At The Back of the Class

by Jasper Becker

 A century ago, mass education was one of the causes pushed by reformers in the last decades of the Qing Dynasty who hoped it would "save" China. At the end of the 19th century 90 per cent of the Chinese could not read or write and Chinese reformers hoped by jettisoning the dead weight of the past a new China would emerge.

How have these dreams been realised? As the new century draws to a close, the mainland may have mastered nuclear technology and rocket science but it remains a country with almost the worst record on education in the world.

As has been the case for the past 2,000 years, the mainland is governed by an educated minority and almost nothing is spent on the rest of the state. The history of the hopes and failures of the mainland's education mirrors the political struggles to forge a new nation.

The same problems will remain in the 21st century. There can be no real leap forward unless there is a population educated enough to sustain its progress.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation statistics are the basis of any prosecution's case. A table drawn up in 1995 ranks China 119th of 130 countries in terms of its per capita spending on education. China allocated just 2.3 per cent of its gross domestic product.

By comparison, developed countries spend on average 5.3 per cent on education while the majority of developing countries spend 4.1 per cent. Altogether there are some 300 million illiterates or semi-illiterates in China, and about 18 per cent of the population older than 15 cannot read or write.

In China's defence, it must be recognised that state spending on education has quintupled over 20 years and reached 119 billion yuan (HK$105 billion) by 1998. Between 1978 and 1994, the number of colleges doubled to 1,080 and student enrolment has more than tripled.

The 1982 population census found that just 0.87 per cent of the workforce had college degrees. Eighteen years later, China claims that a mere 1.9 per cent has tertiary education, compared to more than 50 per cent in the United States and in neighbouring countries such as South Korea or Japan.

China would clearly be a very different place today if the early efforts that went into creating a mass education system had been sustained.

The first Chinese university was founded during the "100 Days Reforms" of 1898 and in 1905 the imperial examinations, taken by only a few thousand students a year, were formally abandoned. China's first ruler after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, General Yuan Shikai, pushed for compulsory and free primary schooling for the male population.

What went wrong? One thread running through China's 20th-century history is that at all times China's rulers have always preferred to lavish spending on the military.

After the 1919 May 4th movement, students went on to establish a student union which regularly petitioned the government. This was the first time China's intelligentsia had become a political force independent of the country's rulers and the students attacked the government for spending 80 per cent of its budget on the military.

The Kuomintang government which came to power in the 1920s encouraged the expansion of higher education. In the 1930s, it made university education free and for the first time in Chinese history, education was thrown open to girls.

However, the state struggled to finance its ambitious programme. As Chiang Kai-shek's government sought to control a country rent by warlords, communist guerillas and a Japanese invasion, it concentrated all resources on the military.

Many educational institutions resorted to levying all kinds of fees and as student anger and frustration grew, the Communist Party found the universities a rich recruiting ground.

The Kuomintang then tried to re-establish political control over academia. As the Japanese occupied more and more of China, many universities relocated first to the Kuomintang capital at Nanjing, then to Chongqing and other cities in the southwest.

After Japan's defeat when universities moved back to Shanghai or Beijing, the funding crisis worsened, with students unable to afford fees and the professors struggling to collect their salaries.

Students in Shanghai used the Kuomintang's failure to fund education as a focus for anti-government protests. They complained that Chiang's government had cut education spending to just 3.6 per cent of expenditure.

Jiang Zemin was one of those students who joined the protests and then the Communist Party. Other top leaders in the 1990s, including Qiao Shi and Qian Qichen, followed a similar path. Mr Jiang was studying engineering at Jiaotong University which planned to axe many of its staff and close all but the engineering department.

In 1946, he turned out to show support for a delegation heading to Nanjing, the Kuomintang capital, on 35 trucks to deliver a petition. The supporters chanted: "End the civil war! Cut military spending! Increase education spending!"

The first protests were successful, the authorities handed out grants to 10,000 students unable to afford the fees. In the summer students raised money for impoverished professors with a fund-raising movement called "Respect Teachers".

A second time, the students organised a delegation to push for more education funding, Kuomintang troops were turned out to beat up the protesters. Soon afterwards Mr Jiang, like many intellectuals of his generation, formally joined the Communist Party.

In 1949 with the communist victory, the second thread which has run through China's 20th-century history became even more prominent. What was education for? In the first 50 years most educational establishments were intended to promote "Westernisation", to enable students to learn Western science, technology, political thought and culture. It involved a rejection of most of China's traditional culture. Many blamed China's backwardness on a narrow elitist education system directed towards state examinations based on the fossilised knowledge of Confucianism and the mastery of a "dead language", classical Chinese.

Much of the system was deeply influenced by foreigners, especially Americans. They were closely involved with the establishment of modern schools and universities, often run by missionaries, all over China but especially in the treaty ports.

The Americans spent the reparations China paid to the Western powers after the Boxer Rebellion on building some of China's most famous institutions, such as Yenching University, the site of which is now Beijing University, the nation's premier university. By the time of Mao Zedong's victory, Protestant colleges alone were teaching 12,000 Chinese students a year or one in 10. Mao himself went to a teachers' college in Wuhan, worked as a teacher and later worked at Yenching University.

Yet Mao was to turn violently against the whole class of Western-educated and influenced Chinese and destroy the education system, leaving a crippling legacy.

Even now nobody can ever really say why. No explanations have ever been offered for the Cultural Revolution which was a rejection both of "Westernisation" and the old Confucian culture.

In the first years following the communist victory, the party was praised for opening schools, launching literacy campaigns and stabilising the funding of higher education. The new system abandoned the American-influenced education system and became a replica of the Soviet system.

Yet investment soon faltered, first because of the Anti-Rightist Campaign in which close to one million students, teachers and other intellectuals were persecuted, and then the Great Leap Forward and the collapse of the whole economy.

Schooling in much of the country was suspended from 1959 and a few years later the Cultural Revolution broke out. Schools became embroiled in "making revolution" and teachers were persecuted. Universities shut down entirely for five years and then only reopened to admit worker, soldier and peasant students.

The party claimed its education policies were anti-elitist and directed resources for the broad masses. China boasted that elementary school attendance had reached 98.4 per cent in 1974.

Many foreigners believed this nonsense, including American economist Professor John Kenneth Galbraith who toured schools and universities that year and compared them favourably to those in the United States. Tony Benn, a minister in the British Labour government, also returned impressed and claimed that Britain had a lot to learn from China.

The reality was very different. Trained teachers were listed along with landlords, counter-revolutionaries and bad elements as enemies of the people and beaten and often killed.

As Chinese writer Zheng Yi reported in Scarlet Memorial, teachers in Guangxi province were not only killed in public but their flesh was cooked and eaten even by some of their own pupils.

To replace the qualified teachers and doctors, the Communist Party introduced the untrained peasants - the famous "barefoot doctor" - and unqualified peasant teachers.

Within a year of Mao's death, politburo member Fang Yi made a savage attack on Mao's education policies and outlined new ones. He castigated Maoist slogans such as "study is useless", or "the more knowledge you have the more reactionary you are".

He singled out a student, Zhang Tiesheng, who had been widely praised in 1974 for handing in a blank sheet of paper for his university entrance examinations.

Fang said it had been a mistake for China not to award a single degree, master's or doctorate in 13 years. A few years later, the 1982 census revealed what many had suspected: half the Chinese or some 519 million people were illiterate or semi-literate.

Fang declared that a team of 1,300 experts was drawing up a new education programme with new textbooks and a new and bigger budget. He promised to make nine-year education universal by 1985 and to restore the status and living standards of teachers. Education was made one of the "Four Modernisations".

For the past 20 years, the Chinese Communist Party has time and again drawn up new plans to bring education up to international standards but these have never been realised. The money has continued to be diverted to the military and to fund costly defence-related projects such as the recent space capsule, Shenzhou, which circumnavigated the world. In 1985 a new plan had to be drawn up. This time 10,000 experts were consulted for "The Reform of China's Education System".

The timetable for nine-year education was again pushed back 10 years for rural China and it called for a system to turn out 10 million students a year by 2000.

This, too, was wildly optimistic and education became a bitterly fought over battle ground between the different wings of the party. The crisis culminated with the 1989 Tiananmen protests, the most important since 1919. Education chief Li Peng was blamed for mishandling the ambitious education programme by failing to provide enough funds for the nine-year compulsory education programme.

Moves to liberalise the universities led to protests in Hefei led by Professor Fang Lizhi. In Shanghai, Mr Jiang, then the party secretary of Shanghai, was heckled when he went back to his alma mater by students angry at the government's education record.

The following March during the National People's Congress, the People's Daily quoted teachers who complained that their spending power was a 10th of what teachers had before 1937 and asked why after 20 years they were still waiting for their lives to improve. China admitted that 70 per cent of teachers were either untrained or unqualified and just 60 per cent of children managed to finish primary school. Newspapers reported how in Hunan teachers ordered their students on to the streets to sell apples. In Shanghai teachers were found on the streets peddling boiled eggs and ice-cream.

On the eve of the massive student protests and the bloodshed that followed, Deng Xiaoping reportedly admitted: "Our greatest failure in the past 10 years was lack of sufficient education development."

Even the tiny minority who benefited from the small number of selective key schools and universities which garnered the majority of state funds were deeply dissatisfied. In fact, they led the protests which almost brought down the Communist Party.

Deng took back his words in 1989 and said he really meant ideological education was the biggest shortcoming of his reforms. When Mr Jiang was appointed Deng's successor, he quickly cut education spending to its lowest level and sharply boosted the PLA's budget, exactly what he had blamed Chiang for doing in 1947.

China's education spending fell to less than two per cent of GDP in 1992. The dropout rate in primary schools reached 35 per cent or some eight million children, predominantly girls. Rural teachers were owed 340 million yuan in back wages and they were still being paid less than manual workers.

Since then the entire education system has become semi-privatised with many rural and urban families unable to afford the tuition fees. Even for those who can afford it, the opportunities are few, with just two million university places for 47 million middle school students.

The country which has been short of seven million graduates in the past 10 years still needs to retrain 10 million of its 14 million school teachers. With most of the 300,000 students who have gone abroad unwilling to return, China will be short of at least 10 million graduates in the years up to 2010.

And, with just 25 million college graduates out of 1.3 billion who are concentrated in a few big cities, the mainland remains as it was at the start of the century - a land of peasants ruled by a tiny urban elite. Whether that changes in the next 100 years will be one of Beijing's biggest challenges.

Published on Saturday, January 1, 2000 in the South China Morning Post.
Copyright © 1999. All rights reserved.

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