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.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ