China Power

China’s Future? In the Provinces

The best chance for reforming China’s education system lies not in Beijing, but in the provinces.

I’ve been working in Beijing, China’s education and cultural centre, for six months now, and with each passing day I grow more nostalgic for Shenzhen, where the idea of culture is foot massage parlours. It’s easy for Beijingers to make fun of uncouth and uncultured, utilitarian and money-grabbing Shenzhen entrepreneurs, but in my two years in Shenzhen I had grown to love it for its openness, boldness, and progressiveness as much as for its good food, warm weather, and clean air. 

Here’s what I know about Shenzhen.  It’s the only place in China where someone can get generous funding and political support to reform the Chinese secondary school system. It wants to build a university called the Southern Institute of Science and Technology, and have Western administrators and professors run it. And it has ambitious plans to make Shenzhen the IT and innovation capital of China by educating effectively its citizenry (which means in the near future constructing more universities and sending students abroad on government scholarships). Shenzhen is China’s educational future, and it’s because Shenzhen is filled with uncouth and uncultured, utilitarian and money-grabbing entrepreneurs. 

Let me explain why entrepreneurs with little education represent China’s best hope for education reform. First, entrepreneurs have a market mindset (as opposed to the bureaucratic mindset common in Beijing) so they care about what works, and it’s clear to them that the Chinese education system doesn’t work. Second,and more important, because Shenzhen is not well-known for its schools, it can build anew as it has little entrenched and vested interests opposed to experimentation and reform; as everyone knows, it’s cheaper, easier, and faster to build on virgin territory than to transform an existing city. Shenzhen, as a city with much immigration and little history, has no prejudices and endless ambitions.

It’s also important to understand thecrucial difference between a bureaucratic and a market mindset, and how it relates to education reform. In Beijing, parents tend to fall into one of three categories: government official, professor, or white-collar professional. If you think about it, government departments, universities, large Chinese enterprises, and multinationals are all bureaucracies where people rise based on their ability to accumulate credentials (getting advanced diplomas) and to cultivate patronage and guanxi (having a network of classmates in powerful positions). That’s why Beijing parents are so obsessed with getting their child into Peking and Tsinghua universities, and failing that into a top 50 USuniversity. That’s also why they care more about SAT and TOEFL scores (which will help their child get into a top American university) than about their child’s reading and writing ability (which will ensure that their child can handle the academic rigour of a top American university). 

Running counter to the bureaucratic mindset is the market mindset, which has been nurtured in a highly competitive environment where one is awarded for ability, hard work, and performance. While I was in Shenzhen, I started the Foundation programme to educate junior high school students to become global citizens. I wanted the Foundation students to learn co-operation, communication, and critical thinking skills, but what I really did was put students into a room by themselves, gave them good teachers and a lot of English books, and expect them to learn to study by themselves without the pressure of grades and tests. 

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This is coincidentally a Chinese parent’s worst nightmare, and there was genuine concern that no one would come. I always imagined that it would be idealistic intellectuals interested in progressive education, but every one of the Foundation parents was a rags-to-riches entrepreneur who wanted their child to develop skills that would allow them to navigate and thrive in the global economy. More important, as managers concerned with results and performance, they’re looking first and foremost for competent workers, and so they know much to their chagrin the deficiencies of China’s education system (which has recently been discussed in-depth in the New York Times). Above all, what drives them is self-interest, not idealism: as entrepreneurs, they know for themselves first-hand that co-operation, communication, and critical thinking skills translate into cold hard cash in the global economy. (The Foundation parents were so happy with their child’s progress that they sent their students to study with me in Beijing when I moved up there.)

But, more importantly, the Foundation parents don’t presume to know how to educate their child, and so are willing to experiment and to listen with an open mind. This ismuch less often the casein Beijing, where there’s muchintellectual snobbery, and where there’s a mindset that if you don’t have at least twenty diplomas you’re not qualified to discuss education. Cementing the status quo are all the schools and education institutes thatsurvive on pride, prejudice, and inertia rather than thrive on openness, progressiveness, and innovation.      

In the education world, Beijing is an old man sitting on his throne, high in the clouds, desperately demanding that the world stop turning. Far below the clouds is the clumsy youth whois Shenzhen, who learns to see by bumping into things and then changing direction, who learns to walk by falling down and getting up again, and who is forever moving forward because there’s nothing holding him back. 

With its market mindset and humility, Shenzhen will boldly experiment, make mistakes, admit its mistakes, and then try again in the endless pursuit of whatever works. And that is why Shenzhen – and not Beijing – represents China’s educational future.