China’s economic development through lens of education
Published: Nov 22, 2023 06:08 PM
Illustration: Xia Qing/GT

Illustration: Xia Qing/GT

As the movie Beyond the Clouds has gained much attention in China these days, I remembered once again the American bestseller Educated: A Memoir, translated into Chinese as Flee Like a Bird to Your Mountain.

Published in 2018, this autobiography by American historian and author Tara Westover has been a bestseller both in China and the US for several years.

"Flee like a bird to your mountain" comes from the Bible, in the Book of Psalm. The phrase has a double interpretation; one is "to flee," and the other is "to find a new faith."

In this book, Westover recounts her real-life experience of escaping from a backward, poor, ignorant family and opening up another world in her life. Through hard work, in just 10 years she went from being a girl who never went to school to earning a PhD in history from Cambridge University.

Tara writes: "That was the new world that education gave me, that was the infinite possibilities of my life."

It is a universal truth that education changes lives. While Westover changed herself as an individual through education, Principal Zhang Guimei, the protagonist in Beyond the Clouds, has changed the lives of many rural girls through education.

In China, Zhang is a household name. She is the Party secretary and principal of the girls' high school in Huaping county, Lijiang city, Yunnan Province, where she founded China's first all-free girls' high school, helping more than 1,800 poor girls out of the mountains and realize their dream of going to college.

Westover from the mountains depends on education, just like many girls from impoverished families in the mountainous regions of Yunnan. However, the key difference is that Zhang is supported by the Communist Party of China (CPC), which has empowered her to bring these girls out of the mountains.

Zhang always wanted to build a school for the girls in the mountains. She donated all her money, and stood on the streets of the city to collect donations. But in the end she relied on the support of the Party and the local government to build a school. Later, she became a member of the CPC.

One of the girls was forced to consider dropping out of school due to poverty. Zhang worked long hours and for 11 years she taught her at the girl's home. In the past years, Zhang has visited more than 1,300 impoverished families, traveling more than 100,000 kilometers, earning her the title of "Outstanding CPC Member."

The children who come out of the school are not just birds flying toward their own mountains but courageous climbers who have already built up a strong confidence in their hearts that "I am already a mountain."

From 2011 to 2021, more than 50 percent of China's education spending has been directed to the central and western regions, with about 80 percent of central-to-local education funds allocated to these areas.

During this decade, China's new education funding has prioritized support for the implementation of education initiatives to combat poverty. The average annual growth rate of financial education funding for deeply impoverished areas reach 12.2 percent, exceeding the national average by 2.8 percentage points, boosting a large number of projects like the girls' school built by Zhang.

The story of Westover is the story of an American girl who realizes her American dream, while the story of Beyond the Clouds is the story of a large number of Chinese girls realizing their Chinese dream.

Zhang's story illustrates why China has become the world's second-largest economy in just 40 years while also hinting at the future of sustainable development in China.

As a developing country, China's education gap between urban and rural areas is significant. Many children in rural areas need access to proper hardware and teaching staff, the lack of which hinders their chances of receiving a quality modern education. It is essential for anyone making predictions about China's economic development to consider this critical issue.

Certainly, this implies that China has the potential to unlock its vast opportunities through education. Similar to the students led by Principal Zhang out of the mountains, their capacity to soar beyond obstacles will shape China's destiny in the future.

The author is a senior editor with People's Daily, and currently a senior fellow with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China. dinggang@globaltimes.com.cn. Follow him on Twitter @dinggangchina