Project 211

Politics is corroding Chinese love of learning

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 December, 2011, 12:00am


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China has an old saying: nothing is as important as reading. This gives the impression that China as a nation loves knowledge and study. But, last year, a survey by the Chinese Academy of Press and Publication found that Chinese read on average just over four books a year. That's far fewer than South Koreans (11 books), the French (20), the Japanese (40) and Israelis (64). At the same time, another study, by the All-China Federation of Industry & Commerce, shows that, in the past 10 years, nearly half of the private bookstores on the mainland have failed - and this trend is rising.

So, what makes the idea of reading rank so highly yet, in reality, so few books are read? Politics. In China, a degree or diploma not only brings honour and benefit, but is also necessary for promotion in government.

In recent changes in the Chinese Communist Party's 13 provincial or regional leaderships, 23 new leaders have a doctorate. In China, degrees are so crucial that people are inclined to falsify records and buy diplomas if necessary.

In one infamous case, Hu Changqing, the former deputy governor of Jiangxi who was executed for bribery, was found to have bought a law degree in Beijing and proudly called himself a Peking University graduate.

Politics influences education decisions at all levels. In late 2008, the Central Organisation Department formulated a plan to bring in some 2,000 first-class scientific and technical professionals from abroad in the next five to 10 years. Reportedly, the plan has so far attracted more than 1,100 professionals to China, but none is a Nobel Prize winner or of similar standing, which is clearly what was hoped for. For now, the weightiest outcome of this project may be to quicken the pace of advances in military technology.

Yet such projects cannot improve Chinese educational quality and the learning environment. For China, the key problem is the fact that politics has a monopoly on education.

And it seems that the party is strengthening its grip. According to Xinhua, in the most recent round of leadership transfers at universities, at least three heads of top universities - Peking, Shandong and Central South - have been replaced by senior party officers. This deepens the trend of bureaucrats running education.

Politics, above all else, nips at Chinese creativity, so education must be allowed to be independent. For the party, its tight grip on education and thought is nothing new; it is in fact a repeat of a tradition that has existed in Chinese history for several thousand years. Hence, only if the party removes its hand can a brand new history be created.

Zhang Xiaomao is a scholar and chief editor at Dao Yi Media in Shenzhen