China Power

Beijing’s School Kingdoms

Beijing’s school system offers a glimpse into the broader problems the city faces, including the obsession with guanxi.

Earlier this month, the Beijing education bureau called Beijing’s international divisions to a meeting. Beijing’s education authorities had, in the past two years, licensed five prestigious Beijing public schools to start international divisions. With study abroad now a fashion, many public schools plan to start international divisions, which creates a conundrum for Beijing’s education officials.

Granting licenses is the main way in which Beijing’s education officials can exercise power, and in theory they ought to be happy that so many more high school principals want to buy them dinner. But there’s always the risk that international divisions could fail, in which case they’d be held accountable – and the trick of bureaucratic survival is to avoid taking blame for mistakes and failures.

So Beijing’s education officials wanted to explore with the five schools how to best mitigate risk and failure. Specifically, they asked two questions: What criteria should be used in determine whether an application is approved? Under what conditions should a license be revoked?

The room fell silent, as the same stream of thought went through each school representative’s head: Since my license had already been approved and it would be politically embarrassing and impossible for Beijing’s education officials to revoke my license, what do I care? How do I get out of this meeting without saying anything that could embarrass me or implies that I’d like to get entangled in this dilemma, or suggests that I’d ever want to attend any of these meetings ever again?    

All five schools made a speech, and each tried to outdo each other in avoiding the questions and saying nothing in as much time as possible.   

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I remembered when I was working as a journalist, I saw the Communist Party as a monolithic and top-down political system that controlled the direction and destiny of 1.3 billion people. Now, working as a Beijing public school administrator, I can see for myself how difficult it is for the government to control a Beijing school, let alone 1.3 billion people.

In theory, Beijing public schools report to Beijing’s education bureau, which then reports to the Ministry of Education. In practice, each public school is an independent kingdom that pays nominal deference to education authorities. To understand this relationship, think of Beijing’s education bureau as the United Nations: It has neither financial nor political control over schools, so it projects the illusion of authority by issuing meaningless proclamations and convening boring conferences.  

It’s taken for granted that Peking University High School, because of its affiliation with China’s intellectual centre, does whatever it wants. But each of Beijing’s top 43 public schools is fiercely independent. 

Take, for example, Number 101 High School, which our school’s administration toured last week. Founded in 1946, 101 is a sprawling campus of 200,000 square metres with the Old Summer Palace as its backyard. Their alumni include Zeng Qinghong and other powerful politicians, and they draw their students from Beijing military and political families. Their annual budget is more than that of most Chinese counties, and their school leadership has been in place for over a decade. The meeting room that hosted us had the year before hosted Kai-Fu Lee, the founder of Google China, and a visiting delegation of leading American journalists and writers. 

The problem with Beijing is that there’s so much power – whether it be political, military, economic, financial, technological, education, or cultural – concentrated in the city, which in turns forces everyone to focus on cultivating and managing guanxi.  The prevailing attitude in Beijing, from corporate honchos to the lowest government clerk, is that as long as you maintain well your network of relationships or guanxiwang you can do whatever you want. 

That’s why Beijing high school principals concern themselves primarily with student recruitment and admission. Their power derives from their gatekeeper status, and they use admittance tickets to build up their guanxiwang and extract political favours – like getting an international division approved. 

Which brings us back to Beijing’s education bureau’s conundrum. Now Beijing’s education officials could avoid offending powerful individuals if they were to delegate licensing power to a team of experts, but the idea of surrendering power to a bureaucrat is as palatable as Charlie Sheen is to everyone else. 

There is a solution, which is to ask a different question: How can we, the Beijing education authorities, ensure to the best of our ability that all international divisions succeed?

And for all of Beijing’s international divisions to succeed, everyone needs to learn to co-operate and communicate with each other. They need to pool resources to recruit foreign staff instead of relying on middlemen, to counsel their students on how to apply abroad instead of relying on agencies, and to develop a new English curriculum catered to Chinese students instead of importing wholesale an Advanced Placement curriculum.

But because each is such a powerful independent kingdom, Beijing’s top public schools would find working together even less palatable than taking orders from Beijing’s education officials. And that is why Beijing as a city, when compared with Shanghai or Shenzhen, just will not work.  

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