China Power

False Consciousness

Chinese suffer from ‘false consciousness’. Many don’t know how bad schools are now.

Taking up where I left off yesterday on the shortcomings of the national examination system, it’s clear to me that, as Marxists would like to say, Chinese suffer from ‘false consciousness.’ They honestly believe, despite all the scientific, empirical, and anecdotal evidence to the contrary, that China’s high schools provide the best education in the world. Moreover, in a society overflowing with corruption and dishonesty and injustice, Chinese believe that the national examination system is fair and honest and just, and represents the best and only chance of an ordinary child improving his lot in life.

Chinese know that even the lotteries and the equity markets are rigged in favour of the rich and powerful, so why would they believe that the national examination system is incorruptible? People write these tests, and these same people have sons and daughters, family and friends, patrons and superiors—and in China guanxi rules. And if the rich and powerful can strip state assets, gamble with public funds, and monopolize entire industries I’d think they can easily get national examination questions and answers. When it comes to the national examination, Chinese suffer from a national self-delusion.

This self-delusion is borne out of self-interest and pride. Chinese may resent the system, but they believe the costs of not conforming are too high: failure to get into university means political, social, and economic marginalization. If there’s a 50 percent chance a fresh university graduate cannot find employment then there’s a 100 percent chance that a non-university degree holder cannot. There’s also the face issue: all parents talk about with friends and colleagues is their child’s schooling and university prospects. If a child fails to get into university the parents lose face among friends, family, and colleagues, and that would be like death to them. In education, like in most other areas, herd mentality trumps all.

But this doesn’t explain how a system that actively encourages individual and amoral competition can prevent itself from implosion. The answer lies in the specific organizational structure of the Chinese education system, a structure borne out of the Chinese Communist Party’s roots and which is mirrored and copied throughout Chinese society. In this organization structure one type of individual is ultimately responsible for stability, conformity, and orthodoxy in the system: the head teacher I discussed this week.