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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:


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:


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:


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:


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:


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 to find a suicide prevention helpline in your country.

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