The biggest obstacle to China's rise is poorly educated rural children. Trouble in the country, then.

'' Invisible China '' by Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell, University of Chicago Press; 248 pages.

The China that most foreigners see is modern and metropolitan. The skyscrapers glitter. The bullet trains are fast and comfortable. Anyone who visits only Beijing, Shanghai or Shenzhen would conclude that China was already a rich country.

YET there is another China : poor, rural and scarcely visible to outsiders, especially when Covid-19 has made travel so hard. Toilets can be holes in the dirt, tricky to find in the dark. Women sometimes break river ice to wash clothes by hand.

In many villages, most working-age adults have moved to the cities, where they lay bricks, deliver packages and occasionally return to see their children. ''It's a hard life being away from your family so much,'' one migrant in Hebei province told this reviewer.

Granted, rural Chinese are far better off than they used to be. In the 1950s, when Mao Zedong forced them onto collective farms, tens of millions starved to death. 

Now they generally have enough to eat, and proudly insist that guests in their draughty homes have second helpings of oily noodles.

But a crisis is brewing in these villages, argues Scott Rozelle of Stanford University and Natalie Hell, a Californian researcher, that could prevent China from attaining Xi Jinping's dream of widespread prosperity.

Two-thirds of Chinese children are rural, partly because rural parents have more babies than urban ones. And rural Chinese children - the workforce of the future - are doing terribly at school.

China has invested huge amounts in physical infrastructure, but neglected its human capital. Do not be fooled by league tables, such as the OECD's PISA rankings, that show high-school students outperforming those of nearly every other country.

The Chinese figures are not for the whole country, but only for the better schools in the richer cities.

The children of rural migrants are barred from such schools, thanks to China's brutal hukou [ household registration ] system, which excludes people with rural origins from many public services in big cities.

Migrant workers' children must either pay to attend awful urban private schools or stay back in the countryside with grandma and go to mediocre government school there. Such discrimination is keenly resented.

Healthy bodies, healthy minds

After decades of research, Mr. Rozelle and Ms. Hell present some startling data. Their team gave an IQ-like test to thousands of rural Chinese toddlers.

They found that more than 50% were cognitively delayed and unlikely to reach an IQ of 90 [ in a typical population, only about 16% score so poorly]. There were several reasons for this.

Half of the rural babies are undernourished. Caregivers [ often illiterate grandmothers ] cram them with rice, noodles and steamed buns, not realsing that that they also need micronutrients.

Studies in 2016 and 2017 found that a quarter of rural children in central and western China suffer from anaemia [ lack of iron ], which makes it hard for them to concentrate in school.

Two-fifths of rural children in parts of southern China have intestinal worms, which sap their energy. A third of rural 11-and12-year olds have poor vision but no glasses, so struggle to read their schoolbooks.

If rural Chinese do not learn essential cognitive skills, the authors predict mass unemployment, social unrest and perhaps a crash that would ''lead to huge economic shocks around the world''.

China's rulers should order crates of de-worming pills - and copies of this book. 

The World Student's Society thanks the review team at The Economist.


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