During the early Communist era in China, rudimentary schooling was provided free to the nation's children as part of the so-called "iron rice bowl" welfare system. It was not fancy, but at least it was free. But when economic reform took hold in the Eighties, the schools found themselves desperate for money. State funding was no longer sufficient, and even when money was available it was often illegally diverted by local governments away from schools and into speculative business schemes. Across the country, including the poorest areas, parents were suddenly introduced to a new concept - the bill for school fees.
Aware of growing resentment, especially in poor rural regions, China has now launched a nationwide inspection of all schools to stop widespread overcharging of fees. It is commonplace for parents to be charged for anything from tuition, books, desk space, electricity and heating, even to rubbish disposal.
The government is alarmed at the large number of children, especially girls, in poor rural areas who have dropped out of school because of illegal fees charged by a rundown rural education system. The inspection of fees in primary and middle schools will "protect social stability," the People's Daily said last month.
While China has become much richer over the past decade, government spending has slowly declined as a proportion of gross national product to just 2.46 per cent in 1995, well below the target of 4 per cent. And not all that money ends up where it should; the State Education Commission earlier this year accused officials of diverting money to "the construction of auditoriums, amusement halls, [and] hotels". Last June, according to the National People's Congress, unpaid teachers' salaries amounted to 290 million yuan (pounds 23.2m).
By law, children should have at least nine years' education in China, but in rural areas this is rarely the reality. Kang is now a very short and thin 13-year-old. He has only one set of clothes - a dirty jacket, frayed trousers, and an old waistcoat with broken buttons. He must go the whole winter without washing, because there is only the freezing river. But in one important respect, Kang's life has taken a big step in the right direction: he now goes to a proper school.
Since it opened last year, Kang has attended the charity-aided Pinghu Hope School in Chenguan township, just five miles from his home in the impoverished north of Shaanxi province. This is part of Project Hope, a state-backed charity set up in 1989 to get drop-outs back to school, especially in the countryside. Project Hope has opened more than 2,500 rural schools mostly in north-west and south-west China, and claims to have returned 1.25 million children to the classroom.
The three-storey Pinghu school was sponsored by a township in Shenzhen, the booming southern region next to Hong Kong. It put in 300,000 yuan (pounds 24,000), and the Ansai county government provided double that amount. Now the school has almost 1,000 pupils between seven and thirteen years old, two-thirds of them from local peasant villages.
Gao Qi, a teacher, said: "In the past, before this school, some children only finished grade three or four, and then dropped out."
The headteacher, Yang Ting, 39, added: "It is because parents do not think that education is very important. And because of poverty, so the kids just help the parents working in the household or field instead of going to school."
The Hope schools, one likes to assume, are the least likely to be ripping off their students by charging extra fees. The official rate at Pinghu is 28 yuan (pounds 2) per term for tuition, and about 40 yuan (pounds 3) a year for textbooks. But even this apparently low level of charges is not negligible in an area where, according to the headmaster, annual per capita income is just 800 yuan (pounds 64). In this very poor area of China, Pinghu school still relies on parents to provide one-third of the annual budget through their fees. Young Kang said that his parents still found it "difficult" to pay.
Nor has Pinghu escaped financial constraints. There are at least 60 children per class, and the teachers all have to share one workroom. The headmaster groaned: "We don't have enough classrooms, and if we employ more teachers we will have financial difficulties. We can't get more money from the county government."
Young Kang, however, is one satisfied customer who now has a goal which would have been unthinkable 18 months ago. "My family will try their best to send me to middle school," he boasted.