Urban China rarely suffers from lack of funding and resources thanks to its close ties to the central government. While it doesn’t have crumbling school buildings, unqualified teachers, increasing drop-outs, school closures, and overcrowding to deal with, urban cities struggle with an entirely new set of problems that not only concerns its education system, but also the social atmosphere of China.
Degree-ocracy – the New Aristocracy
China, along with its other East Asian neighbours, is witnessing the emergence of a new kind of social status. Social scientists call it “degree-ocracy” – a modern day version of aristocracy based not on a person’s heritage, but on their level of academic achievements. This trend stems from China’s unique history of rapid economic and social development.
China grew at an astonishing rate during the last few decades, particularly since the 1980s. China already had three types of labourers at this stage: low-skill labourers that were illiterate or semi-illiterate, middle-skill labourers with primary and/or secondary education, and high-skill labourers with post-secondary education diplomas.1
China’s economic development in the 1980s was fuelled by substantial capital investments applied to the largely medium-skill labor China acquired before its economic reforms began. Abundance of medium-skill labor and large physical capital obtained through the Open Door policy continued to push the Chinese economy forward. As its economy strengthened and China integrated into the world scene, its demands for high-skill workers increased dramatically. In 1999, the government implemented radical expansion of higher education to produce the needed high-skill labourers, and this movement still continues. According to the National Bureau of Statistics of China, college graduates increased by more than six-fold from 2001 (960,000 graduates) to 2010 (6,350,000).2
As the central government continues its policies to produce more high-skill labourers and stress their importance in the country’s overall development, a growing portion of the population is led to believe that high-skill labourers are the intelligent, useful resources for China’s future, more so than middle and low-skill labourers. This consequently leads to elitism and discrimination based on one’s level of academic achievements, which is the issue of degree-ocracy at hand. China is already having difficulty addressing regional inequality, elitism and discrimination between different regions of the country. Degree-ocracy is another blow to China’s rhetoric of national unity, creating divisions not only between regions but also within regions.
“Lost Generation” – Continuing Impacts of the Cultural Revolution
While every country struggles with elitism and competition of social status to a certain degree, China’s idiosyncratic history and the consequent attachment to social darwinism also make degree-ocracy more socially destructive than many other countries.
The Cultural Revolution in theory was intended to create a classless society through ideological moderation and uniform education. However, the influence that the generation of the Cultural Revolution experiencers have on today’s generation of youths shows quite an interesting contrast to the Cultural Revolution’s theoretical objective. Also referred to as the “Lost Generation”, these people personally experienced the consequences of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Most people of this generation are now parents or young grandparents of today’s youth and for their families, impacts of the catastrophic “reform” still reverberates.
As part of the reform, Mao forcibly dispatched millions of urban-dwellers to the countryside to work on farms. For students that were working towards a guaranteed employment that their parents were enjoying prior to the revolution, it was like having their carpets pulled out from under their feet. Hu Rongfen, now 59, was interviewed by CNN about her experiences during the Cultural Revolution and its impacts on her life. Hu was a quiet, soft-spoken middle-school girl at the top of her class when she was sent off to a rural village in Anhui Province in 1971. She is among the estimated 17 million “intellectual youths” that were turned into farmers in the most remote parts of the country. Hu was lucky since she returned to her studies in mechanics at a college in Hefei in 1974, for most of her generation did not get a chance to return to their studies.3
These experiences play a critical role in this generation’s attitude in educating their children. Since much of the Lost Generation believes that they were deprived of their right to education and to pursue their dreams, many consciously and unconsciously try to live their lives vicariously through their children. Sun Xioyun, deputy director of the Youth and Children Research Center of China, stated that the Cultural Revolution “ruined many parents’ golden years…so they tend to place all their hopes on the next generation”.4
This dependence contributes immensely to the trend of degree-ocracy, as parents become more competitive than ever to see their children enter the best universities and get hired at the best-paying employers. For the Lost Generation, the Cultural Revolution did not foster belief in equality and conformity. Instead, it left behind dissatisfied ambitions and bitterness about lost dreams.
Lost Generation’s Offsprings – Brain Drain and “Coddled Generation”
Unsurprisingly, children are under great pressure to do well in school and use every bit of energy they have to study for Gaokao, China’s National Higher Education Entrance Examination. This 9-hour exam is a student’s worst nightmare. Students must study for three mandatory subjects (Chinese, Mathematics, and a foreign language) and 1-3 out of 6 standard subjects depending on the program they are applying to (Physics, Chemistry, Biology, History, Geography, Political Education). Many students study to take at least 2 or 3 standard subjects to make themselves more competitive out of the millions of students trying to enter university.5
Many students do not make the cut on their first attempt. These students either study another year to take the test again, or give up their chance for a stable life and employment in the degree-obsessed employment market. The problem is that more students are starting to believe this competitively structured education is useless. Cao Siyuan, CEO of Beijing Siyuan Social Science Research Center, stated in an interview that there is a “new opinion in China that studying has become pointless. It is not easy to find a job after studying in college, and even then, the salary is not high. So many people have developed the view that studying is now pointless, resulting in declining enthusiasm for the college entrance exams”.6
As enthusiasm for education within China withers, more students are choosing to leave China to study abroad. According to National Bureau of Statistics, nearly 340,000 people left to study abroad in 2011, and over 400,000 in 2012. This number is expected to increase every year, taking a massive toll on China as one of the most severe “Brain Drains” in the world.7
Aside from putting children under extreme pressure and sending them abroad, the Lost Generation is spawning what social scientists call a “Coddled Generation”. Remembering their horrific times at rural farms, parents of the Lost Generation vow that they will never let their own children live through such struggle. And how do they go about protecting their children from the evils of the world? By coddling them like “precious snowflakes” since day one, insulating them from anything that might be seen as harmful or distracting from their children’s academic life, whether it be a part-time job or having a boyfriend/girlfriend.8
Parents might be maximizing study hours for their children and hopefully increasing their chances to do well on Gaokao, but the “Coddled Generation” is also being deprived of their chance to live a real life outside of textbooks. Consequently, increasing number of students are dropping out of school to rebel against their parents’ suffocating academic routine and unrealistic expectations. The dynamic between the Lost Generation and degree-ocracy turns into a vicious cycle, with the Lost Generation fuelling education elitism with unprecedented competitiveness. As a result, the Coddled Generation is trapped in a society that is attaching itself to social darwinism more and more by the hour.
Concluding China’s Education Woes
Rural China and urban China face entirely different challenges. Rural regions are breaking their backs trying to solve systemic flaws in the education system that do not properly support children with adequate resources and facilities. Urban China is struggling with the cultural and psychological impacts of a historical generation that is creating a new social phenomenon, not necessarily a structural problem like rural areas. Despite the differences in the nature of their problems, they still have one thing in common: if China means to maintain its position as a growing global power and wants to better protect the future of their country, both problems must be addressed promptly and effectively. Finding the resources to fund all the minuscule rural schools and changing cultural and social trends are both immense tasks. There is a historical example of a solution to the systemic problems in rural China. Now China has to look for a solution for the social problems of urban China. Since China has the brain power of 1.344 billion people, hopefully it will be able to generate sufficiently innovating ideas to save its own future.