BEIJING — A moneymaking scheme for a high school in the town of Pingjiang in Hunan Province went sour this spring when the school tried to turn a profit by reselling five tons of apples.
The school had hoped to sell the fruit to private vendors, but they refused to buy. So, teachers set up street stalls. When that proved insufficient, classes were canceled for two days and every student was assigned to sell 11 pounds of fruit.
"The streets were filled with people hawking apples, and people asked disapprovingly, 'What kind of school teaches students to make money?' " reported the Guangming Daily, a newspaper aimed at intellectuals.
The school, which had hoped to raise money for teachers' bonuses and food subsidies, ended up losing 2,100 yuan ($566) because many apples rotted before they could be sold.
The effort, however, reflected a nationwide trend in which educational institutions and individual scholars are being encouraged to earn money on the side.
The new policy aims at increasing the funds available for education without adding to the strain on national and local government budgets. It also is seen as a way to bring the talents of intellectuals into more rapid service toward economic growth and to allow them to raise their living standards through their own efforts.
General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, head of the Communist Party, endorsed the idea this spring during a session of the National People's Congress. By offering such services, he said, schools can increase their income and improve teachers' pay.
"We should not give up paid services just because of some difficulties and problems that might crop up in the endeavor," Zhao said.
Some educational institutions, especially scientific and technical universities, have already found ways to bring in large sums of money.
Critics, however, worry that the government is not giving education the support needed to train a generation capable of modernizing China. Debate over the idea also is influenced by an ancient tradition of respect for scholars and the related view that profit-oriented activity is beneath their dignity.
"Chinese intellectuals used to shy away from anything commercial," the official newspaper China Daily commented recently. "Whether or not they were aware of the profits which could be created out of their brain bank, they refused to be tradesmen. That has been the case for thousands of years in China, but now the tide seems to be turning."
Selling Boiled Eggs
The official New China News Agency recently reported a controversy in Shanghai that arose when teachers began selling boiled eggs and ice cream to their students.
Earlier this year, according to the report, municipal authorities started encouraging schools to engage in profit-making outside services. Selling snacks to students apparently was not what they had in mind, but the incident still provoked discussion about the entire program.
"Teachers should devote all their energy to educating the younger generation," commented Yu Qi, a teacher quoted in the report. "If they go into business, there will be serious consequences."
Zhao Xianchu, described in the article as one of the city's top educators, offered the view--widely held among intellectuals--that "teachers are not paid according to the importance of their work and should be paid more."
High school teachers typically earn no more than $25 a month, roughly three-quarters of the wages of a factory worker. Monthly salaries at universities range from about $30 for young instructors to about $80 for top professors.
A group of Beijing University students, in an attempt to ridicule the whole idea of intellectuals taking side jobs to earn money, brought shoeshine kits to Tian An Men Square in central Beijing during this spring's National People's Congress session. They said they wanted to offer to shine the delegates' shoes, but police escorted them out of the square before they could carry out the plan.
The poor living conditions and low pay of intellectuals was a major topic of discussion at the congress. One delegate, in a statement that has been widely quoted in the Chinese press, declared that teachers and intellectuals today receive salaries with purchasing power equal to only one-tenth of what their counterparts received before the 1949 Communist Revolution.
The national government boosted spending on education by 12% this year, bringing it to $6.9 billion, but this will not make a significant change in the overall situation, according to a report in the China Daily.
Thus, government officials ranging from Zhao on down are stressing for-pay outside services as the key to raising the living and working conditions of teachers and professors. Such income earned by educational institutions from outside services generally is tax free, and individuals, even when they do earn extra from such services, usually do not make enough to reach the level at which income tax is levied.