China Power

Christmas Comes Early

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China Power

Christmas Comes Early

China is determined to meet its target of spending 4 percent of GDP on education. Cue very long school wish lists.

Progressive educator Wang Zheng’s appointment as headmaster of Peking University High School has brought with it a spate of renovations to the campus. We’re constructing an International Division building—a four-storey building that will have a library, a coffeehouse, a kitchen, a media centre, a theatre, state-of-the-art laboratories, and fitness facilities.

It’s an ambitious and expensive project, and each time I meet with the architects the project seems to grow more ambitious and expensive. (They’re now suggesting oil paintings and chandeliers for the library, and SMART boards for every classroom.)

So you’d think the man who actually signs the cheques would be worried about the spiralling costs. But I was told that there are also plans to build a new gymnasium, a new soccer field, an indoor climbing wall, indoor tennis and squash courts.

My first response: How are we going to pay for all this? (Actually, my first response was that a velodrome would be nice.) 

The answer? China needs to hit education spending of 4 percent of GDP this year, and so public schools have a mandate to spend as much money as possible. 

In 1993, China announced it would boost education spending from 2 percent of GDP to 4 percent. Yet 17 years later, it has still failed to achieve this goal. As new skyscrapers and highways populate China, critics both external and internal have called for more education spending. The United Nations reports that China educates almost one-fifth of the world’s students on just one percent of the world’s education budget. The China Youth Daily says China spends five times more money wining and dining its government officials than in educating all its students from grades one to nine. And, as critics point out, 4 percent of GDP is still anyway well below the spending of developed nations. Even India spends 7 percent of its GDP on education.   

So why is China so determined to reach 4 percent this year? Because the Communist Party cares about China’s children? Not likely. It’s because this year marks the end of China’s 11th five-year development plan, and government officials—like the patrolmen who stalk the highways at the end of each month to fill their monthly quota—must reach that 4 percent mark. In practical terms, this means building a lot of new schools. 

But at least this will mean better education for students in China, right?  Well, not necessarily.

In 1998, at Peking University’s 100th anniversary ceremony, President Jiang Zemin announced a government plan to turn China’s top universities into world-class institutions. More than a decade later, most people think that Chinese universities are still far from that distinction, and arguably with cheating and overcrowding, corruption and censorship running rampant, many schools may actually have gotten worse. 

Back in 2002, when I was writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, I reported on how Chinese university officials went abroad and took mental snapshots of the architecture of America’s best universities while ignoring their academic freedom; when they returned home, they built new science parks and libraries without growing the intellectual freedom and academic discipline necessary to power these facilities.  It seemed that all that construction dust kept people from seeing that education was first and foremost about carving and shaping new intellectual spaces rather than about digging large holes and filling them. 

I’m not going to deny I’ll enjoy all of Peking High’s new facilities, and I do believe that these new facilities could have real lasting educational value. But it would be better if we could use the money to hire and properly train young, smart graduates to become China’s new generation of teachers, to send students and faculty to South Africa and Russia (and any other place that challenges and expands their identity), and to bring in educators from everywhere to make Peking High a truly international school. 

But the Chinese bureaucracy is too pre-occupied with statistics and five-year plans to bother with people and ideas.

Maybe I’ll ask Santa for that velodrome, after all.