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Chinese Education History and Recent Reforms


One of the most notable discursive aspects of the 21st century’s living is that, as time goes on, China continues to grow ever more powerful in both economic and geopolitical senses of this word. It now became commonplace among political scientists/politicians in the West to suggest that it is only a matter of time before this country replaces the US as the world’s leading power. As Zhang pointed out, “The Chinese economy is now second only to the US economy… China will continue to increase its economic strength until it attains superpower status, thereby ending the era of US hegemony”.[1] In its turn, the so-called “Chinese economic miracle” was made possible by the rapid growth of the economy’s heavy-industry sector.

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This development would not have occurred if, throughout China’s industrialization, there would not be an abundance of the highly educated workforce “fueling” the actual process. The same can be said about the current trend of China’s economy becoming increasingly diversified (we refer to the expansion of its service-sector) – the process that presupposes the workforce’s capacity to adjust to the newly emerged socioeconomic circumstances. Therefore, it will be thoroughly appropriate to refer to the very functioning of China’s education system as such that contains many clues as to what predetermined the sheer competitiveness of the country’s Socialist political system, deeply rooted the ideology of Marxism and the philosophy of Confucianism. In this paper, I will explore the validity of this suggestion at length while promoting the idea that, contrary to what it being commonly assumed in the West, the continual “liberalization” of China’s system of education does not signify the eventual decline of Socialism in this country. Rather, it signifies that Socialism can be modified to the extent of becoming thoroughly competitive with Capitalism.

China Today

As of today, China is deemed to be one of the most economically developed countries in the world – not the least because ever since the late seventies (when the Communist Party of China declared the adoption of the market-reform policy), the growth of the country’s economy attained nothing short of an exponential momentum. According to Akkemik, “The average annual growth rate of real GDP in China during the period 995-2010 was an incredible 9.9 %… (it) slowed down after 2007 due to the global financial crisis. However, despite the decline, the economic growth rate was still in the vicinity of 9-10 %”.[2] To understand the full significance of the above-stated, it must be noted that in the post-crisis West the economy’s annual growth at the rate of 0.5% is considered more than satisfactory.

Along with continuing to invest in the economy’s growth, the government also applies a great effort into expanding the sphere of China’s “soft power”. The validity of this suggestion can be illustrated regarding the Chinese government’s conceptualization of the so-called “‘One Belt, One Road” developmental strategy, concerned with establishing a maritime/land-based trade route between China and the EU.[3] China also provides much financial assistance to other developing countries – something that helps it even further on the way of aspiring for the status of the world’s yet another superpower (along with the US and Russia).

It must be noted, however, that the Chinese outlook on the notion’s actual meaning differs rather substantially from the Western (that is, Anglos-Saxon) one. For example, whereas most Americans tend to define “superpower” as the country that gives out orders to the weaker nations while expecting unquestionable obedience, on the latter’s part, the Chinese (and Russians) believe that “superpower” is the country that can well afford to refuse taking orders from others. [4]

One may wonder as to how it proved possible for China to rise to the position of geopolitical prominence within a manner of less than forty years (since the beginning of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in 1978), especially given the fact that it never ceased being the subject of Western colonialism since the late 18th century until the Communist revolution of 1949?

The above-formulated question can be partially answered by the reference made to what it is commonly deemed as the most authentic Chinese (Confucian) curse, “May you live in a time of change”.[5] After all, as this particular curse suggests, the worst thing that can happen to an individual is when he or she is there to witness some kind abrupt social change taking place – the idea thoroughly consistent with the very essence of one’s Confucian outlook on life, which stresses out that evolutionary development is the key to peace and prosperity and that the ultimate outcomes of some revolutionary (abrupt) change are chaos and destruction. This is the reason why during the 1988 Tiananmen Square protests, the Chinese leaders did not hesitate to use military force to put an end to yet another Western-endorsed “democratic revolution”, which would have resulted in destroying China’s economy and setting the country on the path of being split apart – just as it happened to the USSR in 1991.

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The last but not the least contributing factor, in this respect, proved to be the Chinese leaders’ awareness of the sheer importance of working out a circumstantially appropriate educational strategy, meant to be deployed on the national level, and the fact that this strategy needs to be continually updated/revised so that it serves the purpose of empowering China ever further. In this respect, Wei came up with the valuable observation, “The (contemporary) education system determines that China can not only take the role of world factory in global economy development, but the world’s research and development center”.[6] In the next part of this paper, I will outline the process’s main qualitative specifics and provide some preliminary insights into what can be considered their discursive significance.

Education Policy in China

Historical Background

Nowadays, it is commonly suggested that the functioning of the education system in China continues to remain closely reflective of the cultural/philosophical legacy of Confucianism, with the latter being most adequately defined as the distinctively “Chinese” way of positioning oneself within the surrounding social environment. Such a point of view is indeed thoroughly justified. After all, Confucianism can also be referred to as the philosophy of societal didacticism, which is there to help preserving the society’s evolutionary formed structure. As Confucius himself used to point out, “The noble person concerns himself with the root; when the root is established, the Way is born… A young man is to be filial within his family and respectful outside it”.[7] And, the very laws of biological evolution predetermine this structure to be strongly hierarchical – hence, Confucianism’s preoccupation with promoting the idea that one must be willing to prioritize the society’s overall interests above those of his or her own.

In its turn, this presupposes that the concerned individual must be utterly respectful of the authority and emotionally comfortable with the “divinely imposed” order of things, “Confucius’ teaching supported class hierarchy and made clear distinctions between members of society”.[8] Given the fact that Confucianism never ceased to exert a strong influence on the formation of educational paradigm in China, there is nothing too odd about the latter’s strong affiliation with the prominently authoritarian/teacher-centered approach to educating people. As Wu aptly observed, “The teacher in the Confucian framework is often regarded as the parental figure to whom the student must pay tribute and respect. The teacher is like a conductor who stands in front of the classroom, explains, monitors, and summarizes activities, and engages the students to mimic her/him”.[9]

There is another qualitative feature to the Chinese traditional model of education – the deployment of the meritocracy principle within the context of how educational/social policies have been designed and enacted through the millennia, in the sense of selecting only the educated individuals (regardless of their social status) for the highly prestigious governmental careers, “China’s traditional emphasis on exams as a pathway to officialdom dates back to its Imperial Exam System (keju) first introduced during the Sui Dynasty in AD 603”.[10] This explains yet another notable characteristic of the educational discourse in China, concerned with the fact that just about every member of Chinese society is naturally driven to believe that one’s value, as a socially integrated individual, positively relates to the scope of his or her educational attainments.

Nevertheless, even though China indeed possesses probably the world’s most extensive culture of education, it did not prevent this country from ending up fallen behind Europe/West in terms of technological development by early as the beginning of the 19th century – something that created the objective preconditions for China to be reduced into the subject of colonial exploitation around the same time back in the history. The clearly phenomenological sounding of a such development can be explained with respect to the well-established fact that the foremost purpose of education Confucianism deems helping a person to attain moral perfection, rather than serving as the instrument of technological progress, “Primarily concerned with moral cultivation, the classical Confucian education is based upon exemplification of ideal personhood, the so-called junzi”.[11] However, there can be only so much “morality” within the context of how different countries act towards each other – especially when assessed through the lenses of the Realist theory of IR. China’s semi-colonial status throughout the 19th century exemplifies the validity of this suggestion perfectly well.

Therefore, by the beginning of the 20th century, it became clear to the representatives of China’s intellectual elites that if their country was to attain de facto independence from the West, the national system of education needed to be modernized. In particular, the focus of educational pursuits had to be switched from helping people to attain excellence in moralizing, to encouraging them to indulge in the dialectical (cause-effect) type of thinking – the key precondition of technological progress, as we know it. At the same time, it was also considered necessary to retain the methodological format of the Chinese educational model, concerned with the idea of teacher-centeredness. As Yang argued, “The central purpose of China’s modern higher education has been to combine Chinese and Western elements at all levels, including institutional arrangements, research methodologies, educational ideals and cultural spirit”.[12] Throughout the Republican period in China’s history (1912-1949), this objective has been partially accomplished.

Nevertheless, it was not up until the establishment of the Communist regime in China (1949) that the country’s educational system became fully compatible with both Western and Eastern outlooks on the nature of learning, in general, and on what should be considered the main goal of education, in particular. The reason for this is that in the aftermath of the Chinese Communist Revolution, the country’s leader Mao Zedong have made a deliberate point in adopting the Soviet educational paradigm, as the actual foundation for designing China’s own policies in the domain of public education. As Yang and Frick pointed out, “The school system, from the earliest years to advanced university study, and from administration to curriculum, started to mimic a style similar to the Soviet Union. Russian became a popular foreign language in the Chinese education curriculum”.[13] In its turn, the Soviet (Russian) educational model is strongly evocative of the Prussian (German) one, which emerged during the mid-1800s. The model’s main principle is that students are encouraged to think analytically while remaining fully observant of the fact that the surrounding reality’s emanations are defined by the qualitative specifics of the dialectical relationship between causes (independent variables) and the triggered

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effects (dependent variables). It is quite notable that the Confucian tradition does endorse analytical thinking by implying that the notion of “knowledge” is synonymous with the notion of “understanding” and that the former should never be confused with the mere memorization of unrelated facts. After all, those capable of analytical thinking are indeed much more likely to understand what will account for the long-term effects of how they go about addressing life-challenges, which consequently increases their value as the society members. Because the analytical mode of thinking has been traditionally associated with the natural sciences, it is fully explainable why these sciences have been able to achieve a dominant status within the Chinese academic curriculum since the early fifties until the beginning of the Cultural Revolution – the development that contributed rather substantially towards the establishment of China’s heavy industry throughout the concerned historical period.

Unfortunately, the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) had a strongly negative effect on the quality of education in China. This simply could not be otherwise – the Revolution’s advocates used to go as far as denouncing both “liberal” (literature, history, art) and “hard” (math, chemistry, physics) sciences for being innately bourgeois. As a result, the learning process was transformed into yet another form of political indoctrination, “The daily life of students who were left in school involved the worship of Chairman Mao. The only curriculum students learned in school was Chairman Mao’s articles, quotes, or communist propaganda”.[14] It is understood, of course, that such a state of affairs could never prove long-lasting. In 1978, China’s new leader Deng Xiaoping announced the adoption of the “open doors” policy, which was expected to help reviving the country’s economy and enable ordinary citizens to enjoy higher standards of living. His successors continued to remain committed towards implementing the policies of economic liberalization, which created many objective prerequisites for the country’s system of education to undergo yet another conceptual transformation.

Most recent educational reforms

As it was mentioned earlier, the year 1978 marks the beginning of free market reforms in China. These reforms were concerned with the legitimation of private entrepreneurship, on one hand, and the creation of the investment-friendly economic climate, on the other. In their turn, both developments revealed that there is a need for workers to be employed within the economy’s growing service-sector – something that could only be achieved by reforming China’s educational system. In 1985, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China came with the Decision on Reform of Education System, with its aim having been “to promote the quality of the whole nation and produce more qualified personnel so as to realize China’s socialist modernization”.[15] This Party’s initiative was concerned with allowing China’s educational institutions to enjoy a higher degree of operational autonomy, on one hand, and adjusting the curricula to be discursively consistent with the undertaken policy of free market reforms, on the other. Even since its enactment in 1985, the Decision has been amended twice – in 1999 and 2006. The most notable characteristics of the educational reform in question can be outlined as follows:

Decentralization. The reform called for the decision-making

powers, within the operational framework of China’s schools, colleges, and universities, to be delegated to the provincial and municipal authorities. For example, according to the provisions of the “Project 211” (another educational reform-initiative enacted in 1993), “The central government will only support 100 institutions in the

twenty-first century, and the remaining institutions will be run by local governments”.[16] As of 2012, the central government was estimated to exercise a direct control over only 120 educational institutions in China – a rather neglectful number, given the country’s enormous population.

Deideologization. The Decision of 1985 specified the split of responsibilities between the educational institution’s governing body, on one hand, and this institution’s branch of the CCP, on the other. The development’s direct consequence had to do with preventing the Party bureaucrats from being able to exert any strong influence on a principle’s intra-institutional decisions, “Decision (1985) has called for

the practice of the system known as ‘responsibility regulation of principal’. The principal is the central person in the management of the school and assumes full responsibility for daily decision-making”.[17] This, in turn, resulted in increasing the overall measure of the educational system’s organizational efficiency. The reason for this is apparent – as the Chinese practice indicated, those who specialize in promoting a particular ideology often prove themselves utterly incompetent when entrusted with the task of increasing the effectiveness of the learning process. As of today, the Party’s presence in China’s institutions of learning is merely formal – despite the fact that Chinese students continue to be subjected to different forms of ideological indoctrination.

Expansion of vocational schooling. The continual enlargement of the servicing sector within China’s economy brought forward a need to increase the number of trained workers in a number of the narrowly defined professional fields. In its turn, this prompted the government to invest in setting up the extensive network of vocational schools across the country, “Until end of 2007, there are 1,168 vocational and technical colleges that have been established in China”.[18] The initiative’s implementation proved utterly beneficial to both the country’s economy and its system of education. The reason for this is that it resulted in increasing the efficacy of the educational resources’ distribution. Moreover, the reform’s yet another important effect had to do with providing a powerful boost to the overall literacy rate in China – particularly in the country’s rural areas.

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Reform of the tuition regulation. Prior to 1985, higher education used to be available to all as a result of having been heavily subsidized by the government. In particular, it were specifically the young people with the so-called “proletarian” background (from the families of impoverished workers/peasants) who used to be given preference upon trying to enter a college or university. Nerveless, throughout the recent few decades, it became an institutionalized practice to categorize students as such that are being covered by different tuition-plans. The concerned categories can be defined as consisting of the “State-supported students”, “commissioned students” (partially sponsored by the government”, and “self-supporting” students. The implementation of this specific reform also resulted in redefining the very methodology of qualifying students to receive educational scholarships from the government, with the old Confucian “meritocratic” principle having been brought into play again, “Before the reform, People’s grant-in-aid was not related to the students’

academic performances… (since 1985) the higher education institutions began to transform the People’s grant-in-aid into a kind of scholarship granted on students’ academic performances”.[19] It is understood, of course, that this resulted in adding even further to the systemic integrity of China’s system of education, as a whole.

“Liberalization”. As it was mentioned earlier, up until the beginning of the market-reform era in China, the academic curricula in this country remained strongly dominated by “hard sciences” – the legacy of the country’s historical affiliation with the Soviet educational model. However, through the early nineties the situation in this respect began to change. As time went on, more and more Chinese students were choosing in favor of liberal education. This particular development was brought about by the government’s realization that, due to the ongoing structural transformation of Chinese society, “it is necessary to make an adjustment in curricular programs, enlarging enrollments in the social sciences, such as finance, economics, political science, law and business management”.[20] The main implicit indication that the concerned “liberalization” reform is indeed being implemented is the continually increased popularity of the English as Foreign Language (EFL) courses in just about every educational institution in China.

Democratization. Before the introduction of the most recent educational reforms in China, the teaching practices in the country’s schools, colleges, and universities remained essentially “Confucian”, in the sense of being extremely teacher-centered. Throughout the last few decades, however, the situation in this respect began to undergo a certain change – not the least because of the substantially increased influence of Western educational theories in China that has taken place throughout the same period. It must be noted, however, that the majority of Chinese teachers continues to remain highly skeptical of the Constructivist ideas in education, such as the one concerned with redefining a teacher’s role to be that of a “guide” rather than “instructor”.


As it was implied in the Introduction, in the West the ongoing liberalization of China’s system of education is often deemed reflective of Socialism’s ineffectiveness, as the method of governing – something that causes many Western sociologists/political scientists to refer to it as yet another indication that it is only a matter of time before the Chinese government decides in favor of abandoning the concerned ideology altogether. According to these individuals, such an eventual development is predetermined by the objective laws of history, since there is “the profound disconnect between the growth of the economy and the continuation of a Soviet-style regime”.[21] Nevertheless, this outlook on the significance of the currently deployed educational policies in China appears politically biased, as it presumes the inherent “ineffectiveness” of the Socialist methods of governing. Such a presumption, however, does not make much sense – especially in light of what today’s scientists know about the societal implications of the System Theory.

According to it, as a particular thermodynamic system (such as the human society) increases the measure of its structural complexity, the cause-effect principles of this system’s functioning attain a number of the previously unheard-of systemic qualities – hence, the famous saying, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”.[22] Because Socialism endorses the division of labor as the mean of increasing the “surplus product”, there can be only a few doubts that when adopted by a particular society, the concerned ideology does result in providing a powerful momentum to the process of this society becoming increasingly complex, in the structural and functional senses of this word. What this means is that the presumed ineffectiveness of Socialism is not inherent but rather incidental – once it is possible to increase the efficacy of informational transactions within the methodological framework of Socialist governing (by adopting the newly emerged technologies, for example), the Socialist paradigm will prove thoroughly competitive again.

The above-suggested allows us to hypothesize that, contrary to what many Westerners believe, the recent educational reform in China has not been undertaken for the sole purpose of bringing the country closer to the West. In light what has been said earlier, this purpose is best defined as taking full advantage of the hidden potential of Socialism – hence, ensuring the longevity of the latter for centuries to come. By loosening its control over China’s educational system, the government is able to “shoot two ducks with one shot” – to release much pressure from the already overloaded (due to the continual shortage/absence of the would-be required informational technologies) system of Socialist planning, and to increase the measure of the educational system’s resilience to the externally applied stimuli. Therefore, there can be only a few doubts that by achieving both objectives, the government will be able to strengthen the Chinese version of Socialism even further – much to the dismay of those who predict that the political ideology in question will never again be able to “rise from the ashes”. The fact that this is indeed the case can be illustrated regarding the fact that, as of today, the Chinese system of education is considered one of the world’s most effective, whereas the educational standards in the West continue to drop rather rapidly – hence, the West’s ever increased dependency on the “brain drainage” from the Second and Third World countries.


I believe that the deployed line of argumentation, in defense of the idea that the way in which the Chinese government goes about reforming the country’s system of education presupposes the spatial competitiveness of Socialism, is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. Apparently, it is indeed much too early predicting the eventual decline of the concerned political ideology in China in a similar matter as it happened in the USSR in 1991. In this respect, the Chinese proved themselves much wiser than their Russian counterparts. After all, as one can infer from what has been mentioned earlier, the most recent “westernization” of the educational domain in China does not aim to appropriate Western beliefs as to what account for the educational system’s societal role.

Rather, the described educational reform seeks to ensure that this system’s continual functioning is fully consistent with what happen to be the affecting environmental circumstances. This, of course, cannot result in anything else but in helping to ensure the socio-political stability of Chinese society. Therefore, it will only be logical to conclude this paper by reinstating once again that the governmentally endorsed approach to increasing the efficacy of the education system in China does make much of a systemic sense – the best proof of this approach’s circumstantial soundness. It will also be appropriate to hypothesize that because of the way the educational affairs are being handled in today’s China, this country does have what it takes to emerge victorious out of its current confrontation with the West (especially if allied with Russia) – hence, exposing to the whole world the fallaciousness of the Western/American interpretation of the notion “superpower”.


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De Bar, William; Bloom, Irene and Joseph Adler. Sources of Chinese Tradition. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.

Hourdequin, Marion. “Engagement, Withdrawal, and Social Reform: Confucian and Contemporary Perspectives.” Philosophy East and West 60, no. 3 (2010): 369-390.

Lirong, Ma. “The ‘One Belt, One Road’ Strategy and the ‘321’ Cooperation Mode between China and GCC.” Journal of Sino – Western Communications 7, no. 1 (2015): 119-135.

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Yang, Rui. “Self and the Other in the Confucian Cultural Context: Implications of China’s Higher Education Development for Comparative Studies.” International Review of Education 57, no. 3-4 (2011): 337-355.

Zhang, Chunman. “China in 2020: A New Type of Superpower/Playing our Game: Why China’s Rise Doesn’t Threaten the West/China and the New International Order.” Journal of East Asian Studies 12, no. 3 (2012): 474-479.

Zhao, Yong and Wei Qiu. “Policy Changes and Educational Reforms in China: Decentralization and Marketization.” On the Horizon 20, no. 4 (2012): 313-323.

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