For Chinese Students, Bring-Your-Desk-to-School Day

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By Adam Minter

Here’s a back-to-school math problem: If your school district has 5,000 students, but only 2,000 desks, how do you find places for the other 3,000 students to sit?

The obvious solution is to buy 3,000 additional desks. But if, as in the case of Shunhe township in central China’s impoverished Macheng county, there isn't money to buy 3,000 desks, then what do you do? On Sept. 3, the Changjiang Daily, a major Communist Party-supervised newspaper in Wuhan published an article and photos showing parents and grandparents in Shunhe carrying beat-up desks and tables from their homes to local government-run schools, as they have done every September for at least the last three decades, according to a teacher interviewed by Xinhua, the state news agency. That three-decade mark is important: It spans the length of China’s economic revival -- a revival that apparently hasn’t touched Shunhe township.

The story quickly migrated onto China’s microblogs and within 48 hours was the populist outrage du jour, at or near the top of trending topic lists for the last week. The account especially infuriated microbloggers already upset at increasing Chinese inequality and at those perceived to be responsible. Zhang Wen, an editor and editorial board member of China Newsweek, posted this angry tweet to Sina Weibo, China’s leading microblog:

China has become the world’s second largest economy, it throws its money to African countries to pay for the construction of their school buildings and school buses. In Macheng, more than three thousand pupils have to bring their own desks to school for class. It brings shame on the image of the Chinese government.

The Macheng debacle isn’t the only school-funding controversy that’s engaged Chinese netizens over the last few weeks. In Guangdong province, considerable media and microblogging attention has been paid to one school so short of funds that it held a lottery to allocate snacks and limited staff time for breaks.

But the school desk controversy resonates particularly strongly in the blogosphere because the images of villagers lugging desks to school suggest a poverty-stricken past that China’s economic renaissance was supposed to have surmounted. Liu Chun, a middle-aged vice-president at, a major Chinese internet portal, offered a poignant expression of this sentiment when on Saturday he sent this tweet to his over a million followers on Sina Weibo: "Thanks to the government and Education Bureau of Macheng for helping me relive my childhood memories. In those years, we carried desks on our backs."

To be fair, Macheng is not nearly as poor as the towns and villages in which Liu and his peers were educated. For one thing, China is wealthier as a whole, and some of that wealth is redistributed to local areas -- like Macheng -- that are officially designated as national-level poverty-stricken counties (there are 592 nationwide). This status entitled Macheng to a piece of $4.32 billion the central government allotted in 2011 for poverty reduction programs, including education of impoverished students. According to Xinhua, the state news agency, Macheng spent 720 million yuan ($110 million) in 2011 on education, with a portion of that money provided from poverty alleviation funds (Xinhua did not reveal how much). That’s a lot of money for an impoverished area -- certainly enough to acquire basic classroom necessities -- and China’s netizens are wondering where all those funds went, if not to buy desks and chairs?

One possible answer -- unverified but with a vast and angry constituency behind it -- is that the money was used to build ostentatious government buildings meant to enhance the images of local bureaucrats. Sure enough, Chinese netizens found pictures of Macheng’s new city hall and other gleaming government buildings. By the standards of over-the-top Chinese government buildings, Macheng's buildings are very modest. However, when those photos are placed beside pictures of grandmothers hauling school desks through the countryside -- as many microbloggers have done --they tend to inspire outrage. Yu Ping, a commentator at Beijing News, the influential paper controlled by the city’s Propaganda Bureau, has written two scathing editorials in the last week on the desk controversy. The first, published last Thursday, contained this biting passage: "They have money to build government buildings but no money to buy desks for students. Why does poverty persist in Macheng? The answer is self-evident."

The other answer, of course, is that the money disappeared straight into the pockets of government officials. Alas, Macheng’s public records -- like public records across China -- are closed to public review, thus leaving China’s online amateur detectives to speculate and investigate. In this case, and others like it, netizens have zeroed in on Yang Yao, the local Macheng Party Secretary - -- and whether he wears a wristwatch with a value that exceeds what should be affordable to a low-level bureaucrat in a small Chinese city. If, for example, he wears a $50,000 Breitling, according to netizen logic, he must be corrupt. After all, it is the rare local government official who earns more than $1,000 per month.

This is not a new approach. Dating back to at least 2009, savvy netizens have carefully examined photos of public officials to see if their leaders are wearing expensive watches. In August, for example, a minor official in Xi’an ran afoul of public opinion after a photo emerged of him smiling at a fatal traffic accident. Chinese netizens, enraged by his arrogant demeanor, began searching the Internet for additional photos of him and soon found several in which he was clearly wearing expensive watches -- specifically, models manufactured by Rolex, Omega, Vacheron Constantin and Rado, some worth, according to netizens, in excess of $16,000.

Macheng’s Yang Yao, clearly sensing trouble in the online outrage over the schools under his jurisdiction and the jewelry on his wrist, took the unusual step of opening a Sina Weibo account and responding to his critics in an essay that he embedded as an image in a tweet. In the essay, he thanks the nation’s netizens for their concern, defends his record on education funding and then, in a last paragraph as remarkable as it is weird, reveals that his watch isn’t one of those expensive, hand-tooled luxury watches that other officials wear. Rather, it’s a battery-driven, mass-market Longines -- a brand with little cachet in China:

Some netizens have called into question the fact that I am wearing a name-brand watch, it is a quartz Longines watch that I purchased six years ago, netizens can check its value. If there are any other questions, you can contact the Macheng municipal committee bureau and myself directly. My email address is

Despite the rare and humble act of revealing his email address, online discussion as to whether Yang Yao is the owner of anything more glitzy than a ho-hum Longines continues to rage. Still, Yang has managed to keep his job and to find the money to buy 3,000 chairs and desks for the poor students (and their sore-backed guardians) of Shunhe township. For China’s microbloggers, this is a small victory, but a potent one that proves the corrosive power of social networking against a government that increasingly lacks legitimacy in the eyes of the governed. Xu Shaolin, a freelance writer and popular Sina Weibo user in Beijing, summarized the sentiment in a Saturday tweet:

What effect can Weibo have? China was born more than 60 years ago, yet the students in Macheng still bring their desks to school. Meanwhile, tall government buildings rise out of the ground and nobody thinks anything is wrong. But in the Internet Age, a short piece on Weibo can arouse a storm in a teacup. Even though the result came late, it came. Macheng will end the long history of students bringing desks to school in two months. Thanks to Weibo for this!

Yang Yao and other Chinese government officials may not be so grateful. Journalists who covered Shunhe’s desk shortage have reportedly been threatened by local officials.

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this blog post: Adam Minter at

-0- Sep/12/2012 20:57 GMT