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Lessons in education from post-Mao China

Author: Edward Vickers, Kyushu University

In 2009 and 2012, Shanghai topped the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings, which test students in mathematics, science and literacy. Many Western policymakers have concluded that there is a causal relationship between PISA achievement and China’s rapid economic growth.

Former US president Barack Obama’s Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, called the results a wake-up call for the United States. Education was, he said, the ‘new currency’ of national competitiveness. His former UK counterpart, Michael Gove, opined after a visit to Beijing schools that Britain needed a Chinese-style ‘cultural revolution’.

The call has not gone unheeded. Western governments increasingly favour East Asian-style testing regimes and regimented pedagogy. Underpinning this enthusiasm is a dangerously fundamentalist brand of meritocracy.

But claims that there is a statistical link between PISA rankings and economic growth are essentially baseless.

China witnessed rapid growth in basic literacy during the Maoist period. Rapid expansion of rural schooling faced resistance from urban elites, but many ‘sent-down’ intellectuals were forced to teach in the villages. Between the late 1940s and late 1970s, literacy levels in China grew far faster than in India, from a similar starting point. China has since continued to outperform its South Asian neighbour according to almost every conceivable educational measure.

But look east and China’s performance appears less impressive. In post-war Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, rapid expansion of schooling accompanied rapid economic growth and declining social inequality. Efforts in these societies to provide relatively uniform public schooling facilitated mass participation in an expanding modern labour market. The consequent rise of a cohesive, educated middle class paved the way for democratisation.

In post-Mao China, provision of schooling has been anything but uniform. Traumatised by class warfare and outraged at the Maoists’ debasement of learning, post-Mao elites rushed to restore educational ‘quality’. Many rural schools were closed or starved of funding in the early years of ‘reform and opening-up’, while resources were concentrated on urban ‘key-point’ institutions. Entry to these schools was determined by selective testing, residence, connections or, increasingly, money.

Inequality was baked into the post-Mao system from the outset, with profound implications for China’s subsequent development. Competitive exams mediated the recruitment of a technocratic vanguard to drive modernisation so that meritocracy served nationalism.

But the privileging of urban ‘key-point’ schools combined (especially from the 1990s) with rapid labour market liberalisation, erosion of welfare entitlements and fee-driven expansion of higher education sparked an explosion in credentialism. In a very real sense, education became China’s ‘new currency’. The most fortunate urbanites rushed to profit from their privileged access to the best schools.

Educational expansion has thus been associated with the emergence of a new middle class, but one radically alienated from — and fearful of — a vast underclass of rural dwellers and migrant labourers. The related fragmentation of Chinese citizenship has been deliberate and ultimately stems from the imperative of maintaining Communist Party control.

Praise for the effectiveness of Chinese education, and for its supposed success in inculcating a ‘meritocratic’ ethos prizing diligence and self-reliance, ignores how such hugely variable access to schooling is embedded in a system that pits different groups against each other — while rendering them separately reliant on the party-state. It also overlooks the central role of ‘character education’ in fostering an increasingly aggressive nationalism. This, alongside the channelling of youthful energy and family resources into exam-driven competition, helps keep urbanites politically quiescent, a priority for the post-Tiananmen regime.

Forget meritocracy. China is fundamentally a ‘controlocracy’, and its education system must be understood in that context.

What, then, drives the intense competitiveness in China’s education system? Western observers often credit an ‘Asian’ cultural predisposition to value individual effort, but culture is not immutable destiny.

While there are very significant differences among East Asia’s education systems, certain similarities in social policy help account for the intensity of educational competition across the region. Crucial among these is a combination of minimalist public welfare, labour market rigidity and official visions of education as primarily a tool for generating human capital.

The spectre of an impoverished and undignified old age is a key element here. In Japan, rates of poverty-related crime committed by the elderly now exceed those of younger generations. Roughly half of South Koreans over the age of 65 live below the poverty line.

But welfare systems in Japan and South Korea are generous compared with that of China, where Confucianism is increasingly invoked to legitimate a system that renders the ‘non-productive’ population (such as the elderly and mothers of young children) heavily dependent on family support. Profound insecurity is key to explaining the desperation that inspires parents to subject their children to the stupefying rigours of cram schooling.

We need to be clear about the political and ethical implications of hailing China as an educational model. Belief in the possibility of individual success through effort is laudable — up to a point — but meritocratic fundamentalism is a dangerous delusion. And this is not only because it is hard to identify and measure the aspects of schooling that are truly important for success.

Attributing success, however defined, purely to individual merit can encourage arrogance and disparagement of the claims of the less fortunate to basic human dignity and respect. This, above all, is the cautionary lesson we should derive from the recent history of China’s education system.

Edward Vickers is Professor of Comparative Education at Kyushu University. He isco-author of Education and Society in Post-Mao China (2017) and a coordinating lead author of the UNESCO report Rethinking Schooling for the 21st Century (2017).

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