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The Systematic, Fair and High-quality Development of the Right to Education in China
June 26,2022   By:CSHRS
The Systematic, Fair and High-quality Development of the Right to Education in China
 
GONG Xianghe*
 
Abstract: Since the release of the first human rights white paper in 1991, the development of the right to education has made remarkable achievements along with the economic miracle of China’s continuous growth and the promotion of education reform. At the regulation level, the right to education has been systematically guaranteed based on the type and phase of education. At the value level, rural areas, poverty-stricken areas, and vulnerable groups have been given preferential treatment to comprehensively improve the quality of their educational resources such as material and financial resources, teachers and curriculum, and digital education development and ensure fair and high-quality development of their right to education. In the future, equal emphasis on fairness and quality will be the value orientation for the development of the right to education, and the rule of law in education will be needed to further provide systematic and strong institutional guarantees for the right to fair and high-quality education.
 
Keywords: right to education · systematic · fair · high-quality 
 
Since the launch of the reform and opening-up policy, China has achieved rapid economic growth and concurrently long-term and prosperous social development, which have attracted wide attention. In terms of human rights protection, the Chinese government issued the first human rights white paper Human Rights in China in 1991 and solemnly declared that “It has been a long-cherished ideal of mankind to enjoy human rights in the full sense of the term.”1 The right to subsistence is the primary human right of the Chinese people after long-term struggles and Chinese citizens enjoy extensive political, economic, social and cultural rights. Afterward, to practically respect and guarantee human rights and summarize the experiences and achievements of China in human rights protection, the Chinese government has issued subsequent white papers on China’s human rights situation, fully outlining the accomplishments and progress of China’s human rights over the past three decades.
 
The white paper Human Rights in China stresses: “The right to education is an important prerequisite for the overall, free development of human beings.”2 Since people’s ability to exercise freedom largely depends on their education which can help them get access to a better life (especially the ability to understand what a better life entails), education is the best way to boost human rights awareness.3 As a matter of fact, education is a primary necessity for better livelihoods and a life4 and the right to education is not simply the basic right of citizens but the prerequisite and means to enjoy other human rights. Because of the unique inherent value of the right to education and its paramount importance for other human rights, China has been “persistently aiming at promoting all-round human development,” “persisting in promoting human rights protection through development”5and highly prioritizing the right to education as a necessity of life and a basic human right, during the three decades after the release of the first human rights white paper.
 
The protection level of the right to education is the epitome of the development of human rights in China. In retrospect of the development of the right of the Chinese citizens to education for three decades, we can clearly see that the right to education has evolved from quantitative to qualitative and from a canonical form to valuable content to pursue fair and high-quality development in the new era. In other words, the process of development specifically includes the pursuit for the right to systematic education as the canonical form, the right to fair education as valuable content and the right to high-quality education as upgraded resources. 
 
I. The Right to Systematic Education
 
A complete system of the right to education must be established to protect this right and ensure the right to systematic education. Facilitated by educational reforms, China’s effort to protect the right to systematic education was extended by education policies and then incorporated into laws on education on mature conditions. Limited by the level of economic, social and cultural development in 1991, public education provided by the state could not meet people’s cultural needs in terms of the type and scale of education and the scope of main bodies of education and the right to education was unsystematic. Since the publication of the human rights white paper of China 30 years ago, the state has positively protected the right to education of different types and at different phases step by step as planned, and formulated and implemented a series of educational policies and laws to stimulate and protect the right to education. Accordingly, China’s system for guaranteeing the right to education has gradually become complete and the right to systematic education has been gradually established. 
 
A. The right to systematic education based on the type of education
 
When the first white paper was released in 1991, China only had two laws on the right to education, namely, the Regulation on Academic Degrees formulated in 1980 and the Compulsory Education Law made in 1986. Article 46 of the Constitution stipulates the right to education of the Chinese citizens, the Compulsory Education Law sets forth the right of children of school age to compulsory education and the Regulation on Academic Degrees provides the right to academic degrees included in the right to successful learning. Educational legislation entered the fast lane of development in 1993. The National People’s Congress and its standing committee formulated six laws on education in ten years, namely, the Teachers Law of the People’s Republic of China (1993), Education Law of the People’s Republic of China (1995), Vocation Education Law of the People’s Republic of China (1996), Higher Education Law of the People’s Republic of China (1998), Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Standard Spoken and Written Chinese Language (2000) and Non-state Education Promotion Law of the People's Republic of China (2002), initially forming China’s system of educational laws and promoting systematic development of the right to education based on the type of education.6 These laws and national policies also confirmed the following types of the right to education: the right to preschool education, the right to vocation education, the right to higher education and the right to non-state education. The right to education of Chinese citizens has been standardized and undergone systematic development and the right of Chinese citizens to different types of education has been fully guaranteed over the past 30 years.
 
B. Systematic development of the right to education based on the educational phase
 
The systematic development of the right to education included not just that based on the type of education but was carried out in the three stages for each type, namely the starting point, the process and the results. Accordingly, the right to education permeated the three phases of each type. Based on the present laws, regulations, policy arrangements and protection practice of the right to education since the issuance of the human rights white paper 30 years ago, China has realized protection of the right to education in each educational phase and has formed an inseparable and well-organized system of the right to education including the right to the chance of learning in the starting phase, the right to the conditions of learning in the process and the right to success of learning in the phase of results. The right to the chance of learning includes the right to the chances of admission and entering a higher school, the right to choose education and the right to student identity; the right to the conditions of learning incorporates the right to use educational conditions, the right to claim educational conditions construction and the right to gain educational subsidies; the right to success of learning encompasses the right to fair evaluation and the right to gain academic certificates and diplomas. 
 
II. The Right to Fair Education 
 
The right to education is primarily the right to fair (equal) education. Fairness is the primary property and educational fairness is naturally the main value goal of the development of education. China has been prioritizing educational fairness as the focus of protecting the right to education of the citizens for 30 years.
 
A. Focusing on education support to the people in rural areas and poverty stricken areas
 
First, the difference in school-age children enrollment rate between rural areas and urban areas gradually shrank. The rates of Chinese school-age children attending school in rural areas and urban areas stood at 99.9 percent and 100 percent from 2015 to 2020, basically realizing the goal that every child has access to primary education. The retention rate of nine-year compulsory education throughout China reached 95.2 percent, the dropout of children from poor rural families in the stage of compulsory education realized dynamic zero clearing and the great objective of enabling every school-age child to enjoy education by 2020 was materialized when the moderately prosperous society in all respects was built.7 Second, the Chinese government adopted a series of policies and measures such as setting up funds for educational poverty alleviation and four items of special funds as a governmental education allowance for old revolutionary base areas, areas inhabited by minority nationalities, remote and border areas and poverty-stricken areas, exempting students enjoying compulsory education in rural areas from miscellaneous fees and book fees and providing subsidies and living allowances for poor rural families to financially support the undertaking of education in rural and poverty-stricken areas. Finally, as to financial aid policies for students, the Chinese government attached much importance to helping students from poverty-stricken families finish school. By 2020, China established records for students from poor families in the stage of compulsory education, offered living and studying subsidies to all such students and set up a student subsidy system in all stages of education, namely, from primary school education to postgraduate education. Compulsory education in 96.8 percent of the counties nationwide basically achieved balanced development. More and more children in poor rural, central and western areas of China could enjoy better and fairer education. The objective of preventing children from poor families from dropping out of school was basically materialized.8
 
B. Offering more educational resources to special groups of people
 
The Chinese government offered more educational resources to the illiterate, females, the disabled, people of ethnic minorities and children of migrant workers in cities to guarantee their right to education. For three decades, the Chinese government has gone all out to promote free education for any with illiteracy. By the end of 2000, China had generally eliminated illiteracy among young adults and lowered the illiteracy rate to no more than 5 percent.9In 2003, the updated statistics for anti-illiteracy education in the past decade worldwide released by the UNESCO Statistics Office showed that China registered the greatest achievements in anti-illiteracy education among the 40 countries in the statistics.10 Since the 1990s, the process for men and women to enjoy equal rights to education has been accelerated, the gap in the educational level between men and women has further narrowed and the proportion of women enjoying all levels of education has been on the rise. The Chinese government vigorously supported and developed special education for the disabled and China’s special education maintained continuous growth in the number of students and the scale of schools. In 1991, the Chinese students in special schools numbered 86,000 and special schools totaled 886; in the last year to build the moderately prosperous society in all respects, special education nationwide boasted 2,244 schools, 66,200 full-time teachers and 880,800 students. The number of disabled students in ordinary classes and schools has constantly expanded and 12-year free education for disabled students from poor families from primary school to senior high school has been realized nationwide.11 The state has been prioritizing and energetically supporting education for ethnic minority groups and has specially set up subsidies and various financial funds for that purpose. As of the end of 2018, the Tibet autonomous region had comprehensively implemented the free education policy of “free catering, free lodging and no tuition fees” for students for 15 years from preschool education to senior high school and the southern part of the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region had implemented 15-year free education and 3-year free pre-school bilingual education in rural areas; the government had also arranged classes for Tibetan students and Xinjiang students, set up preparatory classes and classes for ethnic minority students and implemented the “High-level Ethnic Minority Backbone Program” to guarantee ethnic minority students to enjoy high-quality education.12 At the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China by the end of 2019, ethnic minority areas had realized the great goal of universal access to the 9-year compulsory education from primary school to junior high school.13 The problem of the children of migrant workers in cities to enjoy compulsory education and take the National College Entrance Examination has been gradually solved. As of 2020, the educational funds for about 14 million children of migrant workers in cities had been granted wherever they studied and the material guarantee for them to enjoy the right to education had been further enhanced. 
 
III. The Right to High-quality Education 
 
Fairness focuses on how to solve the problem of “access to school” for each citizen while high-quality development is an issue of offering high-quality education.14 Since China’s entry into the new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics, the right to education has not merely extended from school education to home and social education but changed from the access to education to the access to high-quality education in connotation.15 It is saliently shown in the development and provision of material and financial resources, teacher resources, curriculum resources and digital education. 
 
A. Drastic increase of high-quality material and financial resources
 
High-quality educational material resources include the basic conditions, resources and facilities for school operation. Excellent teaching environments and resources are indispensable for high-quality education. Article 27 of the Education Law stipulates that one of the prerequisites for the setting up of schools and other educational institutions is that the teaching places and facilities must meet the required standards. For instance, the central government cumulatively injected RMB29.7 billion in renovating facilities such as students’ dormitories and canteens in up to 10,000 schools from 2010 to 2012 so that the students in rural areas in central and western China could enjoy “high-quality education”.16 Chapter 7 of the Education Law sets the standard of financial investment in high-quality education: The proportion of educational appropriations should gradually rise, as the national economy develops and the government’s financial revenue increases. The average expenditure on per enrolled student should increase steadily and the teachers’ salaries and the average public expenditure per student should increase steadily. According to the statistics released by the National Bureau of Statistics, China’s educational funds in the financial budget have escalated in consecutive years since 1991: 120 billion yuan in 1996, 258.2 billion yuan in 2001, 580 billion yuan in 2006, over 1 trillion yuan in 2011, 2.58 trillion yuan in 2016, and up to 3.2 trillion yuan in 2019, which means it has nearly doubled every five years.17
 
B. Constant expansion of high-quality teacher resources and curriculum resources
 
High-quality teaching resources include the professionalism of teachers, including their teaching and research abilities, as well as their team spirit. The Teachers Law stipulates the standards for the qualification and the conditions of appointment of teachers to improve their professional level and competence. Article 35 of the Education Law also stipulates that the state implements the system concerning the qualification and appointment of teachers and adopts the mechanisms to examine, give awards to and train teachers to improve their quality and strengthen their qualifications. With the overall enhancement of the quality of Chinese teachers, the student-staff ratios in all educational phases have been constantly reduced and high-quality teachers support the high-quality development of education. At the same time, high-quality curricula up to the national standards have been continuously developed, which can satisfy the demand for diverse and personalized learning.
 
C. Rapid growth of digital education 
 
With the advent and wide application of digital technologies, including the internet, big data and cloud computing, education is embracing the fourth revolution — featuring educational informatization, digitalization and smart technologies. The state will use the new technologies to better guarantee the right to education. For this reason, a series of educational development programs such as the outline of China’s National plan for medium and long-term education reform and development, the 10 Year Development Plan for the Informationalization of Education (2011-2020), and the Education Informatization 2.0 Action Plan of 2018 set forth the objectives and specific measures to realize educational informatization in an effort to basically set up the system of educational informatization featuring “education accessible to anyone anywhere at any time” by 2020. With the complete building of the moderately prosperous society in all respects and the new stage of development of human rights in China, China will enter a new stage of constructing a digitalized, intelligent educational system. 
 
Since the release of the first human rights white paper 30 years ago, the development of the right to education of Chinese citizens has been progressively put under systematic, fair and high-quality protection. Based on people’s increasing demands for fair and high-quality education, and its long-term sound development, the legislative body is required to accelerate the legislation on fair and high-quality education and codify the systematic development of the right to education. In the meantime, the state should fully implement the value ideas of fair and high-quality education in the law enforcement process and judicial process in a bid to provide systematic and vigorous institutional protection for the right to fair and high-quality education. 
 
(Translated by JIANG Lin)
 
* GONG Xianghe ( 龚向和 ), Executive Director of the Institute of Human Rights and Professor of the College of Law, Southeast University.
 
1. Human Rights in China, website of the State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, accessed August 6, 2021, http://www.scio.gov.cn/zfbps/ndhf/1991/Document/1715811/1715811.htm.
 
2. Ibid.
 
3. Gao Wei, “From the Pursuit of Absolute Justice to the Objection to Injustice — Paradigm Shift in Education Justice Theory,” Educational Research 8 (2016): 19-20.
 
4. American Educator John Dewey thought that education is not the preparation for life but is life itself; education is no luxury but a necessity. Kang Qiao, John Dewey: Education Is Life Itself (Shanghai: Shanghai Lexicographical Publishing House, 2014), 2-3.
 
5. The Great Practice of the Communist Party of China to Respect and Protect Human Rights, website of the State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, accessed August 6, 2021, http://www.scio.gov.cn/zfbps/32832/Document/1707301/1707301.htm.
 
6. Guan Hua, “Rule of Law in Education for Forty Years: Retrospect and Prospect,” Law Review 4 (2018).
 
7. Moderate Prosperity in All Respects: Another Milestone Achieved in China’s Human Rights, website of the State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, accessed August 6, 2021, http://www.scio.gov.cn/zfbps/32832/Document/1710544/1710544.htm.
 
8. Ibid. 
 
9. Human Rights in China 2000, website of the State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, accessed August 6, 2021, http://www.scio.gov.cn/zfbps/ndhf/2001/Document/307927/307927.htm. 
 
10. Human Rights in China 2003, website of the State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, accessed August 6, 2021, http://www.scio.gov.cn/zfbps/ndhf/2004/Document/307901/307901.htm.
 
11. Moderate Prosperity in All Respects: Another Milestone Achieved in China’s Human Rights, website of the State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, accessed August 6, 2021, http://www.scio.gov.cn/zfbps/32832/Document/1710544/1710544.htm.
 
12. Progress in Human Rights over the 40 Years of Reform and Opening-Up in China, website of the State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, accessed August 6, 2021, http://www.scio.gov.cn/zfbps/ndhf/37884/Document/1643348/1643348.htm
 
13. Seeking Happiness for People: 70 Years of Progress on Human Rights in China, website of the State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, accessed August 6, 2021, http://www.scio.gov.cn/zfbps/ndhf/39911/Document/1665100/1665100.htm.
 
14. Gong Xianghe, “The Right to Fair and High-quality Education in the New Era,” Educational Research 8 (2021): 54.
 
15. Shen Suping. “Establishing High-quality Education System to Better Protect the Citizens’ Right to education,” China Higher Education Research 4 (2021).
 
16. Human Rights in China 2012, website of the State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, accessed August 6, 2021, http://www.scio.gov.cn/afbps/ndhf/2013/Document/1322525/1322525.htm
 
17. Data source from the website of the National Statistics Bureau, accessed August 6, 2021, https://data.stats.gov.cn/easyquery.htm?cn=C01
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