Community teachers in Guangdong thrown on the scrapheap

Su Huawen taught in the village primary school he helped set up in 1953 for nearly 50 years. He taught mathematics, Chinese, music and physical education. He was admired and respected by students and parents alike, so much so, villagers addressed him as “Scholar” (文公).

Today, 78-year-old Su is in poor health and lives dire poverty with hardly any income or pension because the local government in Leizhou, southwesten Guangdong, has refused to pay him the 12,000 yuan he was owed after being forcibly retired in 2000. Su has been waiting ten years for his money and has not seen one cent.

A former student who visited Su last month described him:

Sitting quietly at the edge of the bed, wearing black-rimmed glasses, and a blue shirt that was torn at the sleeve. He’d had that shirt for the last 30 years. On the other side of the bed lay his 66-year-old wife, who was suffering from cerebral atrophy and arteriosclerosis. She was covered with a thin cotton-padded quilt. A few red characters were printed on the yellow quilt cover. This discarded advertising banner was the only thing Su could find to use as a quilt cover.

The concerned student posted Su’s story on his blog where it was picked up by Time Weekly (时代周报), which then investigated his plight and that of the more than 600 other community teachers who, like Su, had been dismissed by the Leizhou municipal government in 2000.

Community (民办) teachers had for many years been the backbone of China’s rural education system. They did not necessarily have formal qualifications, they generally taught primary school, were paid a fraction of a state school (公办) teacher’s salary, had no job security and received no benefits. Community teachers in Leizhou, for example, earned just 30 yuan a month compared with the 200 yuan a month paid to their state school counterparts in the 1980s. In the 1990s, local governments across China sought to bring community teachers into the formal state system; however the process has been riddled with corruption and government malpractice. Very often, those community teachers deemed “ineligible” or “unqualified” have simply been discarded with no compensation.

In 1998, the Leizhou government initiated a policy that would theoretically allow community teachers to qualify as state school teachers after taking an examination. Those who failed the exam or did not take it were to be dismissed with a one-off compensation payment of 300 yuan for every year of service. On the basis of this policy, Su should have been paid at least 12,000 yuan.

Su made numerous visits to the Leizhou municipal government and the Nanxing township government, which was supposed to issue the payment, but always came away empty-handed.

Many other community teachers in Leizhou suffered the same fate. 46-year-old Fu Zepan passed the 1998 teachers’ examination but was never upgraded to state school status. He too was dismissed with no compensation. Today he lives in three thatched huts in Nandu village with his wife, six children and bed-ridden 88-year-old mother. His daughter Fu Xiaofei told Time Weekly that when her father was sacked; “We only had five yuan in the whole family, which was not even enough to buy food. I had to work as a nanny, earning just 300 yuan a month. I was only 12-years-old at the time.” The family has basically given up any hope of seeing its money.

The township governments claimed they had no money for the compensation payments, while the Leizhou municipal government claimed the payments were available but that the community teachers had refused to accept them because they wanted state school status - a claim that was met with incomprehension by the teachers concerned. Several teachers, unhappy with the compensation offer, did petition for state school status but very few were granted their wish. The others were dismissed with no compensation at all.

Today, Su Huawen, passes by his old school each time he goes to tend his small vegetable plot adjacent to the school building. Despite his poor health, Su still has to till the land in order to make a living. However, last year he earned just 20 yuan from his pepper crop after spending more than 1,000 yuan.

“Every time I walk by the school I get very emotional,” he said, “I was one of the co-founders of that school.”

The plight of China’s community teachers has been common knowledge for more than a decade now, and at long last some commentators are calling on the authorities to take action. Chu Zhaohui, a researcher at the China National Institute for Educational Research, told Time Weekly:

Community teachers have made a unique historical contribution to our country’s educational system. When they are let go, we must ensure that reasonable compensation is paid. The truth is that the government owes an invisible debt to those community teachers who have been dismissed. For compensation to be withheld for ten years in the Leizhou region, this is nothing but social mismanagement. If the local governments can’t come up with the money, then the provincial, even the central government should step in. This is no longer just a matter for the education department; it concerns the civil administration and finance departments, and requires a concerted and coordinated effort from society as a whole.
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