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Many Lives Touched by Diary of Young Chinese Girl - 2003-11-03

When Ma Yan's illiterate and impoverished mother pressed a diary written by her 14 year-old daughter into the hands of a French journalist, she had no idea that she was about to transform not only her own family's life, but also the lives of dozens of others in China's remote north-western Ningxia province. A little more than a year later, the young girl's very personal story made it to the bestseller list in France and has now been published in approximately 16 countries around the world.

In Beijing recently, crowds gathered at the launch for a long awaited book from an unlikely source. The diaries of 14-year-old Ma Yan, a school girl from China's remote Ningxia province are already popular overseas and now, two years later, Chinese people have the chance to read them too.

The barely mature voice of this 14-year-old girl from the wind-swept arid plains of China's northwest, talks about the pains of growing up on the forgotten fringes of the country.

Her intimate journal is a virtual plea for the right to education. Her family is too poor to help her escape the uniform destiny of many peasant women - dropping out of school and getting married very early.

At the launch, Ma Yan wept as she told the audience about a friend who was forced to leave school in the fifth grade and is now married with a baby. Often, parents are forced to choose which of their children will be allowed to continue studying, usually allowing boys to stay in school while girls are forced to marry into other families.

Ma Yan's story was no different. Just before her diary was handed to a French journalist traveling through her village, she had been told by her parents that they could no longer afford to send her to school.

Weeks later, after the journalist returned to Beijing, he had excerpts of Ma Yan's diary published in the French daily newspaper, Libération. He then returned to the Ma Yan's village to convince her family to allow him to publish the entire diary in France. It soon became the hot property of many publishing houses in Europe and Japan.

Each year, millions of children in the impoverished areas of rural China fight to remain in school -- even in the first nine years of China's supposedly compulsory education system. Lack of money to subsidize rural education has had serious consequences.

In Ma Yan's case, the government supplies the building and the salary of the teachers, but the parents are left to pay for everything else, ranging from teaching supplies and boarding fees to the school's heat and electricity.

One Ministry of Education study last year found that five out of seven children in a region of China's central Anhui province had dropped out of school because they could not afford to pay tuition fees.

United Nations human rights official , Katarina Tomasevski was invited by the Chinese government to rate China's compliance with its international human rights obligations in education. She criticized the Chinese government for taking advantage of the fact that most parents will go into debt to keep their children in school.

"The government of China is in a fairly comfortable position relying on the fact that most parents will do whatever they can to provide the best possible education for their children, which makes the life of the government very easy," says Ms. Tomasevski. "It can mismanage budgetary allocations because parents will always step in and provide as much as they can."

Ms. Tomasevski argued that the Chinese government needed to increase its allocation of funding from the current level of 2 percent of its gross domestic product to 6 percent -- the minimum amount recommended by the United Nations. Most developing countries are able to contribute 4 percent.

Gerard Postiglione, a visiting fellow at Yale University, has completed several studies on rural education in China. He says that education funding became a casualty when China began to liberalize its economic policy in the 1980s. "As soon as the system opened up, the economic changes affected the relationship between the central government and the local governments in the sense that the central government no longer supplied and guaranteed the kind of finances that occurred," he says.

Although he agrees that the government must increase the proportion of China's gross national product that goes toward education, Dr. Postiglione also calls on higher levels of government to take the responsibility of providing quality education, instead of leaving the task to bankrupt rural townships.

There are signs that the Chinese government is taking this criticism to heart. In September, China's Education Minister, Zhou Ji, promised to tackle the school fee problem by ensuring teacher's salaries and eliminating "random charges at primary and middle schools".

Back in Beijing, the success of Ma Yan's book continues to grow. A charity, the Children of Ningxia, has been started in France to provide scholarships to more than 50 needy students in Ma Yan's village, most of them girls.