“One child, one desk, one chair”

Yao Shing Xiang  is a Chinese writer from Guizhou Province and he tells how he went very early with his mother on the long walk to the market to sell their vegetable. On one of these days many farmers were offering their crops and prices tumbled and at evening time somebody from a public canteen offered to buy all their vegetables if she can issue a receipt. She asked her son, who was in the first year primary school, but even he tried hard, he could not do it. Then his mother tried again very hard to write her name and the little Shing Xiang watched her turning tearful. Yao Shing Xiang worked very hard starting in a Chinese rural Primary School and decades later became a writer. When he published his first book he went to his mother and pointed to his name on the cover. But his mother could not recognize the characters for his name. This time his eyes filled with tears.(Shenzhen Airlines inflight magazine, 04/09, page 22).

In 2006 Mr. Zeng from the Shanghai Volkswagen Foreign Service Department agreed to convert a part of my generous Volkswagen “Expat package” into a donation for a primary school in one of the poorest regions in China. The money was submitted jointly with my landlord, the Santana Real Estate Company, represented by Mr. Gu via the Chinese “Hope” initiative and used to construct a new building in the “Bing Hui Primary School” in Yiliang County. It is named after General Luo Bing Hui (1897-1946) who became famous in the war against the Japanese invasion. General Luo was born in a village a few hours walk from the school location in Yiliang and his widow in Shanghai organized the support of 100 such schools in 2005/06. Kindly guided, supervised and hosted by the Secretary of the Chinese Communist Youth League of Yiliang County, Mr. Li Fu Chung, and the Deputy Director of the Education Department, Mrs. Yian, I inspected the building and facilities over what we call Easter Holidays and was very impressed by the determination of the local government authorities and staff to achieve the aim of 9 year free education and “one child, one desk, one chair”.

Given the conditions, this is a tremendous battle against the odds. At an average income of 80 US$ per year the workforce of the children is a significant help in the families and it is not easy to enforce the compulsory school law. The main income comes from farming and some children have a three hour walk from their dwellings before they reach school which starts at 8 am. The largest employer is the government and the army, followed by lead and zinc mining operations which discharge directly into the Yiliang River. Some environmental management procedures seem in place, but a site like this is likely to bring in general an economically better, but shorter life. The county government is collecting locally a tax per ton of truck loads at roadside haul truck balances. Also at these road sides, walk black coal miners with small children on their hands, back home after their shifts. They come out of small, mostly illegal, mines hidden in the mountains. As lead and zinc deposits usually coexist with other heavy metals and minerals which are even far more toxic, it is easy to imagine the level of contamination the people are exposed to. It is hard monitor what effect this has on public health and birth defects even more so as many disfigured babies might never see sunlight of their first day. I was told that 80 % of the counties income is from mining and nearly all of it is spent on employment, infrastructure, public services and education.

The “Bing Hui Primary School” is located a few kilometers outside the main settlement at coordinates N27Deg.38.756’, E104Deg.01.846’, 820 mNN and currently provides 251 lively children primary education and food in a very nice environment. It is easy to be moved by all these children strolling around, playing and learning. The building which was newly built with the donation’s money is a very nice and white two floor brick construction with a concrete frame which should withstand a sudden earthquake, like the one in Sichuan, but at least a Magnitude of 6 Richter Scale. The construction was supervised by Mr. Li (Xiao Li) from the Education Department, a very diligent and knowledgeable young man, who knows what he talks about.

Isn’t it stereotypical “German” of me that I talk more about the engineering side of it than about the children? But I don’t know what to say. They are as innocent and smart as any children, I guess. And of course, I am very proud of the school and co-sponsoring it is something really significant. But how will these little lives go on? Some of these boys, perhaps the strong ones, will die in the shafts of an illegal mine. Others, perhaps the clever ones, will turn into members of the local mining mafia or become corrupted funtionairs. Some of the pretty girls will perhaps move to Guangzhou and work in a shady Karaoke Bar. Others will turn old far to early under the weight of their baskets carrying their vegetables to the market. To break the cycle of poverty there is much more to do than getting lost in a romantic little primary school in Yiliang County.

After a strenuous journey back to Hong Kong I read in the news that China is urged by the so-called International Community to play a stronger role in supporting the global financial system in the current economic downturn by its currency reserves. China had many glorious moments over the last years and impressed the world with an enormous economic growth and last but not least with the most spectacular Olympic Games in 2008. But after all China is still a poor country and it were all these millions of Chinese workers and farmers who earned all this money. And they will have to invest it more wisely than many Western countries did.