At what price success? Lessons in education from post-Mao China


When it is hard to identify and measure the aspects of schooling that are truly important for success, the drive to meritocratic fundamentalism in modern China needs a closer look, writes Edward Vickers

Debate on education policy in the West today is underscored by two unshakeable assumptions. First, that educational success is readily measurable through cross-national testing of student achievement. And second, that it translates into economic success—for individuals, and for whole societies.

In other words, to the educationally most deserving go the rewards of the global knowledge economy.

Education the ‘new currency’

In recent years, China has served as ‘exhibit A’ for this line of argument. In 2009 and 2012, Shanghai topped the OECD PISA rankings, based on tests of student achievement in mathematics, science and literacy. A wider selection of Chinese regions turned in strong results in maths and science in the 2015 tests.

Many Western policymakers have concluded that correlation between PISA achievement and China’s rapid economic growth indicates that the first causes the second.

President Obama’s Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, called the Shanghai results a wake-up call for America. ‘Education is the new currency,’ he declared, and one in which the USA was once again in deficit. The former UK Education Secretary, Michael Gove, opined after a visit to Beijing schools that Britain needed a cultural revolution just like the one they’ve had in China.

The call has not gone unheeded. Anglophone governments increasingly favour East Asian-style testing regimes and regimented pedagogy.

Claims of a statistical link between PISA rankings and economic growth rates are essentially baseless

America’s ‘Knowledge is Power Program’ Charter Schools and many British academies and free schools preach intolerance of a ‘culture of excuses, of low standards’. One London free school head penned the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teacher, echoing Amy Chua’s bestselling paean to Chinese parenting techniques. That school’s walls feature morale-boosting exhortations—‘Impress teachers’, Work towards a great future’, ‘Us against the world: stay stoical’ —reminiscent of Chinese Communist attempts to achieve ‘thought reform’ through relentless sloganeering.

Discipline worthy of a police state, intensive drilling and frequent testing may raise test scores—but to what end, and at what cost?

Hikaru Komatsu and Jeremy Rappleye of Kyoto University have recently demonstrated that claims of a statistical link between PISA rankings and economic growth rates are essentially baseless.

The competitive pursuit of test scores is not the royal road to prosperity. Serious re-examination of both the evidential and ethical assumptions underpinning the Chinese-inspired Tiger Teacher approach is indicated.

Contrast between China and its neighbours

China witnessed rapid growth in basic literacy during the Maoist period, when the country was an economic basket case. Rapid expansion of rural schooling faced resistance from urban elites, including most teachers, but during the Cultural Revolution, 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.

In subsequent decades, China has continued to outperform its South Asian neighbour, according to almost every conceivable educational measure.

But look east and China’s comparative performance appears rather less impressive. In post-war Japan, Korea and Taiwan, rapid expansion of schooling accompanied rapid economic growth and declining social inequality.

Entry to key urban schools determined by selective testing, residence, connections, or, increasingly, money

Efforts in these societies to ensure relatively uniform provision of 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, by contrast, 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’, while resources were concentrated on ‘key-point’ institutions. Entry to these was determined by selective testing, residence, connections, or, increasingly, money.

Inequality was thus baked into the post-Mao system from the outset, with profound implications for China’s subsequent development. The recruitment of a technocratic vanguard for the modernisation drive was mediated by competitive examinations, placing meritocracy in the service of nationalism.

Hainan Medical College, Haikou City, Hainan Province, 2012 Photo: Anna Frodesiak Source: Wikimedia Commons

But the privileging of urban key schools combined (especially from the 1990s) with rapid labour market liberalisation, erosion of welfare entitlements (in state-owned enterprises where they had existed), and fee-driven expansion of higher education, sparked an explosion in credentialism.

Education and a new Chinese middle class

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 – an advantage linked to the country’s apartheid-style system of residency-based ‘household registration’.


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

Educational expansion has thus been associated with the emergence of a new middle class, but one that is radically alienated from, and fearful of, a vast underclass of rural dwellers and migrant labourers.

The associated fragmentation of Chinese citizenship, quite different from what we see in Japan, Korea or Taiwan, has been deliberate, not accidental. It ultimately stems from the imperative of maintaining Communist Party control.

Andreas Schleicher of the OECD has praised the effectiveness of Chinese schooling in shaping character, meaning a belief in meritocracy and the importance of effort. But this ignores how hugely variable access to schooling is embedded in a system that pits different groups against each other, even while rendering them separately reliant on the party-state.

It also overlooks the central role of ‘character education’ in an increasingly aggressive nationalism. Through nationalism, the Party seeks to sublimate social conflict and ennoble a pervasive competitive ethos.

Channeling youthful energy and familial resources into exam-driven competition also helps keep urbanites politically quiescent, a priority for the post-Tiananmen regime. Forget meritocracy. As the political scientist Stein Ringen argues, China is fundamentally a ‘controlocracy’, and its education system must be understood in that context.

Drive in Asia for education credentials

What drives this intense competitiveness? Not just in China, but also in Korea, Japan and across East Asia, where cram schooling to prepare for exams has become a chronic social pathology?

Western observers often credit an ‘Asian’ cultural predisposition to value individual effort. Cultural legacies cannot be dismissed, but culture is not immutable destiny.

Mainstream cultures across East Asia, no less than elsewhere, have changed enormously over the past century or more. So why has credentialism spread, intensified and come to be seen as somehow definitively ‘Asian’?

While it is important to bear in mind the 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 provision, labour market rigidity, and official espousal of a vision 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 amongst the elderly now exceed those for younger generations, while roughly half of South Koreans over 65 live below the poverty line.

But welfare systems there are generous compared with China, where Confucianism is now invoked to help excuse a public miserliness. This approach renders the ‘non-productive’ population—the elderly, mothers of young children and so forth—heavily dependent on family support. Hence, in part, the desperation that inspires parents to subject their children to the stupefying rigours of cram schooling.

We therefore 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.

Combine the ethos of meritocratic fundamentalism with a Darwinian worldview, and the dangers are multiplied

This is not only because it is hard to identify and measure the aspects of schooling that are truly important for success. It is also because attributing success, however defined, purely to individual merit is spurious, and can encourage disparagement of the claims of the less fortunate to basic human dignity and respect.

Combine the ethos of meritocratic fundamentalism with a Darwinian worldview, and the dangers are multiplied. This is the lesson we should derive from the recent history of China’s education system.

‘Us against the world: stay stoical!’ could serve as a motto for the Institutes of Xi Jinping Thought now sprouting on university campuses across China. However, envisioning schooling as an initiation into the inveterate war of all against all is no formula for a humane or sustainable future.

Featured image:  Chinese children in Grade 2, 2011   Photo:  Greenhall1  Source: Wikimedia Commons

About Edward Vickers

Dr Edward Vickers is Professor of Comparative Education at Kyushu University, Japan, co-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).

4th January, 2018

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