Education Policy

Before the defeat of the Kuomintang in 1949, education was effectively closed to workers, peasants, and generally females in practical terms despite Sun Yat-Sen's support of general education in principle.

However, the Marxist ideology of the post-1949 government, in reacting to the overly literary and classical tradition of China, overstressed in turn "practical applications" and the superior wisdom of the worker and peasant, whose hand-skill was assumed to be the "base" to the "superstructure" of science and learning in general. This resulted in various experiments in which peasants and industrial workers were made "teachers" overnight but were unable to gain respect or communicate their knowledge.

The new Communist government created wide access to some form of education for all, except children of people under suspicion of land ownership and political unreliability. The possibility however of re-education and service to the "masses" was held out to bourgeois families as long as they committed to communism as well. This meant that even before the Cultural Revolution, there was a continuum, in China, between the prison, the re-education camp, and the school. Officially, the opportunity was extended to all classes to join China's project on its Leninist terms.

In an attempt to make education more practical and accessible, Chinese characters were simplified for quick learning and by training people in skills they could use, including the basic medical training provided "barefoot doctors", actually paramedics that provided medical care, midwifery and instruction on the evils of footbinding and female infanticide in such rural areas where those practices still existed.

The Chinese Communist government to some degree provided "the goods" to the bottom of society and for this reason received broad support before the Cultural Revolution from many people who formerly had been at the bottom. The general populace was unaware of, and indifferent to, the fate of intellectuals during the Great Leap Forward and the Hundred Flowers epochs of the late 1950s.

Other practical results of education reform prior to the Cultural Revolution of 1966 included practical instruction in the evils of opium addiction (cf. Opium Regimes, Timothy Brook and Bobby Tadashi Wakabayashi, eds., University of California Press, 2000). The educational system and government of China eradicated opium, in part by education and also by harsh penalties (including death for repeat offenders) which are still in use.

But during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), higher education in particular suffered tremendous losses; the system was almost shut down, and a rising generation of college and graduate students, academics and technicians, professionals and teachers was lost. The result was a lack of trained talent to meet the needs of society, an irrationally structured higher education system unequal to the needs of the economic and technological boom, and an uneven development in secondary technical and vocational education. In the post-Mao period, China's education policy continued to evolve. The pragmatist leadership, under Deng Xiaoping, recognized that to meet the goals of modernization it was necessary to develop science, technology, and intellectual resources and to raise the population's education level. Demands on education - for new technology, information science, and advanced management expertise - were levied as a result of the reform of the economic structure and the emergence of new economic forms. In particular, China needed an educated labor force to feed and provision its one billion plus population.

By 1980, achievement was once again accepted as the basis for admission and promotion in education. This fundamental change reflected the critical role of scientific and technical knowledge and professional skills in the Four Modernizations. Also, political activism was no longer regarded as an important measure of individual performance, and even the development of commonly approved political attitudes and political background was secondary to achievement. Education policy promoted expanded enrollments, with the long-term objective of achieving universal primary and secondary education. This policy contrasted with the previous one, which touted increased enrollments for egalitarian reasons. In 1985 the commitment to modernization was reinforced by plans for nine-year compulsory education and for providing good quality higher education.

Deng Xiaoping's far-ranging educational reform policy, which involved all levels of the education system, aimed to narrow the gap between China and other developing countries. Modernizing education was critical to modernizing China. Devolution of educational management from the central to the local level was the means chosen to improve the education system. Centralized authority was not abandoned, however, as evidenced by the creation of the State Education Commission. Academically, the goals of reform were to enhance and universalize elementary and junior middle school education; to increase the number of schools and qualified teachers; and to develop vocational and technical education. A uniform standard for curricula, textbooks, examinations, and teacher qualifications (especially at the middle-school level) was established, and considerable autonomy and variations in and among the autonomous regions, provinces, and special municipalities were allowed. Further, the system of enrollment and job assignment in higher education was changed, and excessive government control over colleges and universities was reduced. However the education system of the PRC still discourages innovation and independent thinking, causing delays in even such high-profile national projects as the J-XX fifth-generation jet fighters.