doesn’t carry the same emotional weight as a blanket statement that lies about the situation, does it?
And according to Nationmaster, its economy is the 14th fastest growing, behind such “cutthroat money-centered societies” as Equatorial Guinea (20%), Armenia and Liechtenstein. So the sentence on which the rest of the article is based is false.

August 2, 2004 @ 3:20 am | Comment

Boo … I don’t know on what basis they measured equality in China … but of the 42 countries I’ve been to, I would say that there is nowhere else even close where the contrasts of rich and poor are more visible. Actually, I think I’d rate USA 2nd after China on that scale.

August 2, 2004 @ 6:42 am | Comment

FS No. 9, The Gini coefficient is a popular way of measuring wealth inequality, the calculation of which is explained here:
http://william-king.www.drexel.edu/top/prin/txt/factors/dist4.html
Appearances are deceptive, and of course this means at some basic level we have to have numbers that we trust, but the US and China are actually very close on this measure.

August 2, 2004 @ 7:07 am | Comment

This strikes me as somewhat bizarre. There may be sharp contrasts between America’s rich and poor, but the poor in the US in no way resemble the poor in China, nor do America’s poor in any way constitute such a huge percentage of the population as they do in China.

This scenario of jumping in front of a train for an $80 (or $800) debt is all but inconceivable in the US, because there are always places one can go to get help. Sure, teens here commit suicide as they do everywhere, but usually for emotional reasons unconnected to a single debt. I thought this story, which ran on page 1 of the Sunday paper, was excellent, and helps shine light on an issue most of us know little or nothing about. To discount it on the basis of the writers saying China is the fastest growing economy is foolish; everyone knows what they mean, and the line is almost a cliche — it is the fastest-growing of the world’s major economies, and every eye is fixated on the growth in China in a way it is not fixated on Lichtenstein or Equatorial Guineau. There is no lie; you’re nitpicking.

August 2, 2004 @ 7:24 am | Comment

P.S. Do a search for china + “fastest growing economy” and you’ll see there are an awful lot of liars out there! The World Bank calls China “the fastest-growing world economy in recent years” — so you really owe the authors of this article an apology for saying they are lying. There are many ways of measuring this and many different criteria; it seems many organizations firmly agree with the NY Times writers.

August 2, 2004 @ 7:32 am | Comment

Of course the poor in China are not the same as the poor in America (and neither are the rich) but the distribution curve is very similar, and that’s what we are talking about when we talk about an unequal economy.

Mainly however, I read into it the story of a selfish young man getting over-emotional at a normal setback of life and killing himself over it. That he died over an $80 debt is sad, but personally I shed far more tears when I read of Harlem teenagers getting murdered over $150 Nikes.

The main thing about this article that bothered me is that it took a very selfish young man who threw away the significant sacrifices of his grandfather because it wasn’t enough. I’m sure his grandfather would have liked to have gone to college, or even high school. Instead, he labored all his life, and gave up most of his income for his grandson’s education. And the journalists, instead of treating the young man like the self-absorbed little shit that he is, tried to portray him as a victim.

And I’m not nitpicking, China isn’t the fastest growing economy, and it isn’t the most unequal economy by a very long shot.
If they meant something different they should have said something different.

By the way, the link you pointed to was an essay for a World Bank research project and there’s a footnote stating that these are not the views of the World Bank.

August 2, 2004 @ 8:18 am | Comment

No matter where the link is from, you’ll see that reference to China as the world’s fastest growing economy are everywhwere! A “lie” is told with malice. The reporters were nor being at all malicious, and what they wrote wasn’t “false.” I disagree with you 100 percent about the article, and wish you wouldn’t insult the young man who obviously felt he was facced with such a dilemma he could no longer live. Calling him a “little shit” is totally inappropriate. Can you imagine what he went through, to kill himself like that, believing there was absolutely no way out?

August 2, 2004 @ 8:22 am | Comment

I apologize regarding the comment about manure; that was over the line. But I still maintain that he was not facing any special crisis: people here have to give up their cherished dreams all the time.
I was once a teenager too, and every small crisis seemed major. Let’s not pretend that the suicide was a mature decision.

I’ll also take back my accusation of lying. Perhaps that was a bit harsh: I’ll just say the reporters were sloppy, and that the newspaper obviously did no fact-checking, even on central points in the article.

Of course, if that point, easily checked, was wrong, I don’t know how much I can trust any of their other points, especially those that can’t be veriifed.

August 2, 2004 @ 8:42 am | Comment

I don’t think the point was wrong; it’s open to all kinds of interpretation and it is a point made all the time in articles about China. All the time. If you want to fault the writers (and it’s obvious you do), you’ll have to find a more substantive “mistake” than that. Thanks for sharing your point of view on the topic; I understand where you stand, though I disagree totally.

August 2, 2004 @ 8:48 am | Comment

I’m with boo with respect to the story being blown out of proportion as to what happened and cherry-picked to represent China’s huge educational problem.

Truth is, that’s not what the story is about. It’s about a kid that had issues, didn’t have an adequate social support group, and like all too many similarly (emotionally) situated kids around the world, decided to end it the easy way. We were all young once, many of us know the brazen feeling of being an adolescent in a cruel world. It sucks that a few people don’t make it through.

It wasn’t about the $80. Rural workers can make that sum in 2 months. The real problem is that even if he had the money for the test, he wouldn’t be able to afford to pay for his college education anyways. China is a land of limited opportunities and social mobility for the economically disadvantaged. It’s definitely a problem, but involves many more complex issues than the article bothers to address. I think it’s irresponsible that the authors chose to portray it as such a falsely simplified light. “Oh woe is this kid…whose story typifies the plight of China’s rural poor.”

On another note, as far as education related suicides go, just look at Japan, with an alarmingly high proportion of such events. I don’t know anywhere else in the world where you can go online to find suicide buddies to kill yourself together with.

It’s a tough world. Suicide is never the right answer.

August 2, 2004 @ 10:40 am | Comment

Yes, people kill themselves over school. But the story of Zheng’s family and how they did work that they were never paid for and all the other details tell a story that is very typical in China and that many in the West are unfamiliar with. I suspect the reasons for his suicide were dramatically different from those behind the Japanese student deaths you refer to. If you think this is an ordinary story of a depressed kid, more power to you. Both Yardley and Kahn have been covering China for years; while that doesn’t make them infallible, I believe they are being totally fair in using this story to shed light on the unique pressures felt by China’s poor.

August 2, 2004 @ 10:53 am | Comment

i have quit the goverment job, i now worked in a charity NGO.( HOLT ),TO HELP poor children, i feel really good.
so guys. do not sit here discussing ,just do something!!!

August 2, 2004 @ 7:35 pm | Comment

I think rural poverty is arguably China’s biggest problem right now. But I agree with Boo in that I don’t like the way the writers used Qingming’s suicide and his family’s special circumstance to sensationalize the issue. It is a heart-breaking story, but there are a lot of people in China facing much worse problems than not being able to go to college. Many kids in China can’t even afford to attend elementary school.

This article is great as a very sad personal story about a poor kid from a poor family in Sichuan, but as a report on China, it is clearly trying to lead readers to certain opinions. Some of the things stated as facts in the article are far from accurate. Other than what others have already pointed out, I find this paragraph especially egregious:

“Today, the gap has grown. Nearly all urban residents get health insurance through their companies or the government. Cities have bigger budgets and better schools with lower tuition. The government mandates this because it worries that urban residents could more easily organize and rebel if they lost their economic security.”

Nearly all urban residents get health insurance? That was still true in the early 90′s, but not any more after the steady dismantling of the old communist system in the last decade. Cities do have better schools, but also higher tuition.
And that last sentence “The government mandates this because it worries …”, how did the authors know what THE government was thinking when it mandated these (non-existing) conditions?

August 3, 2004 @ 10:16 pm | Comment

For people who want to help poor rural kids in China attend school, there are several registered charities (donations are tax-deductible) in the US:

China Youth Development Foundation — aka China Hope Project
http://www.cydf.org.cn/
This is a Chinese charity started by the Communist Youth League. The Hope Project is very well-known in China with well-developed organization and great reach all over China. They had some political problems a few years ago but seems to be back operating in full strength.

http://www.ccefoundation.org/activity/chinahope/
http://www.nacef.org/
These are 2 registered US charities (tax-deductible) that raise funds for the China Hope Project.

Overseas China Education Foundation
http://www.ocef.org
OCEF is a small independent charity based in the US (tax-deductible). Other than collecting donations, they also have a “Shop to Help” feature where the commissions from your everyday online purchases goes toward the education of rural kids in China at no cost to you.

August 3, 2004 @ 10:16 pm | Comment

BTW, be sure to check out China Hope Project’s photos section (This is really what made it the most famous charity in China)

http://www.cydf.org.cn/gb/arts/image%20pages/xiehailong.html

August 3, 2004 @ 10:18 pm | Comment

While I don’t agree with boo in everything he mentioned, I wonder about that ‘selfish’ part. Sure, the bloke was so highly stressed and in despair to the extent he killed himself, but in doing so, he had forgotten about his family and their expectations of him.

As a Chinese myself, I have been constantly reminded throughout my life of my obligation to my family, and how they depended on me to support them in their old age. Until I discharged this fundamental responsibility I won’t have the guts nor permit to kill myself (not that I am about to do so).

Has this willingness to commit suicide and disregard the feelings/hopes of, and abandon traditional obligations to, the family anything to do with the Chinese cultural disconnect brought about by almost 50 years of communist indoctrination, where loyalty should be to the State rather than the family?

My own relatives who have visited various parts of China in recent years bemoaned the lack of traditional values in the younger generations.

August 7, 2004 @ 5:23 am | Comment

A very sad life story of a promising man, born “wrongly” to one of countless peasant families. It is radically reflecting the discriminations systematically imbedded in Chinese policies.

Every body knows the urban citizens have sole rights to medical subsidies, state-funded housing, lower requirements college admission, and preferential accesses to many public resources. But, no one stands up to fight for balance!! Or we simply don’t realize that!!

We, Chinese people, get used to taking it for granted that “people’s goverment” is always right!

John, one of those growing up in countryside and getting high education after fierce competition

August 27, 2004 @ 12:09 pm | Comment

how do u write qingming in chinese

February 9, 2006 @ 2:28 pm | Comment

I think the teacher who has urged the boy to pay should be in charged of it. As a teacher, who should know the class better,who comes from any kind of family,even not, who shoul also not thread one like that in the class.
At least, this teacher doesn’t have any heart for the position, the boy is nothing wrong,
for the exam system, which has not been the sole case in China, even in America,like Tofel test is just a copy for the chinese college entrance exam,perhaps is worse,in many cases.

September 10, 2006 @ 9:49 am | Comment

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