An incident earlier this year in which two schoolteachers in Guizhou Province were swept away and drowned while collecting pebbles—reportedly at the behest of their superiors, who hoped to spruce up the campus in advance of an inspection visit by higher-level cadres—has revived discussion of the various ways in which teachers are exploited as free labor, weaponized to intimidate the parents of students, and roped into service as grassroots policy enforcers. (The incident also spawned a cover-up, the beating of a visiting journalist by local police, an official investigation, punishments meted out to police officers, and a rare public debate about the rights of reporters and the importance of investigative journalism.)
Chinese teachers have long been expected to perform various tasks beyond their main remit of teaching, but those duties snowballed during the pandemic as teachers played a large role in on-the-ground enforcement of “zero-COVID” pandemic policies. Those burdens, combined with educational policy changes such as a crackdown on the private tutoring industry, have led to an increase in teacher burnout and a decrease in their overall mental health. As Sixth Tone reported, “A study published [in 2021] found that over 75% of Chinese teachers experienced moderate to severe anxiety, while 34.4% of primary school teachers and 28.3% of middle school teachers are at high risk of suffering depression. The problem has become so prevalent, it was even mentioned during this year’s ‘Two Sessions.’”
Teachers have been required, variously, to help implement AI behavioral analysis in elementary school classrooms, to “reduce effeminacy” in male students by holding more gym classes, to nag parents about complying with various health and safety regulations, and even, as a CDT translation last year recorded, to bolster numbers and monitor conduct during inspection visits by high-ranking political leaders. Elementary school and junior high school teachers, in particular, struggle under the weight of so many extraneous tasks.
A recent article from Xiang Dongliang, a popular science blogger and current-events commentator who writes under the WeChat public account “Basic Common Sense,” explores the untenable burdens placed on China’s elementary and junior high school teachers:
In advance of a school inspection by visiting cadres, six junior high school teachers [see note below] trekked out to a nearby riverbed to collect pebbles. They did so at the behest of their superiors, who had tasked the teachers with sprucing up the school grounds with pebbles and other local, decorative elements before the visit. Unfortunately, a hydroelectric power station upstream suddenly opened its floodgates, releasing a deluge that swept away and drowned two of the teachers.
Those not familiar with the lot of an elementary or junior high school teacher [in China] today might find this story inconceivable. The job of a teacher is to educate—how could they possibly be ordered to go out and collect pebbles?
In fact, elementary and junior high school teachers are expected to perform a multitude of far more tedious and arduous tasks. Theoretically, the job of a teacher is to educate and impart knowledge, but nowadays, teachers spend most of their time filling out forms.
Teachers as Policy Enforcers
Perhaps you assume that during the three-year COVID pandemic, all of those pandemic prevention and control measures—nucleic acid tests, vaccinations, restrictions on traveling between cities or provinces—were implemented by security guards or white-hazmat-suited pandemic workers. If you do, it just goes to show that you lack an understanding of the real situation on the ground.
The main force behind the implementation of pandemic policy in China was teachers. From kindergarten to college, from homeroom teachers to gym teachers, all levels of government agencies leveraged their power over teachers—whose livelihoods they oversee—to carry out pandemic policy and thus exercise complete control over hundreds of millions of Chinese families.
Let’s say you’re told you need to take a COVID test. You may respond that there’s no need: you won’t be leaving the house anyway, so what does it matter if your health code is yellow or red? No problem, right? Wrong. Anyone with a kid in school was required to upload a screenshot of their COVID test results to the class WeChat group, once every 48 hours, like clockwork. No one would have dared put it off until day three.
Or say you have a business meeting with a client in another province, and millions of yuan are potentially on the line. It’s well worth the trip, even if you’re forced to quarantine for seven days when you get back. Should be fine, right? Wrong. Not if you have a kid in school. Your itinerary code had better be clean as a whistle.
What if some of your elderly family members aren’t willing to get the vaccine? No can do. Because the teachers have given your kids a homework assignment that involves begging grandpa and grandma to please, please get the vaccine. Now, what kind of grandparent wouldn’t want to help their grandkids with that kind of homework?
Behind the scenes are elementary and junior high school teachers, putting in a huge amount of work to make sure things run smoothly. They’re gathering and recording information, checking up on everyone and sending out reminders, filling out and submitting forms, and much more. And what’s worse, it has to be done day in and day out, again and again, with no end in sight.
The reality is, if you are a provincial government needing to implement a wide-ranging COVID policy for every household in your jurisdiction, it would be impossible to work down the various levels of bureaucracy—city, district, subdistrict, and neighborhood—especially if you’re aiming for 100% compliance. A much more efficient channel is the educational system. The responsibility inevitably falls on the shoulders of teachers.
And it isn’t just pandemic policy. Some teachers are even tasked with collecting medical insurance fees for workplaces and rural cooperatives.
Another example is anti-fraud campaigns. Authorities carrying out these anti-fraud campaigns may want everyone in their jurisdiction to download and install an anti-fraud app. So how do they go about making it happen? Delegate the job to teachers. Have teachers tell parents that installing the app is mandatory, and that they must take a screenshot as proof and upload it to the class group chat. Some teachers will even try to wheedle parents into recruiting several more people to download and install the app. Are you really going to say no to that kind of request from your kid’s teacher?
Authorities in charge of “civilizing” one city wanted to promote the use of safety helmets among e-bike riders. How did they do it? Again, they delegated it to teachers. Teachers informed families with e-bikes that they had to buy helmets, then take and upload photos of their helmets as proof of compliance. When parents picked up their kids from school, teachers were there at the school gate, watching to make sure that everyone was wearing their helmets.
The more broad-based and difficult-to-implement a policy, the more likely it is that the implementation will fall to teachers. Given how incredibly useful they are, teachers have become the reflexive, go-to choice of authorities of all levels of government.
Whether or not teachers have enough time to complete all of these tasks isn’t the concern of the government departments doling out the work. Each individual department only makes one or two such requests per year, after all. What’s a few minutes here and there for the greater good of society?
But teachers must juggle requests from dozens of different government departments. As a result, even working from morning to night, there are simply not enough hours in the day to complete all these tasks—most of which have nothing to do with the actual job of teaching.
Teachers as a Source of Free Labor
Perhaps you think it stops there—that at least the things they are being asked to do are for the greater good of society. Far from it!
Teachers comprise the vast, highly-educated bottom rung of the educational system hierarchy—perfect for conscripting into the ranks of the pro-government online “troll army.”
The most common of their tasks in this capacity is internet commentary. For example, teachers are often required to share, comment on, and “like” specific content. If something positive happens from the point of view of the local authorities, teachers are told to share and “like” the news, then take and upload screenshots. If something negative happens, teachers must join the discourse, squaring off against unhappy netizens in the comment sections of all the major websites.
Compared to paying professional internet lackeys 50 cents a post, deputizing teachers is not only free, but also guarantees a large volume of high-quality posts.
In addition to serving as online commentators, teachers are also burdened with all manner of offline, real-world tasks. A lot of official assessment work requires hand-written surveys. There may be hundreds or thousands of these surveys generated in any given city. Oftentimes, this work falls on the heads of teachers.
In some places, teachers are even asked to serve as “background players” during important meetings or conventions, to bolster attendance figures and fill empty seats.
Of course, teachers inevitably complain about having to perform these extraneous tasks, but what recourse do they have? Their teaching assignments, bonuses, and subsidies are all in the hands of their superiors. What teacher would dare disobey?
And what government agency could resist utilizing such a convenient pool of free labor?
Teachers as a Weapon for Controlling Parents
In addition to the aforementioned routine tasks, teachers are sometimes asked to perform stability-maintenance work at certain critical junctures.
For problems such as stalled residential housing projects, environmental pollution, demolition disputes, or criminal cases, sometimes simply dispatching a relative who works in the civil service to “placate” the aggrieved, or assigning a teacher to serve as an “advisor” can yield miraculous results.
Please forgive me for being unable to provide specific examples for this. [Citing specific examples of such politically sensitive cases would likely have caused the post to be censored, hence the author’s omission.]
The cumulative result of these myriad extra tasks is that teachers are completely overburdened with work outside of their original mission—teaching. Too much of their time is being wasted filling out endless forms and reports. It’s a miserable situation.
Real elementary or junior high school teachers would not be the least bit surprised to hear that some of their compatriots had been sent out to a riverbed to collect pebbles.
But in response to media questioning, the local bureau of education insisted: “It is untrue that the teachers were ordered to collect pebbles in preparation for a school inspection visit. Going out to play on the riverbed was a private activity of the teachers.”
Does it not prick their conscience to spout such brazen lies? [Chinese]
Translation by Little Bluegill.
Note: The translation corrects a factual error in the original Chinese post—the two teachers who drowned were junior high school teachers, not elementary school teachers.