Campaign to eradicate illiteracy flagging, officials acknowledge
Report by Chang Tianle, March 28 2007
China’s total illiteracy rate rose slightly in 2005, and the country will miss its targets for eradicating illiteracy unless greater efforts and resources are deployed to tackle the issue, government officials and researchers say.
To achieve UNESCO’s 2005 Literacy Initiative for Empowerment (LIFE) goal of halving the illiterate population by 2015, China needs to reduce the number of illiterates by 6.5 million each year, more than three times the current rate.
According to the 2005 census, China’s illiteracy rate stood at 11.04%, slightly higher than 10.32% the previous year. In other words, 116 million Chinese people aged 15 or above can read only a few characters or none at all.
Although western regions record a higher illiteracy rate (Tibet 45%, Qinghai 24%), two thirds of the illiterates reside in eastern and central provinces.
China reduced illiteracy dramatically after 1949—from some 80% to 22.2% of the total population by 1990. During the 1990s, eliminating illiteracy was one of two key objectives of China’s basic education policy, and received substantial investment from government. It was announced in 2000 that the illiteracy rate had fallen to 6.72%.
Government officials now concede, however, that the 2000 figures were unreliable,
“Particularly in recent years, much of the illiteracy eradication was done in a great rush,” Yang Jin (杨进), Deputy Director of Basic Education Department, Ministry of Education told a conference on March 8. “Together with the decreasing priority of the mission, the illiteracy rate has remained stagnant in some areas, and the illiterate population has rebounded slightly.” (特别近几年来，由于此前的扫盲教育工作带有一定的突击性以及扫盲教育的地位有所下降等种种原因，扫盲教育在一些地方出现了停滞不前的局面，文盲人口有所反弹。)
In the 1990s, government programmes taught nearly 5 million people to read every year. But the number dropped to less than 2 million each year from 2001 to 2005.
According to another Ministry of Education official, who declined to be named, the central government’s annual illiteracy reduction budget is CNY 8 million (USD 1.03 million), or CNY 0.07 per illiterate person. “Even after including local budget contributions, expenditure is less than CNY 0.2 per person,” he says, adding that since 2000 some local governments have stopped allocating funding to illiteracy eradication programmes altogether.
China will now launch its own LIFE programme targeting women, people from small ethic minority groups and migrants. Yang says it is important to leverage international expertise and mobilise international forces to combat illiteracy in China.
Both government officials and researchers stress the important role NGOs can play in the process.
The Beijing Cultural Development Centre for Rural Women (北京农家女文化发展中心) has worked with international and domestic organisations over the past decade to offer literacy classes to 5,472 people, mostly rural women. It has developed its own curriculum and textbooks that include content regarding law, environment, gender, health and social responsibility issues.
“As many male farmers leave the land to work in cities, women now play a dominant role in rural areas. So educating women is educating a whole family.” says Wu Qing (吴青), a retired professor and Honorary Chairwoman of the Centre. China, she says, has over 80 million illiterate women, 2.4 times the number of illiterate men.
Having delivered training to teachers in literacy classes, Wu believes that weaving elements such as empowerment into the classes will have a longer and deeper impact on women than simply teaching them how to read.
In western regions, where illiteracy rates are high among ethnic minorities, some local NGOs offer bi-lingual literacy classes, helping them merge better into society while maintaining their ethnic identity. “Achieving a balance is a challenge for us,” Wu says.
These are areas where NGOs can test water and establish models for government, according to the official who prefers not to be named. “In terms of scale, NGOs can’t compare to government. But we can learn from their experience and use good NGO models on a much larger scale,” he says.