Invisible China by Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 248 pages. ISBN-10: 022673952X, ISBN-13: 978-0226739526. Available from Amazon and University of Chicago Press.
While the dominant narrative of China in recent decades has been of unstoppable growth and ever-climbing incomes, the Invisible China… remains vast and intransigent and almost completely unacknowledged.1
Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell published Invisible China in 2020 as the pandemic began. The book arrived just before a wave of new policy trends that emerged throughout 2021, and it offers important context for those trends. It serves as a useful window to readers who want to move beyond the cities of China and begin to explore the vast and complex rural interior of the country.
In Invisible China, Rozelle and Hell attempt to bring to light the struggles faced by a segment of the Chinese population who have escaped the notice of most outside observers. For most outsiders, and for many urban Chinese as well, China looks as though it operates from a stance of strength. To anyone who lives in or visits China’s great cities, the country looks and feels mighty, and it is. But there are complex problems that the country has yet to fully address, and which remain mostly invisible to those on the outside.
While urban China stands large in the vision of foreign and Chinese observers alike, rural China remains largely unseen and misunderstood. Rozelle and Hell want to bring the difficulties of rural China into the light in Invisible China. The book makes the argument that beyond the reach of China’s impressive urban accomplishments lie weaknesses hidden in the countryside that threaten all of what has been achieved so far. For Rozelle and Hell, these weaknesses can best be described as deficiencies in “human capital.”
The concept of human capital refers to the idea that the people who form a society have certain skills, experiences, and knowledge that are useful to that population. For the authors, the simple reality is this: for China to make the leap to become a high-income country, the knowledge, skill, experience levels, and general quality of life of China’s rural people must be brought up to speed with the necessities of modern life.
The biggest deficiencies identified in Invisible China have to do with the rural education system. Using a word like “deficiency” to describe the Chinese education system seems counterintuitive at first glance. After all, Chinese high school students have famously tested as the top students in the world.2 Chinese urban parents spent, on average, more than US$17,300 per year on extracurricular courses for their children prior to the extracurricular education reforms of July 2021.3 Chinese students have flooded top-tier graduate programs all over the English-speaking world. This does not look like a society with an education problem!
However, Invisible China is full of recent statistics that describe a very different picture in rural China. The book relates story after story, statistic after statistic, about the issues of access, cost, and poor quality in rural schools. Compulsory schooling ends after middle school in China, and many rural students do not even enroll in high school. After completing their required years in school, many young people used to move to the coasts and find work in the factories in the Yangtze and Pearl River delta regions. However, and this is a key point of Invisible China, a critical shift has occurred. The coastal manufacturing and construction sectors that used to absorb these young people have slowed and no longer need workers in the vast numbers necessary just ten short years ago.
What are these millions of young, undereducated, working-aged people supposed to do? What does the future look like for these people whose country seems to have passed them by? This is where a few of the recommendations made in Invisible China cross over and intersect with the Common Prosperity policy package. For example, as a cornerstone of Common Prosperity,4 President Xi has highlighted the importance of improving access to and quality of rural education, especially vocational schools designed to train young people for a modern and technologically complex economy. Educational improvements may not solve the most immediate economic troubles faced by young working people right now, but hopefully they will help to prepare current and future students for a rapidly changing workforce.
Beyond the call for swift and concerted efforts to improve the education system, Rozelle and Hell write compellingly about three different public health crises in rural China: worms, myopia, and developmental concerns. They are convincing in showing the tremendous need for a response to these three crises in particular: childhood malnourishment and access to basic health care (to treat worms, one of the most frequent health problems), the need for access to basic vision care and glasses (myopia), and the need to educate caretakers on childhood development and parenting skills. Each of these topics get their own meaningful and interesting chapter in the book and further point to the long road ahead for improving the living standards of rural Chinese people.
Those resident in Chinese cities could live their whole lives and not encounter these challenges. They are very much out of view, very much invisible to those living in China’s great urban centers. The picture painted by Rozelle and Hell certainly helps add nuance to the narrative of China. Beyond the gleaming cities and global resurgence, the rural realities of the country still matter. As a nation, China brings exceptional and far-reaching strengths to the table. However, as Invisible China so clearly points out, for China’s trajectory to continue upward, the country must address and overcome the significant and complex issues facing the unseen rural millions of people living beyond the cities.
The 2022 spring issue of ChinaSource Quarterly focuses on China’s internal migrants and the challenges they face, as well as ways of reaching them with the gospel and how faith sustains them. Watch for “Reaching Migrant Workers in China” coming out later this month.
Our thanks to University of Chicago Press for supplying a copy of Invisible China for this review.
- Rozelle & Hell, Invisible China, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020), 7-8.
- OECD’s PISA test metric from 2018, the most well-respected global comparative survey in education. This is a link to China’s summary page: https://www.oecd.org/pisa/publications/PISA2018_CN_QCI.pdf
- Laurie Chen, “Chinese parents spend up to US$43,500 a year on after-school classes for their children,” South China Morning Post, December 4, 2018, accessed February 24, 2023, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/society/article/2176377/chinese-parents-spend-us43500-year-after-school-classes-their.
- “Xi Focus: Xi stresses development of modern vocational education system,” XinhuaNet, April 13, 2021, accessed February 24, 2023, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2021-04/13/c_139877819.htm.
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