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Cognitively delayed rural children are an invisible crisis

By Zhao Huanxin | China Daily | Updated: 2017-09-28 07:41

Stanford University economist Scott Rozelle caused quite a stir recently with his stark statistics regarding what he said was the human capital crisis in China.

He told a TED-style online audience in Beijing earlier this month that overall only 24 percent of China's current labor force has at least a high school education, lower than any country at China's current level of development.

"What can these people do in 2030" and what will happen when low-wage, unskilled jobs disappear in China? A prosperous, high-income country calls for high-caliber workers, said the director of Stanford's Rural Education Action Project (REAP).

Rozelle said his figures were from China's 2000 national census.

He also claimed that more than half of the toddlers in China's extremely poor rural areas are so cognitively delayed that their IQs are unlikely to ever exceed 90-and that having a grandmother as a caregiver was a contributing factor to this.

Besides, at least one-third of babies 6-18 months old in these areas have anemia, he said.

Chinese newspapers like the Beijing News and some readers expressed appreciation that Rozelle and his team of researchers had worked so systematically to understand and describe rural China over the past 30 years. But they also questioned how he defines the rural poor and the accuracy of his data.

When I met Rozelle in Washington at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Sept 14, I told him the data he used for the presentation he gave at the center on "the growing problems in rural China" might be outdated, such as the "low high-school graduation rate", which is at least seven to eight years old.

Besides, I was raised by my grandmother, and it seems that I have not been "cognitively delayed" as a result.

Rozelle said he has given more than 100 presentations in China and elsewhere. "No matter the audience, these presentations are met with disbelief," he said. Which is why he is writing a book analyzing this "invisible crisis" and offering solutions.

As to the 2000 national census data, Rozelle said that he believed the current situation hasn't changed much, and if anything it is getting worse; and that I was lucky to have a "fantastic" grandmother.

An overwhelming proportion of caregivers, Rozelle's team found, would leave their babies alone; only 1 in 10 would read a book to a baby and less than 5 percent would tell a story.

China has up to 4 million children aged between 0 and 6 among its 35.59 million extremely poor people.

In the 2011 Early Childhood Development and Education in China report, the World Bank estimated one-third of rural children are left behind by parents who have migrated elsewhere to work. They are usually cared for by their grandmothers.

Even when they are with their parents, about 73 percent of children reported their parents were "rude" to them, and a meager 2 percent said their parents would play with them, according to the report Nutrition and Child Rearing Situation of Children Aged 0-6 in Poor Rural Areas in China.

The report, released in 2015, was based on a survey by the All-China Women's Association and China's National Health and Family Planning Commission, although it didn't specify how many children were sampled.

The survey found the anemia prevalence for rural children under the age of 6, ranged from 19.6 percent to 26.8 percent between 2006 and 2009, and it showed little change at the time of the survey.

Worse, it found that the rate of six months of exclusive breastfeeding was 24.8 percent in the rural poor areas, lower than the world's average of 38 percent and the nation's average of 27.6 percent.

Rozelle and the World Bank report have cited neuroscientists to conclude that prenatal care and experiences in the first six years of life affect physical and brain development of children, and investments in early childhood are most cost-effective to improve productivity and social cohesion.

I expect between the covers of Rozelle's new book are pages with down-to-earth analysis and practical solutions, shedding light on how China might develop its human capital to avoid the middle-income trap. This will be also helpful to other countries struggling to get out of the trap.

Such a book, even without sensational dramatizing or hyping, will be welcomed by many in many years to come.

The author is deputy editor-in-chief of China Daily USA.

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