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Wednesday, 7 March, 2001, 17:00 GMT
Rising child labour in China
Protests in the Philippines
Child labour is a major concern world-wide
By Rupert Wingfield-Hayes in Beijing

As details of the school explosion in Jiangxi province have filtered out, even the most hardened China watcher could not fail to have been shocked.


Job training is hardly a fitting description for what the young students in Jiangxi were being forced to do

How could teachers force eight-year-old school children to assemble volatile explosives, when they should have been reading books?

It is a question that has no easy answer.

But it has served to highlight, once again, the desperate predicament of many in China's rural backwaters.

Rural suffering

China's countryside is faced with a chain of different woes.

As China has dismantled its old socialist iron rice bowl, those in the countryside have suffered most.

Money from the central government that once went to pay for schools and hospitals has dried up, and m any have simply closed.

Those that remain open have been told to fend for themselves - in many cases that means schools must start to charge fees.

Failing farms

But China's rural economy is also in crisis.

Farm prices are falling, and with them farmers' incomes.

Chinese family in a rural district
Poverty in rural China is boosting child labour
Many millions of peasant farmers can simply not afford to pay to send their children to school.

Faced with this crisis local authorities have had to look elsewhere to generate income.

There have been reports of some schools setting up legitimate businesses, off campus, to make money to pay teachers' salaries.

According to foreign aid agencies, the Chinese Government also allows some schools to employ teenage students in work training schemes, the products of which can be sold to generate cash.

Corruption

But job training is hardly a fitting description for what the young students in Jiangxi were being forced to do.

One further explanation remains, that of corruption and the abuse of power.

Reform of China's economy has not been matched by any fundamental change in its political system.


Blatant exploitation may be hard to comprehend, but it is far from uncommon

The Communist Party's millions of cadres, scattered in every town and village across this vast land, still control all the levers of power.

Such unchecked power combined with a freewheeling economy has opened new vistas of opportunity for official corruption and abuse of the weak and the unconnected.

Families whose children died in the Jiangxi explosion have told of how they complained repeatedly that their children were being forced to assemble fireworks in school, but that local authorities did nothing.

Indeed some reports have suggested the local Communist party secretary was in cahoots with the school and that money from the fireworks went to line their own pockets.

Such blatant exploitation may be hard to comprehend, but it is far from uncommon in China's raw and uncontrolled young market.

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See also:

03 Apr 00 | South Asia
Children march to go to school
16 Feb 01 | Asia-Pacific
Primary school protest in southern China
08 Feb 01 | Asia-Pacific
China unease over city rural divide
14 Dec 00 | Media reports
Chinese farmers face bleak future
07 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
Fireworks blamed for China school deaths
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