In 1949, at the time of Liberation, more than 80 per cent of China's population was illiterate. By 2008, this figure had dropped to 3.6 per cent, though female illiteracy is thought to be much higher than male, at around 12 per cent. Some critics also say China has low standards for defining literacy.
But education on the mainland has been transformed over the past 30 years, since Deng Xiaoping declared it as one of the four pillars to making China the greatest economic power in the world.
The biggest reforms kicked off in 1985, when Deng presided over the National Conference on Education. He set a goal of making education compulsory for nine years by the year 2000. He increased the education budget by 72 per cent. University intake has shot up nearly six-fold (from 1.8 million in 1998 to 6.08 million in 2008) thanks to the construction of new universities.
But China needs to strive for more balance. Education is still seen as a means to an end - economic prosperity - and, as such, is focused heavily on maths and sciences. Experts also point out that China remains weak in liberal studies that require questioning authoritative voices, and until this happens, the education system - and the future leaders it produces - will never be as well-rounded as those churned out by a more liberal education system.
Economically, China is the world's most promising pupil and seems almost invincible as it continues to grow every year, while the rest of the world struggles with recession. But at such a pace it is also starting to show signs of wear.
In less than 60 years, a commune-based regime has transformed into the world's second-largest economy (by comparison, it took the United States almost 200 years to become the world's largest). This is mainly due to massive economic reforms in the '80s and '90s, when the government allowed its economy to, slowly, open up to the world. While foreign investments poured in, China built itself into an industrial powerhouse, providing cheap labour and products.
But like every country, cracks showed during the global recession. Earlier this month the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences reported that up to 41 million workers have lost their jobs since the recession began last year, accounting for 40 per cent of the world's unemployed. The government, however, quickly responded with a 4 trillion yuan (HK$4.5 trillion) stimulus package last November.
That said, the Asian Development Bank estimates the mainland's economy will grow by 8.2 per cent this year compared to 2008.
China appears to be gradually getting over its tendency to conceal pandemics and other health threats. It failed in 2002, when it hid Sars, until the disease popped up in Hong Kong through a visiting doctor from Shenzhen. And last year China was similarly tight-lipped about the use of melamine in its infant formula, which even poisoned babies in far-flung United States.
But China's response to the swine flu has been more efficient. Earlier this month the government also approved a Sinovac vaccine and spearheaded a mass vaccination campaign.
China should also be commended for its response to the Sichuan earthquake last year, which killed approximately 90,000, according to the latest official death toll. The government continues to pour billions of yuan to reconstruct devastated areas.
It is probably safe to say that if a problem doesn't originate from a Chinese human error, the government will act swiftly.
NBA star Yao Ming certainly isn't the only Chinese national making headlines these days. Take 27-year-old Li Na, from Hubei , Asia's top-seeded tennis star with a world ranking of 16. In 2006 she was the first Chinese player to make the finals of Wimbledon. This year she just missed the semi-finals of the US Open.
Meanwhile, last year, 31-year-old Liang Wen-chong of Guangdong became the first Chinese golfer to qualify for one of the four major tournaments in the world (in this case, the British Open).
The Olympics - during which China won more gold medals than any other country - also produced many young, world-class athletes.
The environment continues to be one of China's weakest subjects. Two years ago, China officially overtook the United States as the world's greatest contributor to carbon emissions, according to several independent studies. This is not surprising, given its massive population and rapid industrialisation.
The world is now looking to China and the US to lead in the area of environmental protection. But China doesn't want this responsibility, as its leaders have asserted in various ways.
It should be pointed out, though, that no world leader has got it right when it comes to the environment. Japan continues to ignore international bans on whale hunting.
The US, the world's worst polluter, has redirected resources into rescuing its economy.