More to fear in China's schools than sexual predators

Zhang Xiaomao says no national revival is possible without a shake-up

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 June, 2013, 10:03pm

If the tainted milk scandal did huge harm to former president Hu Jintao's vision of a "harmonious society", then the latest cases of sexual assaults in schools by teachers make a mockery of President Xi Jinping's dream of reviving the Chinese nation.

According to media reports, in the past month alone there have been at least nine incidents of serious sexual assault in China's schools. Given Xi's appeal, on the eve of International Children's Day recently, for efforts to nurture and prevent harm to children, he may well be aware of the problem.

Government control has stifled academic independence and individuals’ creative spirit

The revelations have badly tarnished the traditional image of Chinese teachers, who have been held up as models of virtue and learning, and have also shaken people's confidence in the education system.

In fact, what should really worry the public is China's total disregard for education.

This is seen in the fact that, under rules enforced by local authorities, parents still have to pay to send their children to school, even though the nation's education law that mandates the right to free education has been in force for 27 years.

This horrible inconsistency between the realities and the law calls into question the effectiveness of the latter.

Then there is the lack of effective penalties for parents who don't send their children to school. As a result, there may be millions who are not receiving any education, although official data is hard to come by. Some unofficial statistics show that China had 142 million children not in school before 1992, and about 27 million in 2003 alone.

Just how can China expect to achieve the dream of reviving the nation without an independent, creative intelligentsia? Increasingly the dream looks like a mirage.

China produces many graduates, for sure, but it's about numbers, not quality. The real technical and academic strength lies mainly in those students who choose to study abroad; many of them never return.

According to a "blue paper" published by the Social Sciences Academic Press, China had 339,700 students studying abroad in 2011 - the most of any nation. The same report says that from 1978 to 2011, China sent more than 2.2 million students overseas to study, of whom only 818,400, or fewer than 40 per cent, have come back.

One of these returnees is molecular biologist Shi Yigong, now the dean of life sciences at Tsinghua University. He was elected a member of the US National Academy of Sciences this year, yet he has been passed over by the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Why? One reason is that the Chinese academy is not a purely academic establishment, but one with a complex bureaucracy and controlled by the government. These are common characteristics of Chinese educational institutions and it is this control that has stifled academic independence and the creative spirit of these organisations and individuals, making them slaves to power.

As a result, the nation has yet to produce a native Nobel Prize winner in science, and most of its technological progress has been achieved through imitation, transfer and even theft.

Without academic autonomy and inventiveness, how can China ever realise its dream? It is impossible for a nation lacking dynamic scholarly autonomy and creativity to develop and improve.

It's time for the central government to start dealing with these problems at a national level, and give teachers the freedoms they need to be able to channel their energies where they can best benefit the nation.

Zhang Xiaomao is a scholar and freelance writer based in Shenzhen