Stanford researcher's lifelong focus on China leads to fixes for the country's poorest

As China's economy continues to surge, developmental economist Scott Rozelle keeps his attention on the 50 million still in poverty. With the Rural Education Action Project, he's improved conditions – and opportunities – for rural children left behind in China's boom.

Scott Rozelle's journey to China began 44 years ago in the Los Angeles suburb of Bellflower, when seventh-graders at Washington Junior High School were offered Chinese language classes. His father – who spent part of his military career in Shanghai – encouraged the 12-year-old to sign up.

Rozelle fell in love with the language of the faraway country and stories of its Warlord Era told by a teacher who was born and raised in Peking. As he continued to learn the intricacies of Chinese tones and characters through high school and college, Rozelle became fascinated with the country itself. And by the time he decided on a career as a developmental economist, it was obvious there was no better place than China to base his work.

"China is the ultimate laboratory for an economist to study development," says Rozelle, a senior fellow at Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. "It's developing so fast that you see it before your eyes. You can measure things that you can't measure anywhere else."

Rozelle did his first round of fieldwork in China in 1987 as a 31-year-old doctoral candidate at Cornell University studying the economics of hybrid rice. He visited 700 households spread over seven villages in two rural provinces to ask farmers why they were growing certain strains of rice. Were they cheaper than other varieties? Were they hardier? Did they grow faster?

After hundreds of interviews, he finally realized the answer: The village leaders told every farmer what type of rice to grow. Nobody had a choice.

"I thought I was out there studying household economics," Rozelle says. "But that had nothing to do with it. My blood turned cold when I figured it out."

At that point, he began to pay more attention to how the fates of Chinese citizens were so closely tied to the whims and policies of the government. These people were living and working in an environment different from anywhere else in the world, he realized.

As China's fortunes have grown and the country sits in second-place among the world's economies, its citizens have largely prospered. The number of people living in poverty has fallen from about 350 million to less than 50 million in the past three decades.

But those 50 million are the ones Rozelle is so interested in. How do you lift them from destitution and allow them to share in China's rising prosperity?

The question and the answers it forces are at the heart of the Rural Education Action Project, a group co-directed by Rozelle and spearheaded by Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute and the university's schools of Medicine and Education.

By collaborating with Chinese government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, private corporations and individual donors, REAP chips away at poverty by introducing and assessing programs meant to improve the lives and opportunities of preschool and school-age children in some of China's poorest, most far-flung areas.

Since its founding in 2007, the group has submitted 10 "policy briefs" to government officials that have resulted in state-sponsored programs and policy changes for improving children's health and nutrition, making education more affordable, reducing school drop-out rates and boosting overall student performance.

REAP is now involved in a slew of new projects. Rozelle and his fellow researchers are gauging how much test scores improve when children receive free or affordable eyeglasses. They're trying to figure out the easiest and most cost-effective way of eradicating intestinal worms from the bellies of school kids and children waiting to get into schools. They're testing the usefulness of a government-run program tackling high childhood anemia rates. And they're determining how to put the most cutting-edge computer technology in schools where you can't always count on the lights staying on and where teachers – much less students – may have never seen a laptop.

It's work that Rozelle says is essential, given China's growing clout and ability to influence international markets and policies. As the country grows, so must all of its citizens, he says.

"Understanding what drives China and where it's going is incredibly important," Rozelle says. "Things that happen in Beijing and Shanghai oftentimes affect our lives more than what happens in Washington, D.C., or Sacramento or in the Palo Alto City Hall."

And to think that Beijing once seemed a world away from Bellflower.