Caixin Magazine: Scott Rozelle, Not Just a Spectator

Caixin Magazine features REAP co-director Scott Rozelle, who has been researching and supporting policy change in China for the last 30 years.  This article was translated and reprinted with permission from Caixin Magazine.  Read the original article here.


January 15, 2015

By spending time not only in the ivory towers of academia but also experiencing life in the field, he has been able to create more real change in Chinese society than the vast majority of researchers.


"He’s more Chinese than Chinese people," say those who know him well.

He is development economist Scott Rozelle. 2014 marks the 30th year since he first came to China’s mainland. In the last 30 years, he went from being a graduate student to a faculty member at the University of California, Davis and then Stanford University, and was awarded the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ International Science and Technology Collaboration Award and the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs’ China Friendship Award.

He has spent approximately a third of the last 30 years in China. The affinity he shares with China began in 1966.

Lasting Bonds With China

Born in 1955, Rozelle was only 12 years old at the time. The junior high school he attended happened to be one of only a few in the United States to offer Chinese language courses. At that time, Sino-US relations still had not normalized, but the US government saw the opportunity to build a relationship of mutual understanding with China.  The US government therefore sought to prepare for the re-opening of Sino-US relations by improving education in Chinese.  This Chinese language program was the starting point at which Rozelle was first exposed to the Chinese world.

In 1974, Rozelle, an undergraduate at Cornell University, took part in a student exchange program to Taiwan to learn Chinese. "At first I had planned to stay for three months, but I ultimately ended up staying for three years,” he told Caixin reporters.

On January 1, 1979, the People's Republic of China formally established diplomatic relations with the United States. That year, Rozelle, now pursuing his Master’s Degree at Cornell, applied for funding from the US National Science Foundation to go to Shandong, China in 1982 to research the system of contract labor in rural areas. However, these plans did not come to fruition, and he temporarily left school to work for several years instead.

A new opportunity appeared for Rozelle in 1984, when Nanjing Agricultural University invited Cornell University to send an instructor to China to teach Western economics. Rozelle’s advisor immediately thought of him. "Can’t Scott speak Chinese? He can go!"

Thus, Rozelle came to China and became the first foreign exchange student accepted into the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Institute of Agricultural Development, to study and to gather data. Since the 1980s, he has maintained friendships with many Chinese economists.

At the same time, he was also pursuing his PhD at Cornell. He was deeply interested in poverty alleviation in rural areas, but he believed that because the dividends of institutional reforms and the free market manufacturing were only temporary, long-term development had to rely on new technology. Therefore, he chose hybrid rice production as his doctoral dissertation topic, "I just wanted to figure out why some farmers are willing to use hybrid rice while others did not? How do they decide?"

To answer this question, he visited various rural villages throughout northern Jiangsu and Hubei to conduct interviews and research,  conducted interviews throughout various rural villages in northern Jiangsu and Hubei, yet was unable to find an answer.  Finally, while in Hubei, a young official in the local education bureau who had just graduated from university told him, "There is no relationship between the farmer and the decision to grow hybrid rice or not. The decision lies with the head of the village or the other leaders who fall under his jurisdiction. They are the ones who decide.”

Struck by this sudden realization, Rozelle used this perspective to understand the logic behind individual choice, economic production and power dynamics among leaders in China, and ultimately completed his doctoral dissertation on “The Economic Behavior of China’s Village Leaders.”

Between the Ivory Tower and the Field

In 1990, Rozelle travelled to the Philippines to attend a meeting organized by the International Rice Research Institute, he got to know a young agricultural economist named Jikun Huang, who was a visiting scholar in Manila at the time. This marked the beginning of nearly twenty-five years of collaboration between the two. After Huang returned home, he and Rozelle both searched eagerly for funds that would eventually allow them to jointly open and run the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy.

Since the mid-1990s, together they have observed the repeated reforms in China’s agricultural market, and witnessed the changes as farmers have left their land to invest in village businesses or move to cities to work.  The research center also investigates agricultural expansion, rural development, agricultural technology and other related topics. The center’s policy recommendations have garnered increased attention from leaders of the Ministry of Agriculture and the State Council.

In 2000, the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy became part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and was therefore able to directly submit policy recommendations to upper-level decision makers.  According to the Rural Education Action Program (REAP), a research team affiliated with the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy, between 2009 and 2012, the center submitted 34 policy briefs to the State Council.  Of these policy briefs, 31 have been adopted and 25 have received comment from deputy- and higher-level government officials.

To Rozelle, engaging in academic research, influencing policy change, and improving the real situation in poverty-stricken areas are not mutually exclusive, but in fact function together simultaneously. By spending time not only in the ivory towers of academia but also experiencing life in the field, he has been able to create more real change in Chinese society than the vast majority of China researchers from the West.

"My role in this has changed, from a scholar to now a kind of advocate," the nearly 60-year-old Rozelle--with a head of silver hair and a weathered yet joyful face--jokes,  "I’m too old to publish more papers anyway."

The Goal is to Solve Practical Problems

That being said, in his academic career Rozelle has published more than 300 articles on Chinese development problems, all of which have relied on rigorous experimentation, comparison, and statistical analysis. Rozelle recalls when he first threw himself into development economics in the 1980s it was still a relatively new discipline on the international scene, and was therefore an almost exclusively theoretical construct.  Empirical study was not introduced into the discipline until the 1990s.  For Rozelle, the purpose of experimentation is not simply to meets the standards of academic research, but to find the most efficient and cost-effective solutions to real-world problems.

While Rozelle’s team gathered research in Shaanxi, Gansu, Qinghai, Ningxia, and other areas, they found that nearly 40 percent of fourth and fifth grade students in northwest regions of the Northwest were suffering from iron deficiency anemia. Iron deficiency anemia has led to unhealthy development among rural children, causing them to be in poor health and weakening cognition, and preventing them from competing on an even academic playing field with children from rural areas.  Through his visits to many rural villages, Rozelle discovered that the meals of rural children were composed primarily of rice, noodles, and steamed buns, and severely lacked meat and fresh fruit and vegetables.  “Almost 70% of parents understand that to raise a piglet into a healthy, plump pig, a certain amount of micronutrients are needed, but not even a third of parents believe that babies also need them.”

Now that the central government is aware of this problem, it has decided to grant 3 to 4 yuan per day for each child living in poor areas to begin eating healthy lunches.  However, Rozelle and his team estimate that for each child to consume the necessary amount of iron, they need to eat two servings of meat and fresh vegetables everyday, which would cost at least 8 to 9 yuan.  Schools would also have to add cafeterias, hire more cooks, and take on additional expenses.  Taking into account the budgets, facilities, and feasibility of implementation in poor areas, Rozelle proposed a different plan: the most cost-effective method to combat iron deficiency anemia is to provide vitamin tablets to rural children.  Each tablet costs only 20 to 30 cents and provides the same amount of iron as meat and vegetables.

Rozelle recognized that children should not have to rely on vitamin tablets everyday to survive, but this is nevertheless the safest, most effective, and inexpensive way to provide iron and other micronutrients. Not only would special subsidies for these vitamins be easy to regulate, there would also be low wastage during the implementation process, and no additional facilities are required.  “If this plan is successfully implemented, malnutrition among children in rural China will soon become a thing of the past."

Rozelle and his team have often seen that in the course of solving one problem they discover yet another.

For example, while working to improve nutrition and educational efficiency, Rozelle realized that in Guizhou province and other southern regions with similar climates, several million school-aged children may be suffering from intestinal parasites.  In his initial investigation, Rozelle found that 50 percent of school children were infected with one or more parasites, including roundworm, hookworm, and whipworm.  As early as 2010, Rozelle and his team reported on this problem, pointing out the depth of the issue to relevant government leaders.  Three years later, when Rozelle again travelled to Guizhou, he found that situation had in no way improved.  He continued to draw attention to the importance and simplicity of preventing and curing intestinal worm infection, “Children only need to take two deworming tablets every six months, each tablet costs only 2 yuan, and within one or two days you can see results.  In one year, for only 8 yuan a child can be freed from suffering from intestinal parasites.

Another way to improve the learning efficiency of rural children--that, in Rozelle’s mind, is critical--is to protect their eyesight.  According to his data, on average, 30 percent of China’s 10- to 12-year-old students suffer from myopia, or nearsightedness.  However, in the thousands of primary schools that Rozelle visited in villages throughout China, he had very rarely seen students wearing glasses; in middle schools of 100 or more students, only one or two would be wearing glasses.  He eventually concluded that in China, 57 percent of middle school students and 24 percent of primary school students failed to receive timely treatment for their vision problems.  Furthermore, among rural children and the children of migrant workers, only one in seven had glasses.  Whether or not students were appropriately wearing glasses had a huge impact on their learning outcomes.  After putting on glasses, some weak students jumped to medium academic standing.  On average, student scores increased 10 percent when given glasses.

Rozelle approached lens manufacturers and managed to receive more than 8,000 pairs of free glasses to distribute.  However, his research also showed that even when given free, high-quality glasses, only 35 percent of students would regularly wear them.  Finally, he found a “best practice” to ensure that students wore their glasses--giving teachers incentives.  In an experiment he designed, Rozelle found that by simply offering teachers an iPad if their students wore glasses appropriately, the teachers would continuously supervise and exhort their students to wear their glasses, and uptake increased to 80 percent.  In contrast, in classes in which teachers were not offered incentives, only 9 percent of students wore their glasses.

From nutrition to vision and anemia to parasites, Rozelle realized that many small details were affecting the effectiveness of education policies for the poor. In Rozelle’s words, while the Chinese government has already invested several billion yuan in improving facilities, raising teacher salaries, and other programs, if students are not healthy enough to study, “then the huge amount that has already been invested is likely to go to waste.”  

Turning Toward Health and Education

In recent years, Rozelle has extended his interest in poverty in rural China beyond his initial focus on agricultural policy to two other key areas: health and education.  The structure of China’s educational system and prospects for mobility in the system are causes of concern.  “75 percent of the five-year-olds in China live in rural areas.  But in rural areas, only 37 percent of students graduate high school.”  As a result, will there be an adequate supply of skilled workers to fuel China’s economic transformation and industrial upgrade?

Rozelle uses the example of European garment industry workers to illustrate his point: European workers must have a grasp of mathematics, language, computer skills, and other fundamental knowledge in order to do their jobs, and their salaries can reach 11 euros per hour.  But when he tested young Chinese factory workers using a fifth grade exam, “60 percent of workers couldn’t pass math, 70 percent failed Chinese, and English is not even worth mentioning.”  Rozelle worries that in the future young workers such as these will be unable to enter the ranks of the high-income labor force after China’s economic transformation. “This is not ten or twenty million people, its three or four hundred million people.  This is the future of China’s population.”

He also cautions that China's current education system is very similar to Mexico’s in the 1980s.  From the mid-1970s to 1980, Mexico’s and South Korea’s economic growth rates and industrial composition were almost identical.  However, throughout the 1980s to the late 1990s the development trajectories of the two countries changed.  In South Korea--where almost everyone received a high school education--the economy smoothly continued to improve.  In contrast, following the exodus of the low-level manufacturing industry, a large portion of the labor force was insufficiently educated to turn to high productivity positions in the service sector or innovative industries, causing Mexico to sink into the “middle-income trap.”

Rozelle also compared vocational training in China and Germany.  He believes that German vocational training emphasizes building foundational knowledge and cultivating learning ability as the best way to prepare individuals for future technology and skills.  “Chinese vocational training focuses excessively on training for a single occupation, training workers in only in skills that currently in demand but can be outdated in the blink of an eye.”

In December 2014, the Ministry of Education finally issued a document setting forth strict rules declaring that in addition to teaching technical skills, vocational schools also have to teach language, mathematics, English, computer skills, physical education, history, and other common fundamental courses.  In vocational middle schools these basic classes should take up one third of total instruction time, and in vocational high schools these courses must make up no less than one quarter of total instruction.

After having worked with people on the ground in China for the last three decades, Rozelle does not begrudge praise for Chinese officials, especially basic-level cadres; “many of them are hard-working, intelligent, and eager to do good.”  However, Rozelle is occasionally dismayed by the excessive misgivings of officials in some areas.  In Qinghai province, while carrying out an experiment to test the effectiveness of computer-assisted learning software in helping Tibetan students to learn Mandarin.  Although “the local governor liked it very much,” due to his American citizenship and the foreign background of those in the Rural Education Action Program team, his research was temporarily halted. “Let’s take a break for a semester, then see if we can start again.”  In the next two days, Rozelle rushed to Shangluo, in Shaanxi province.  There, he and the National Health and Family Planning Commission started a new experiment.  This experiment prepares for the future transformation and training of rural cadres responsible for enforcing the One Child Policy, and enable them to become trainers in charge of educating village families--especially grandparents raising migrant children--in accurate information about child development and skills for raising babies.

Rozelle said, "I have heard too many grandparents in rural China ask me in surprise, ‘why should we talk to an infant? Why should we sing to them? Why should we give them toys to play with?’” He found that by the age of four, a significant IQ gap had already appeared between rural children--who in the first four months after birth lack sufficient stimuli--and urban children--whose parents interacted with them from a young age.

"We all say that we cannot let children lose before they get to the starting line. This starting line begins much earlier than we thought," Rozelle said.