Late last month, I attended a Beijing government education conference which, if Guinness had such a category, would break the world record in most instances of irony – verbal, dramatic, and situational – in a meeting of three hours or less.
Last year, China promulgated its 10 year education development plan, and so China’s education bureaucracy has speedily and busily organized meeting after workshop after conference to discuss the plan. A major part of the overall strategy is 'internationalizing' Chinese education: creating study abroad programmes, increasing international partnerships, experimenting with Western curricula, teaching Mandarin to foreigners, and opening international schools at home and Chinese schools abroad.
You'd think that 'internationalizing' Chinese education would be simple and straightforward, at least compared with actually useful and important tasks like keeping Chinese banks solvent and poisonous baby formula off shelves. But, at the conference, Beijing’s education bureaucrats launched a litany of self-contradictory statements: 'We must teach students to be creative and be independent, and to love the Party and country'; 'We must be bold and experiment, but we must respect the law and avoid risks'; 'We must avoid empty sloganeering, and take concrete action; 'There are no contradictions and conflict in our goals.'
These statements reaffirm to Beijing’s public school administrators that it’s easier and safer to have meetings to discuss reform than to actually implement reform. Other statements such as 'We must avoid opportunistic profiteering' and 'We must avoid the blind pursuit of goals and statistics' and 'We must follow to the letter education rules and regulations' are the government’s tacit recognition that Beijing schools will 'internationalize' by fleecing Chinese and foreign students, subcontracting to 'consultants' to secure foreign university placement for rich lazy students, and breaking all sorts of legal and ethical principles in their pursuit of profit and statistics — and there’s nothing the government can do about this. A final category of statements such as 'Understanding is more important than policy' and 'We must raise our awareness of global awareness' are education bureaucrats’ subconscious admission that they just don’t know what they’re talking about.
Welcome to China’s education bureaucracy, where even as the Chinese economy soars, as society is in upheaval, and as reform is all the rage among parents and educators, nothing ever changes. To be fair, all bureaucracies, inherently inward-looking and self-interested, are opposed to change and criticism. When I worked there in 2006, the United Nations mission in Kabul was obsessed with office politics and vacation plans while Afghans starved and civil strife raged. In his book The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam wrote how even though presidents have different personalities and creeds, they all focused on protecting and promoting the prerogative of the presidency, which is to say to empower and extend further the entrenched bureaucracy. That’s how four radically different American presidents collaborated to mire the United States in Vietnam, and why Barack Obama seems so much like George W. Bush.
As the foot soldiers of China’s education bureaucracy, Chinese principals and teachers have learned to take advantage of new education trends to do the least work for the most reward. Any and all education reform plans will have the following elements: cadre and teacher training (pointless meetings followed by expensive dinners and KTV, free junkets abroad), curriculum reform (changing the name of courses), evaluation and reward mechanisms (opportunities to solicit bribes and backstab enemies), awareness-raising (empty sloganeering and expensive ad campaigns), experimentation (shameless speculation and profiteering), and shared learning (conferences where principals can suck up to higher officials).
But while everything will stay the same at the end of the day, it doesn’t mean that China’s education bureaucracy won’t embarrass itself and make a mess of things with their 'international education with Chinese characteristics' strategy.
An ironic mantra at the conference was 'raising global awareness' because China’s education bureaucracy is neither capable of being global or being aware. At the conference, it was clear that the Beijing education authorities regarded the perfectly stage-managed and superlatively pointless 2008 Beijing Olympics as the ideal as Chinese education 'internationalizes': Chinese students need to learn English to tell foreign tourists how great China is, and foreign students need to come to China to learn superior Chinese culture. Despite all this talk of 'global awareness,' Chinese schools still insist to students that all cultures can be reduced to dress, song, and dance (I’m still counting my good fortune that the conference didn’t organize a foreign talent show to raise our global awareness). I took it as a very bad sign that, at the conference, Beijing’s education officials mentioned that they thought a good example of 'global awareness' was the Model United Nations, a school activity which prepares students to think and behave like them.
After this conference, I’ve now decided to hire someone to attend future 'international education with Chinese characteristics' workshops, meetings, and conferences on Peking High’s behalf. I welcome any and all applications, starting right now.