Is China's education system ‘successful’? Many think so, citing strong performance in international rankings in maths and sciences, the numbers of university graduates, or simply the basic education enrolment and literacy rates which are strikingly high for a developing economy. Others, however, question whether education in a one-party state can deliver the sort of innovative thinking needed for China to become the global ‘leading economy’ in an Asian century. Edward Vickers and Zeng Xiaodong dig beneath the surface of these issues, describing and evaluating education in China since 1978. Success, of course, ‘depends on what one thinks education is ultimately for’ (p. 328) and, in attempting to respond to this question, the volume identifies the mainstream ideology on the purpose of education in China and the debates and tensions centred on policy-making. Detailed chapters put education and development in historical and comparative perspective, discuss the politics of education and take the reader through early childhood education, basic education, the curriculum, the teaching profession, assessment and senior high school, the market and competition, vocational and technical education and higher education and its international dimensions, which reflect the fact that ‘many urban Chinese have become profoundly transnational in their outlook and interests’ (p. 309). In the process this volume covers issues relating to education for the so-called ‘ethnic minorities’ in China as well as the extent to which international practices have been adopted, including those inspired by ‘new public management’. The result of these discussions is a comprehensive account of education in China, based on a thorough reading of the secondary literature and primary sources in both English and Chinese. One of the book's strengths is its historical depth and while it focuses on the post-Mao period this is put in the context of earlier developments—generally going back to the late Qing dynasty. Indeed, the legacies of education of the Mao era from 1949 to the late 1970s, in particular in basic education and literacy, are important foundations for the system's subsequent development. Despite this, the volume's core message is one of change rather than continuity in the education system. After December 1978, the Communist Party shifted its ‘central task’ from class struggle to economic development. For the authorities, education became increasingly about developing the ‘human capital’ required to contribute to economic growth and China's comprehensive national power. In the process, the system has become more competitive and regimented, but not apolitical. Vickers and Zeng comment that ‘the ostensible depoliticisation of education and the sponsorship of international agencies camouflaged the introduction, or reintroduction, of a highly politicised ideology of pseudo-meritocratic competition allied to strong-state nationalism’ (p. 101). They further demonstrate this throughout the volume by highlighting how political education remains a feature of the system at all levels. Furthermore, since the 1980s, disparities in education opportunities and outputs have grown, reflecting broader regional and urban–rural economic gaps and the power of money—or what is often called ‘the market’. China's education system is therefore not as meritocratic as the official ‘legitimating ideology’ (p. 197) might claim, especially given the strong role of market forces and the self-reinforcing, state-bestowed status of educational institutions. The political–economic imperatives of developmentalism in contemporary China therefore lead the authors to somewhat depressing conclusions, including that reform is unlikely. As reporters from the Chinese media outlet Caixin put it in 2013: ‘Those who have power use connections, those who have money go abroad to pursue their education, those with no money study hard for the Maths Olympiads; those with no money, power or energy go to the back of the queue. The psychology of parents becomes warped, and so does that of their children’ (p. 194). © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
International Affairs – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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