China Power

A Peking Anniversary

Peking University High School used to be the best high school in China. Not anymore.

On October 6, Peking University High School will celebrate its 50th anniversary, a time as much for reflection as for celebration.

When Peking University launched the high school in 1960, it dispatched its professors to teach the children of the faculty of Peking University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Staff and students were proud of the school, and it was common for students to return as teachers. Current principal Wang Zheng is a graduate of the high school, and his former math and Chinese teachers teach in the International Division

From its inception, Peking University High School was considered the best high school in China. But not anymore.    

In 1998, then Vice-Principal Wang Zheng hired me to teach English, and back then I found the students to be curious and creative, and the school to be open and free.  Those days as a new teacher were some of the happiest and most rewarding of my life. 

But in 2000, the high school made a disastrous decision that would prove to be its downfall. 

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Back then, the Beijing education bureau in its infinite wisdom permitted its cash-starved schools to make money themselves. Principals became businessmen: they leased space to hot pot restaurants and beauty parlors, opened weekend cram courses, sent their students to expensive private schools overseas for a commission, and charged students who didn’t test into their high school an exorbitant entrance fee. 

These were small scams that temporarily relieved budget crunches. And then a real estate developer suggested to China’s most famous school the biggest education scam yet—building Peking University High School franchise schools around China. The school was so prestigious and famous that local governments offered free land and preferential loans.

The school leaders heard ka-ching! The teachers were apparently resistant, until the developer reportedly offered a pay raise and a free European vacation. Ten years later, Peking University High School has over a dozen franchise schools scattered around the country, and its reputation is now destroyed. 

Wang said he’s determined to close down these mismanaged franchises.That will be hard enough, but there’s a much more difficult task ahead for him.

Peking University High School teachers have always been proud of and trusted their students’ self-discipline and love of learning (that which Chinese call suzhi or ‘cultivation’). But this cultivation came about because of the university’s strong, selfless intellectual tradition and the relentless poverty under Mao Zedong’s autarky.

Chinese intellectuals saw themselves as selfless servants of the motherland, but after Tiananmen 1989 and the mad gold rush following Premier Zhu Rongji’s wholesale dismantling of China’s socialist apparatus, intellectual self-sacrifice was seen as more shameful than prostitution and watermelon-selling. Life’s goals were to make money and spend it rather than to learn and improve oneself. 

And in this new social milieu Peking University High School’s fragile freedom became unfettered chaos: Discipline and drive disappeared, and in their place came dating, video games, mobile phones, and Internet chat rooms and blogs. Test scores dropped, and Peking University professors scrambled to place their only child in other high schools. School administrators were clueless and paralyzed: other schools responded to the shifting culture by clamping down on students, but that would be against Peking University High School’s tradition of freedom and openness.    

Wang came of age in the 1980s China, a radically different time from today’s China. The trick now is to maintain the school’s proud traditions while embracing/confronting 21st century China.  It will be no easy task, and it may well be impossible. 

As alumni gather for Peking University High School’s 50th anniversary, there will be a lot to celebrate. But there’ll be even more to ponder