Society

Why The Chinese Are So Good, But Rarely Great

A surprising take on China's approach to education, and what it means for the country's future.

At Nanjing university
At Nanjing university
Qian Yingyi*

BEIJING — I have no formal pedagogic training, but I am an education practitioner with international experience. I have taught at Stanford University, University of Maryland, and UC Berkley, before becoming the dean at Tsinghua University's School of Economics and Management. I also consider myself to be a keen and intuitive observer of how education functions.

It's impossible to simply write off the performance of Chinese education, especially given the fact that China's economy has achieved such spectacular growth over the last 35 years. Still, we must also be clear that Chinese students' excellence in getting high scores in exams is ultimately no real proof of their talents.

Chinese schools are very efficient at teaching large-scale basic knowledge and skills, so that Chinese pupils perform on average relatively higher in this regard. In terms of statistics, Chinese pupils' "mean value" (average) is higher; they have a higher net average whether at primary, secondary, or university level compared with their peers of the same age group in other countries.

This is an important advantage for Chinese education, unmatched by other developing countries or even developed countries. One just has to look at the PISA (Program for International Students Assessment) rating, in which Shanghai pupils have been consistently among the best in recent years. In this global assessment, we have seen plenty of offspring of poor migrant families who score much better in math than the children of America's middle-class families.

Photo: Claire mono

So how do we do it? The massive investment of both the government and the parents, the Chinese tradition of attaching great importance to education, and the fact that Chinese pupils spend more time studying — all contribute to this achievement. Even though there remain many problems in China's basic education, Chinese teachers possess admirable professionalism. Even in higher education, China is, in general, remarkable in teaching basic knowledge and imparting top academic skills.

Such an education advantage has been crucial in promoting China's economy during the low-income development phase, because it fits with the "imitate and improve" efforts of China to "catch up" to the developed world.

Nevertheless, Chinese students' higher "mean value" comes with a smaller "variance," another statistics term meaning that, to put in the simplest terms, China produces far fewer truly outstanding performers or top creative talents.

We surely all know that the emergence of such top-rung talent has a very low probability. Since "natural gifts" are more or less the same in every ethnic group, then outstanding talents should be proportional to population.

Where are the Nobels?

Yet, with a population as big as 1.3 billion, China has so far produced no Nobel Prize winning scientists from its domestic laboratories. China doesn't have to compare itself with developed countries, but can look at India instead — since two countries have similar demographic bases, and India's per capita income is actually lower than that of China.

There is no doubt that on average India has a lower education level. Yet it possesses many more first-rate talents. There are many examples in my own field; the incumbent deans of prestigious world-class business schools, such as the Harvard Business School, Chicago School of Business, Cornell School of Business, and the Washington University School of Business are all of Indian origin. Meanwhile, the current CEOs of multinationals such as Microsoft, Pepsi, Deutsche Bank, and MasterCard are also of Indian descent. So far, no Chinese people have made it to these top positions.

It's a general perception that Chinese people are weaker in creative drive, leadership, and influence. Hsue-Shen Tsien, the late Chinese scientist who made important contributions to both China and America's missile and space programs, once asked "Why can't our schools cultivate outstanding talents?" My hunch is that this question is questionable itself.

Chinese scientist Hsue-Shen Tsien — Photo: PD-CHINA; PD-CN.

Can talents be "cultivated?" Probably not. Rather they "burst out" in an environment that is fertile. Thus, creating favorable conditions, or let's say "fostering," is far more worthwhile than "raising" or "cultivating" talents. In two of my former speeches, respectively addressed to my university's graduates and to Chinese entrepreneurs, I stressed that Chinese students lack curiosity, imagination, and critical thinking capabilities.

Curiosity and imagination are partly innate, at least for some. However, the environment can erode them. It's most likely that the more one is educated, the less curious and imaginative one becomes. Coupled with the fact Chinese students are not encouraged in critical thinking, it is no wonder so few Chinese students become creative.

Therefore, it's not that Chinese schools is unable to "raise" top talents, but rather that the Chinese education system "suffocates" their potential.

When a country is at a low-income stage, and its economic development depends mainly on imitating and improving, it's not critical that its talent "variance" is relatively low, as long as its "mean value" is not also low. However, once entering into the middle-income zone, creation is the way to drive development, and a small variance affects innovation and, in particular, disruptive innovation.

Values matter

This socio-economic rationale goes far in explaining China's economic achievements of the past 30 years, but also predicts the problems it will face when entering the next stage of development.

Moreover, the ill of Chinese education lies not only in the fact that it doesn't foster top talent, but that it produces many lacking a sense of the society as a whole, which we see in the widespread corruption in public and private sectors.

There exists a sense of urgency for talent in Chinese society, and this demand for instant success results in contempt for nurturing "human" qualities, and in turn results in even more serious social problems.

In my view, the primary challenge of Chinese education is not about how to foster talent, but how to cultivate people with upstanding behavior. Only if it can move beyond the uniquely utilitarian role that education plays will China free itself from the constraints to its progress as a truly modern country.

*Qian Yingyi is the dean of the School of Economics and Management at Tsinghua University; this article is taken from a speech he gave in Beijing.

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The Olympic torch is lit at the Archaeological site of Olympia in Greece.

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Asham!*

Welcome to Tuesday, where Pyongyang test fires a suspected submarine-launched missile, Colin Powell is remembered, Poland-EU tensions rise, and yay (or yeesh): it's officially Ye. Meanwhile, our latest edition of Work → In Progress takes the pulse of the new professional demands in a recovering economy.

[*Oromo - Ethiopia and Kenya]

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• North Korea fires missile off Japan coast: South Korea military reports that North Korea has fired a ballistic missile into the waters off the coast of Japan. The rocket, thought to have been launched from a submarine, is the latest test in a series of provocations in recent weeks.

• Poland/EU tensions: Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has accused the EU of "blackmail" and said the European Union is overstepping its powers, in a heated debate with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over the rule of law. The escalation comes in the wake of a controversial ruling by Poland's Constitutional Tribunal that puts national laws over EU principles.

• Colin Powell remembered: Tributes are pouring for former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, after his death yesterday at age 84. Although fully vaccinated, Powell died from complications from COVID-19 as he was battling blood cancer. A trailblazing soldier, he then helped shape U.S. foreign policy, as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and served as the nation's top diplomat for George W. Bush. Powell's legacy is, by his own admission, "blotted" by his faulty claims of weapons of mass destruction to justify the U.S. war in Iraq.

• Russia to suspend NATO diplomatic mission amid tension: Russia is suspending its diplomatic mission to NATO and closing the alliance's offices in Moscow as relations with the Western military block have plunged to a new low. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced the move after NATO expelled eight diplomats from Russia's mission for alleged spying. Relations between NATO and Russia have been strained since Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

• Ecuador state of emergency to battle drug crime: President Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency amid Ecuador's surge in drug-related violence. He announced the mobilization of police and the military to patrol the streets, provide security, and confront drug trafficking and other crimes.

• Taliban agrees to house-to-house polio vaccine drive: The WHO and Unicef campaign will resume nationwide polio vaccinations after more than three years, as the new Taliban government agreed to support the campaign and to allow women to participate as frontline health workers. Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are the last countries in the world with endemic polio, an incurable and infectious disease

• Kanye West officially changes name: Some say yay, some say yeesh, but it's official: The-artist-formerly-known-as-Kanye-West has legally changed his name to Ye, citing "personal reasons."

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

The Washington Post pays tribute to Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. Secretary of State, who died at 84 years old from complications from COVID-19.


💬  LEXICON

Jashn-e Riwaaz

Indian retailer Fabindia's naming its new collection Jashn-e Riwaaz, an Urdu term meaning "celebration of tradition," has been met with severe backlash and calls for boycott from right-wing Hindu groups. They are accusing the brand of false appropriation by promoting a collection of clothes designed for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, but giving it a name in Urdu, a language spoken by many Muslims.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Work → In Progress: Where have all the workers gone?

After the economic slowdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, companies all over the world are taking advantage of loosened lockdowns and progress on the vaccine front to ramp up operations and make up for lost productivity. But the frenetic spurts of the recovery are getting serious pushback. This edition of Work → In Progress looks not only at the coming changes in our post-COVID economy, but also the ways our world is re-evaluating professional obligations.

🗓️ Hail the 4-day week Across the planet, the shorter work week trend is spreading like wildfire. Four is the new five. Spain began experimenting with the concept earlier this year. New Zealand launched a similar trial run in 2020. And in Iceland, efforts to curb working hours date all the way back to 2015, with significant results: 86% of the country's workforce gained the right to reduce work hours with no change in pay.

🚚 Empty seats In the United States, meanwhile, a severe lack of truck drivers has the country's transportation industry looking to hire from abroad. The only problem is … the shortage is happening worldwide, in part because of the e-commerce boom in the wake of worldwide quarantines. The Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano reports that companies will be scrambling to fill the jobs of 17,000 truck drivers in the next two years. The article blames low wages and the dangerous nature of the job, stating that Italian companies are making moves to employ foreign workers.

💼 Key help wanted It's all well and good to question current working conditions. But what about 20 years from now? Will we be working at all? A recent article in the French daily Les Echos posed just that question, and posits that by 2041 — and with the exception of a few select jobs — automation and digitalization will decimate employment. The piece refers to the lucky few as "essential workers," a concept that originated with COVID lockdowns when almost all labor halted and only a minority of workers capable of performing society's most crucial in-person tasks were allowed to carry on.

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📣 VERBATIM

I'm worried for my Afghan sisters.

— Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai Nobel Prize tells the BBC that despite the Taliban's announcement that they would soon lift the ban on girls' education in Afghanistan, she worries it "might last for years."

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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