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Suicide Shines Light on Harsh Reality Faced by China's Rural Teachers

“I have evidence. Someone will prove it!”, Cheng Xinggui shouted not long before he jumped into a river amid torrential rain. He killed himself on July 17, 2013 at age 58 to protest against the bureaucratic process preventing him from getting his due wages in Yunnan Province.

Cheng's decision to end his life has thrown attention on the difficult situation facing many teachers in rural China. There, many teachers have spent their lifetime working in schools under the title of substitute teachers because local authorities from poor districts lack the resources to hire regular teachers. The substitute teachers do not belong to any DANWEI or work unit and thus do not have any social security protection. In addition, their income is as less as one-fifth of a regular teacher.

As most of the substitute teachers in rural areas do not have professional qualification, the Ministry of Education proposed in 2006 put forward a Qing Tui (清退) policy to lay off 448,000 substitute teachers from all over the country to improve the quality of rural education. The deadline of the systematic layoffs was set for 2010, but the education authorities did not find enough qualified teachers to replace the substitutes, and there were a lot of public criticism concerning the policy.

For example, the short video below features a rural substitute teacher from Sichuan province who had been teaching for 20 years in a primary school and was laid off once a few years ago and about to be laid-off again in 2010. As substitute teacher had not contract protection, she was totally passive in the layoff process. All these years, her family lived in poverty and her husband had to work downtown to support's the family basic living expenses:

In order to address the grievances, the Ministry of Education issued a document in 2011 that demanded local authorities to compensate substitute teachers according to their years of service. When compared to others who was laid off before 2011, Cheng Xinggui was supposed to be lucky because the new document entitled him to receive 21,165 yuan (3,458 US dollars) in compensation, calculated at 830 yuan for 25.5 months (25.5 years of service).

However, eight years of his pay slips went missing. Local education authorities considered other evidence that he presented as invalid.

Feeling humiliated and unrecognized, Cheng protested with his life. One month after his suicide, local authorities finally recognized his 25 years of teaching experience.

On Sina Weibo, the most popular microblogging platform in China, many expressed their sorrow over Cheng's suicide and the woes of rural substitute teachers.

@LFGL1205 remembered one of his primary school teachers:

我的家乡广东省化州市合江镇沙垌岭小学也有一位代课老师叫刘付建英,是我幼时的老师,早几年退休了,只拿每月100多的退休金,现在年轻的代课老师都转正了,工资都有2000多,过年回家见到他,说起人事,感觉很凄凉,据说政府现在算他的工齡才几年,真的好无语,很理解这个程兴贵,太难接受这个落差了。

I remembered a substitute teacher named Liufu Jianying in Sha Tong Ling primary school located in Hejiang Town, Huazhou county of Guangdong province. He was my teacher when I was a kid. He retired a few years ago, getting 100 yuan [about 16 US dollars] as pension every month. Nowadays, the majority of young substitute teachers get their teacher's license and earn 2,000 yuan [about 325 US dollars] a month. Whenever I return to my hometown, we talk about the past and feel his sorrow. He said the government only counted a few years of his teaching experience when calculating his pension. I don't know how to react [to his miserable condition]. I truly understand Cheng Xinggui’s behavior, it is too hard to accept the unjust reality.

@melo believed that what mattered to Cheng was not money but the lack of recognition:

也许钱并不是最重要的,一生就这样被抹去,才会有程兴贵用生命去证明。

Perhaps, it is not money that mattered [to Cheng]. The value of his whole life was erased [by the authorities], that's why he used his life to prove [his value as a teacher].

“Plain water 3477375174″ (@小微的力量白开水3477375174) pointed out that society owes the substitute teachers and the government should pay the debt:

一个负责任的政府,应该努力解决他的欠帐,但我们丝毫看不到这种迹象。今天是代课教师、赤脚医生,明天又会是谁。呼吁国家彻底解决代课教师和赤脚医生的待遇和养老问题

A responsible government should make every effort to pay its debts, but we don't see such efforts. Today [the victims] are substitute teachers and barefoot doctors [non professional doctors who serve the rural community], who will be [the victims] tomorrow? I appeal to the country to completely solve the problems related with substitute teachers and barefoot doctors, [raise their] salary and [give them proper] pension.

Some bloggers were critical towards the Ministry of Education's policy in laying off all the substitute teachers, known as the so-called Qing Tui (清退) policy.

Blogger “A-solider” wrote on his blog:

从这个意义讲,代课教师程兴贵的自杀,应该引发对拷问’清退’质量的全面拷问,来催发相关部门在对待代课教师问题上及时纠偏,弥合相关制度断裂,体现更多的公共关怀,让代课教师在离开讲台后,都能获得一种既体面优有尊严的人生。

In this sense, the suicide of Cheng Xinggui should trigger introspection on the Qing Tui policy in order to help the government fix the unfair treatment given to the substitute teachers, to improve and to show humanistic care and make sure that substitute teachers can live a good and dignified life after they leave their teaching position.

Microblogger @ntheatre wrote:

尽管程兴贵自杀的背景涉及全国的数以十万计代课教师的补偿政策,但此前并无媒体报道。代课教师的利益诉求是什么,一刀切的政策是否恰当,也未能成为公共领域的话题.念及代课教师在特殊年代对乡村教育所付出的辛劳,以及他们受到损害的现状,这种忽视无疑是遗憾的.

Until now, none of the mainstream media has reported any issue related to the compensation policy for the substitute teachers across the country. So far, there is no discussion in the public sphere about the demands of substitute teachers and if they find the lay-off policy appropriate. Taking into the consideration their contribution to rural education and the long-term exploitation of their work, it is highly regretful that [their demands and views] have been neglected all along.

[The thumbnail photo is the portrait of Cheng Xinggui]

The number one cause for suicide is untreated depression. Depression is treatable and suicide is preventable. You can get help from confidential support lines for the suicidal and those in emotional crisis. Visit Befrienders.org to find a suicide prevention helpline in your country.

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