China Power

Shenzhen Spring

Wang Zheng and Shenzhen were an unlikely couple. But they proved to be a successful pairing.

Shenzhen municipality in south China’s Guangdong Province formally announced the appointment of Wang Zheng as principal of its flagship public high school in April, 2002. Shenzhen’s mayor himself flew to Beijing to invite Peking University High School’s vice principal to take up this position, and Wang Zheng’s appointment was seen as a triumph and coup d’état for a booming metropolis less renowned for its schools and culture than for its sweatshop factories and foot massage parlours.

Wang Zheng and Shenzhen at first seemed like an odd couple: the former was the scion of a distinguished Beijing family of educators, and the latter a fishing village plucked from obscurity by Deng Xiaoping’s decision in the late 1970s to test the free market in four special economic zones. But both shared an irrepressible and irreversible belief in reform. 

Without reform, Shenzhen wouldn’t have existed. Deng Xiaoping’s unleashing of China’s entrepreneurial energy lured the bold and the daring to Shenzhen. There were some who wanted to escape a sordid past and there were some who wanted to construct a sordid future. But whether they were schemers or dreamers, pirates or builders, speculators or visionaries, they made Shenzhen a dynamic and wealthy (if corrupt and chaotic) boomtown. By the late 1980s, it was a Mecca for migrants, the best place in China for the hardworking poor, unencumbered by local prejudice and protectionism where they could rise to join China’s fledging middle-class. The inherent instability of reform and the resulting 1989 Tiananmen protests threatened Shenzhen’s economic liberalization, prompting Deng Xiaoping’s southern tour in the spring of 1992; for better or worse, Shenzhen was China’s future, and there would be no turning back.

Ten years later, Wang Zheng arrived at Shenzhen Middle School, determined to enact a series of education reforms that would strike Chinese education out of its complacent and stagnant state. Wang Zheng’s grandfather had been an education pioneer as well: as China’s first professor of psychology he brought Freud to China before the Communists came to power and suppressed the field of psychology. Both of Wang Zheng’s parents were university professors, and he went to elementary school during the Cultural Revolution, too young to participate as a Red Guard but old enough to spend his afternoons harvesting wheat and raising pigs. 

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He studied at Peking University High School where his head teacher read her class Les Miserables, and he and his classmates biked downtown to spend their lunch money to attend the opera. He tested into Peking University’s prestigious physics department where he built his own superconductor. Whereas his classmates went to graduate school in the United States and then onto lucrative careers on Wall Street, Wang Zheng returned to Peking University High School to teach physics for 8 years before becoming vice-principal for another 8 years. He was 36 years-old when he became principal of Shenzhen Middle School, the youngest person ever to be appointed principal of an elite high school in China (details of Principal Wang’s student days can be found here).

Wang Zheng accepted the Shenzhen position because he had ambitious reform plans, and Shenzhen—bloated with capital, but starved of intellect—welcomed this white knight of education reform. Principal Wang went to work right away. He had staff meetings that lasted until evening, and then until dusk—prompting the other school administrators to remind him that, unlike him, they had families. The principal’s large, spacious, and ornate office became a storage room, and he worked out of the conference room until four in the morning. He went on study tours to the Raffles School in Singapore and to the Dalton School in New York, and while he didn’t bother to buy chocolate and souvenirs he did bring back ideas that he would implement with fury and zeal. 

In 2002, the year of its 55th anniversary, Shenzhen Middle School was still a traditional Chinese high school, where head teachers shepherded a class of 50 students in studying for the national examination. They took the same lectures from 7:30am until 4:30pm from Monday to Sunday, and for homework they did multiple choice tests. Shenzhen Middle School was at best a glorified test preparation centre, at worst a factory that transformed teenagers into study machines. 

Principal Wang launched a war of liberation for the soul and future of his students. He eliminated the head teacher system, and adopted a Western-style credit system where students, with the help of advisors and tutors, designed their own course schedule depending on their strengths and interests. He reduced class sizes from 50 to 25, and when teachers protested he had contractors split the class into two by building a wall. He specialized classrooms, and replaced multiple-choice examinations with written examinations. He brought debate and discussion into the classroom, and students had to give presentations and do research projects. 

To realize his vision of choice and diversity on the Chinese high school campus, Principal Wang Zheng created four different streams, which in practice meant four schools within a school. Stream 1 was the traditional Chinese curriculum, stream 2 was the new curriculum that Principal Wang was implementing, stream 3 was the Olympiad class, and stream 4 was for students planning to study abroad. Rather than focusing on China’s top national universities Principal Wang encouraged students to study in the United States and in Japan, and to test into arts and sports institutes.

By far, Principal Wang Zheng’s biggest impact was on student life. He divided the students into eight different houses, and each house had its own student management system. With the house system, imposing and intimidating Shenzhen Middle School (with a campus the size of three city blocks and 2,400 students spread over three grades) became friendly and intimate. Helping the lowerclassmen adapt to this new education system were the Prefects, upperclassmen mentors who liked to organize surprise birthday parties for the lowerclassmen. And organizing activities and competitions among the houses was student government. 

Student life was vibrant and diverse, but its most striking characteristic was that it was entirely student-built and managed. Student cadres were not just the glorified hall monitors found at other Chinese schools—they were democratically elected representatives who served the interests of their classmates. They solicited corporate sponsors for basketball and soccer tournaments (one student was so charming that he received $30,000 from China Mobile). They organized masquerade balls and ‘American Idol’ competitions. On December 31st of each year hundreds of volunteers stayed up all night to organize the school’s annual winter carnival; on New Year’s Day, over 100,000 Shenzhen residents would come to buy goods and play games, listen to concerts and watch performances. 

Shenzhen Middle School was a place where students could pursue their interests and passions, and Principal Wang provided them with encouragement and resources. For the school’s science and math whizzes, he built state-of-the-art laboratories, and invited his former Peking University professors to tutor them: the result was that every year, Shenzhen Middle School would win at least one international Olympiad gold medal. The school boasted the nation’s best choir, Guangdong Province’s best orchestra and art department. And students were free to start their own clubs and organize their own time; one student received a scholarship to Brown University after talking on the phone for half an hour about his intense love of break-dancing, and another received a scholarship to Hampshire College after organizing an Internet website exposing unfair and unreasonable people and practices at Shenzhen Middle School. (Unfortunately, I was one of his targets, but more about that in future writings.) Indeed, during Principal Wang’s tenure, students matriculated at Princeton, Columbia, Chicago, Cornell, Duke, MIT, and other prestigious American universities, which admired the openness and boldness, diversity and individuality of Shenzhen Middle School students. 

China’s top national universities also thought highly of Shenzhen Middle School. Shenzhen Middle School students didn’t score astronomically high on the national examination, but they brought an intense passion to their studies that made them excel academically. Principal Wang’s students also took on organizational, management, and leadership roles, and made their respective university campuses more vibrant and interesting. Progressive universities such as Peking University and Zhejiang University were especially fond of Shenzhen Middle School students, and actively recruited them. While the national examination score was still the main criterion for entrance into university, China’s key universities have been unhappy with the terrible quality of the students, and have implemented experimental policies—such as conducting interviews and looking at resumes—to improve their student pool, and when it came to interviews and resumes Shenzhen Middle School’s outspoken and opinionated students stood out. Each year 80 students from Guangdong Province will be admitted into Peking University, and almost half of them will be from Shenzhen Middle School. (To put that in perspective, Shenzhen Middle School has an applicant pool of 800 students whereas Guangdong province has an applicant pool of 50,000 students.) 

For many people, Principal Wang Zheng’s reforms seemed a triumph of progressive practices. The national media celebrated Principal Wang’s reforms, principals and education officials came touring, and in November 2009 at a high-level Ministry of Education conference, Principal Wang Zheng was invited to speak on his reforms, a clear indication of national support for Principal Wang Zheng’s reforms. With even Premier Wen Jiabao calling for national curriculum reform it seemed as though Shenzhen Middle School would be constantly in the national spotlight, and Principal Wang’s reforms would be studied nationally. 

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But by February 2010, after eight years at the helm of Shenzhen Middle School, Principal Wang Zheng was replaced by an administrator who quickly began to dismantle his reforms. While the nation supported Principal Wang’s reforms, the city of Shenzhen did not. In my next article, I will discuss why the city of Shenzhen itself turned against the man they brought in to reform their education system.