Last Friday, the Beijing education committee summoned representatives from Beijing’s 10 leading public high schools to discuss study abroad students. Among those invited were People’s University High School, Tsinghua University High, Peking University High, Beijing Number Four, and the Experimental School, all of which already have a sizable contingent of students in the Ivy League and alumni networks in the United States.
As the director of Peking University High’s study abroad programme, I attended on our school’s behalf. During the meeting, the education committee ordered all schools to better prepare students for studying abroad, to maintain contact with them once they’re in the United States, and to instill patriotism in them so they’ll return to help develop the motherland.
For me, the meeting marked a sudden change in government attitude towards the study abroad phenomenon. What was interesting was not what was said—it was that anything was said at all.
Previously, Chinese education officials had remained silent on the issue because Chinese students attending high school and university in the United States is such a sensitive and emotional topic here. Study abroad students tend to be either the very worst kind of student (spoiled and lazy rich kids who can’t cope with the rigour and discipline of Chinese schools) or the very best (brilliant and driven students who can’t cope with the rigour and discipline of Chinese schools), all of which invites a strange and volatile mix of condescension, scorn, anger, and jealousy among officials.
Chinese school officials, for the most part, tend to oppose studying abroad because losing their best students would mean lower national examination scores, which, as bureaucrats, they live and die by. That’s why most Chinese students who want to study abroad do so secretly, cramming for the national examination during the week and cramming for the SAT and TOEFL on weekends.
Last Friday, though, the government explicitly told the top schools in Beijing they now had to help study abroad students (which, by the way, doesn’t mean they’ll actually do so). The government rarely issues clear directives, but here it was telling schools to open an office specifically to help potential study abroad students apply to American schools and to establish an alumni network.
The Chinese bureaucracy wouldn’t be a bureaucracy if it actually had explanations for its actions, so much of what follows is educated guessing.
I’m sure many readers have jumped quickly to the conclusion that the Communist Party wants to monitor and control study abroad students. But, as I explained last week, the Communist Party can easily do this already by reading each student’s personal profile on the Internet. In fact, the Party’s not worried about China’s study abroad students because they’re generally drawn from either the ruling elite or the middle class that’s the Communist Party’s main base of support.
So I think there are two more plausible explanations. First, as I’ve said before, the study abroad phenomenon is growing exponentially, forcing the government to speak out on the issue. But the more important reason, I believe, is that the Party’s realpolitik strategists have made a compelling case to Party leaders that China is losing out badly in the war for ‘knowledge workers’ to the United States, and if something isn’t done about this China can never properly challenge US hegemony.
This year, Premier Wen Jiabao promulgated China’s 10-year education development plan, which acknowledged that China’s education system wasn’t producing the creative and management talent necessary for China’s continued economic expansion and development. Despite the praise of Yale’s President Richard Levin, China’s higher education system is a mess. Cheating and plagiarism are rampant in Chinese universities and both Chinese companies and multinationals grumble about the arrogance and incompetence of Chinese university graduates. In turn, Chinese universities complain about how the national examination system often sends them narrow-minded and disinterested students who just want to play Counter-Strike all day.
In fact, recently, 11 of Peking’s top professors wrote a joint letter suggesting that the faculty ought to screen top exam scorers to determine their academic potential (i.e., to make sure the students’ minds are still intact after a decade of relentless and remorseless memorization and regurgitation).
It’s clear therefore that it will take decades for China’s higher education system to sort out its problems—if it ever can. So in the meantime a rising China’s only real option is to educate its best and brightest in US colleges and universities—and to encourage them to return.
Of course, the best long-term solution to China’s shortage of knowledge workers is for China to become an open and progressive, diverse and cosmopolitan society that celebrates one’s individuality and humanity as much as one’s power and wealth, and which encourages everyone—foreigners alongside Chinese—to experiment and to innovate.
But that would require imagination, a word which also happens to be the antonym of mandarinate. So the government’s first move in its strategy to win the hearts and minds of China’s study abroad students is to ask Chinese public schools to suck up to their very best study abroad students, just like they now suck up to their very best exam takers.