Guanxi is the first and foremost problem in Chinese education. It’s bad for the school because it disrupts and destroys standards and discipline, and it’s bad for the students because it both spoils them and insults their ability and intelligence. A few students used guanxi to enter the Special Curriculum in Shenzhen, and they were last in the class in all subjects: they weren’t stupid, just lazy, a state of mind reinforced by their parents’ all too readiness to use money and power to protect their child against the greatest teacher of them all—failure and disappointment.
Now that I’m in Beijing I often wonder if it’s possible to build a strong educational programme in the imperial capital of guanxi. To counter guanxi, which is essentially about leveraging one’s personal network, I thought it best at Peking University High School to emphasize process over people. So we instituted a policy that to enter the International Division, students must enroll in a week-long admissions camp.
Every day students take four classes—science lab, mathematics, physical education, and English—where teachers evaluate them for ability (can they follow the class?), attitude (do they participate?), behavior (do they pay attention?), work ethic (do they do the homework?), and study habits (do they take notes?). Every night we give them a two-hour aptitude test. With the test results and teacher evaluations we can gauge their academic ability and intellectual potential.
But that’s not enough. Because the International Division is meant to be a free and open institution, it’s important to assess whether students have the self-discipline and self-control, the life skills and mental strength to thrive in the programme? So at 6am in the morning students are woken up and asked to run 2000 meters, their roms are checked every day, they’re made to copy out Milton’s Paradise Lost for an hour a day, and they’re overloaded with classes and homework.
There are also a lot of interviews. We interview them to make sure they’re applying for the right reasons, and that it’s their desire and decision, not their parents’. We’ve also asked the Special Curriculum students (they’re in Beijing from Shenzhen for summer school) to form a student admissions committee. Having transitioned from the Chinese education system into our programme they know intimately the type of students who would thrive.
Finally, in a personal interview, I’ve actually tried to convince the candidates not to come. I told them the International Division is too rigorous and demanding. It’s too new and untested. It’s focused on educating global citizens, rather than securing students’ a place in America’s best universities.
At the end of the admissions camp I had a parents’ meeting where I explained to the parents that all students who applied were great, but many were uncertain if they wanted to study overseas and many lacked the academic ability to do well in our programme. We weren’t looking to fill places—we wanted students who would thrive. That meant that if we admitted 40 students we’d educate them to the best of our ability, and if we admitted five, then we would do the same.
I gave each parent a report on their child, explaining the child’s strengths and weaknesses in their life and study skills. I gave them some time to read the report, and then I opened the floor to questions. We expected them to be angry and complain, but instead the parents thanked us for our hard work and dedication. (My staff worked from 6am until 2am, closely monitoring and evaluating the students.)
And when they went home the parents didn’t try to leverage their guanxi and try to force their child upon us—instead they called their friends and told them that the Peking University High School International Division was a great programme, and that they should apply for the next admissions camp!