I received considerable feedback from my last column describing how China could not get student teachers to return to the countryside schools. “Why doesn’t China just order them to the countryside?” some readers asked. That American view of China is long out of date. China today has no more ability to solve its teacher shortage by ordering people around, than Kansas does to solve its teacher shortage by command.
In 1992, I was at East China Normal University to lecture on American education. At the end of the week, the university Party Secretary attended my going-away banquet. I took the opportunity to ask about some rural poor families that had come into the city and were camped along the Shanghai railroad line: “Some of them have school age children with them. How are they going to get an education?” Chopsticks stopped and everyone at the table turned to the Secretary to see how he would answer my impolite question.
“China is just beginning to develop. If we allow their children to attend our city schools, the whole countryside will flood into the cities. We cannot manage that.” His answer was completely correct for that time in China.
Travel at that time was limited. My wife and I were driven to nearby beautiful Suchow, the “Venice” of China with many canals. Along the way, there were checkpoints. We were stopped and our documents checked. Checkpoints were gone by the late 1990s. (The checkpoints were restored briefly in 2003 during the SARS epidemic, but the officers had a thermometer: if you ran a fever, you went no further.)
Actually, the opening of China came with the massive expansion of China’s university system that doubled university capacity starting in 1998, then doubled again by 2004 and doubled again later. Today, China likely has a more mobile population than the U.S.
It wasn’t always that way. For several thousand years, most Chinese lived all of their lives in small villages, sometimes where all had the same last name---it was an extended family. You lived and worked in that little community, venturing no further than the nearest town with a market. Moving forward to 1950-1990, university was free but only the very few top students who passed the gao kao could travel off to a university. When they graduated, they mostly returned to their home town. If they majored in road engineering but there was no local retirement in that field, they might end up in the position of electrical engineer—a waste of an education.
Their massive expansion of university education---indeed it is called “massification”---meant that far more students got to attend colleges, often very far from home. There they met their spouse-to-be and he or she was likely from somewhere else in China. At graduation, they were free to go anywhere and find any available job in China.
So before the massification of education in China, during Spring Festival (we call it Chinese New Year), couples visited the father’s family and then the mother’s family and since they mostly met and married local spouses, there was little travel. Today, thanks to their expanded university system “mixing together” couples from different regions, the huge migration at Spring Festival clogs China’s roads, rails and airlines in the world’s largest annual migration.
For the last 20 years, many Chinese families now own cars, buy a road atlas and take to the road to see their country. Indeed, with several million Chinese students now studying overseas, many parents and grandparents are now traveling abroad to visit their grown up children who are going to school in the U.S. and elsewhere, those students sometimes staying overseas to bolster the science and engineering talent of other countries.
I know of only one situation where travel is restricted. If you are elected by the local Party to be a representative to the People’s National Congress (that was just held), then you must get permission to travel abroad.
Of course we do not restrict our American legislators from traveling abroad. But unfortunately, they always return.