Perpetual Challenges to China’s Education Reform

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 24

A recent talk by Premier Wen Jiabao illustrates Beijing’s failure to undertake comprehensive reforms in perhaps the most critical area of Chinese life: education. While meeting with several university presidents, Wen recalled a discussion that he had with Qian Xuesen, the revered “Father of the Chinese A-Bomb,” during which Qian complained that “China still has not fully developed.” The scientist cited the fact that “Chinese universities have failed to produce distinguished talent,” adding, “None of China’s universities have adopted a model [that is geared toward] propagating creative and innovative minds” (Xinhua, November 27). China’s Minister of Education Zhou Ji has also been forthcoming about the nation’s inability to propagate first-class research. Zhou, who holds a Ph.D. from a U.S. institution, pointed out that the results of scientific research as well as other pursuits in institutions of higher education “can neither touch the sky nor [are they] down to earth.” China’s research, he explained, falls woefully short of international standards; it is incapable of producing market-oriented products that can be of benefit to people’s everyday needs (China Youth Daily, December 3). Zhou also deplored the fact that the morality and integrity of a sizeable number of professors and researchers have been called into question. Last month, the Ministry of Science and Technology, a major source of funding for high-level research, published a tough regulation that targeted plagiarism and other infractions of academic ethical standards (Xinhua, November 9).

In theory, China’s spending on advanced research and development (R&D) as well as general education has risen in tandem with the fast-paced growth of the economy. According to the State Council’s long-term plans, government outlay on research R&D is due to make up 2.5% of GDP by the year 2020, by which time some 900 billion yuan (US$115 billion) will be spent every year on advanced research. Currently, more than 23 million students are enrolled in China’s institutes of higher learning; and 21% of those who take part in college entrance examinations are allotted slots in its universities. The government even claims that China has “the world’s biggest pool of technological personnel,” around 32 million people. Of these, 1.05 million are engineers and scientists whom the authorities have classified as “R&D specialists” (People’s Daily, January 31; Xinhua, November 27).

Moreover, it would be misleading to say that, despite Professor Qian and Minister Zhou’s unusual frankness about the shortcomings in academia, there has been little progress on the higher education and research fronts. Chinese scientists and engineers boast what some cadres have termed “innate superiorities,” that is, qualities that are part of the socialist system. Thanks to the abilities of the government, academic and industrial units to quickly pool human as well as financial resources, astonishing results have been produced in gargantuan projects that require large-scale mobilization. Examples of these remarkable successes include the country’s state-of-the-art space program, genetic engineering projects and the domestic development of sophisticated weaponry (see “In a Fortnight”). Last week, a group of researchers who represented 20-odd top medical and herbal-medicine institutes announced that they had produced new and more effective AIDS-treatment drugs.

It is nonetheless true that across the board, the standard of China’s higher education in fields ranging from molecular physics to political science remains dissatisfactory. The biggest shortfalls are found in areas that require plenty of individual initiative, creativity and the ability to challenge established authority. 27 years after Deng Xiaoping began his reforms and open-door policy, academic institutions still encourage conformity and frown on potentially heretical—and politically incorrect—experimentation. All colleges and research institutes are governed by CCP committees, whose chief functions include the weeding out of “dangerous ideas” as well as “anti-party elements” from within academia. This stultifying atmosphere has spread to fields supposedly less prone to political controversy, such as the physical sciences and technology.

The crisis of confidence in China’s education system came to a head last year after several Chinese newspapers and websites printed the harsh criticisms that Harvard mathematician Yau Shing-tung leveled at Chinese universities and research institutes. Professor Yau noted that despite the increased levels of funding and much-improved facilities, the standards of research in China have continued to deteriorate. “Many professors of famous universities spend the bulk of their time making money—or trying to boost their reputation overseas,” he told the Chinese media. Yau added that bureaucrats and apparatchiks still maintain a significant amount of authority in allocating research funds and deciding which academics would receive promotion. In the meantime, corrupt phenomena, such as plagiarism, have mushroomed, and Yau predicted a further decline in standards unless dramatic remedial steps were adopted ( website, August 19, 2005).

The time-honored tendency of Chinese scholars of all specialties to toe the party line has paradoxically been reinforced by the current leadership’s penchant for seeking the views of a large number of academics and specialists. President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen and quite a few Politburo members maintain large think tanks, many of whose members come from academia. Once they have been consulted by top party and government leaders, however, China’s scholars often believe they have an obligation to at least refrain from criticizing these cadres or their policies. According to well-known writer Yu Jie, Chinese intellectuals have yet to shed the age-old tradition of relying upon the established authority for recognition and sustenance. “Most scholars will think twice about engaging in research deemed politically suspect,” Yu added [1].

Reflecting the massive disparities between rich and poor—as well as between the wealthy coastal regions and the impoverished hinterland—“First World-standard” educational and research opportunities are only available in several universities and cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing and Guangzhou, in addition to the military-run institutes. Moreover, education has become so expensive that students from ordinary families are self-selected against enrollment. College tuition has soared 25 times in 20 years, and if living expenses are included, an average university student is required to pay 40,000 yuan ($5,000) a year just to cover basic bills. The annual per capita income for rural Chinese, however, is less than 3,000 yuan ($380) (Xinhua, March 7). Even more shocking is the fact that in the vast central and western provinces, most schools lack well-qualified teachers and up-to-date course material.

Despite the Hu-Wen administration’s rhetoric about “putting people first” and “giving priority to rural areas,” high-quality basic-level education is not available in the 11 western provinces. Premier Wen has not hidden the fact that in quite a number of poor counties, a free nine-year education, which is guaranteed by the constitution, is far from being instituted. Many impoverished villages rely on donations from foreign countries in addition to the wealthier provinces, such as Guangdong, to keep their poorly equipped schools running.

Educators were recently shocked by a scandal in Minqin County, Gansu Province, where authorities mobilized 40,000 secondary- and primary-schoolchildren to collect the season’s cotton crop. One student died when a tractor driven by his classmate accidentally rolled over him. Yet, despite the number of brutal accidents, it is not uncommon for administrators in poor, remote areas to ask students to “contribute to the common good” by spending several hours a week working in factories, including those that lack proper industrial-safety standards. Moreover, given the near-universal gender discrimination, it is routine for rural families to keep their girls at home, rather than send them to school. Minister Zhou admits that in particularly impoverished villages, the dropout rate in junior high schools can be as high as 10% (Lanzhou Morning Post, December 1; Xinhua, April 27).

In a special measure designed to assist rural regions, the State Council decided earlier this year to launch a campaign to “encourage” up to 10,000 college graduates a year to teach in remote, countryside schools. As an incentive, the Education and Finance Ministries have guaranteed them an annual salary of at least 15,000 yuan ($1,900), which is on par with what university graduates earn in the larger cities (Xinhua, May 19). Given that the future of China hinges on the competitiveness of its scientists, engineers and workers, few doubt the eagerness of the party and state officials to boost the standards of its schools and universities. Yet, instead of relying on stop-gap measures such as “special funding” for various emergency projects, it is imperative that top cadres such as Premier Wen tackle the crux of the matter: de-linking education from the country’s orthodox socialist system.


1. Personal communications with the author.