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Thursday, 9 September 2010

Education, Education, Education...

This week, it appears as if the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has adopted New Labour's catchphrase for the 1997 UK general election as one of its main policy standpoints. Nearly 2 months after President Hu Jintao addressed a Beijing conference on national educational, Xinhua has released the full text of the speech and an English summary of Hu's key points. To paraphrase the article, these included:

  • Treating education as a priority for the future.
  • Aiming for 4% of China's GDP to be invested in education by 2012.
  • Providing high quality teachers and infusing students with a sense of responsibility.
  • Reducing the state's role in education, and allowing for the private sector to run schools.
  • Ensuring equality of education and opportunity.

Some of the aspects to Hu's plans for reform are strikingly similar to those New Labour put forward in its 1997 manifesto. Increased spending on education as a proportion of the national budget, equality of opportunity, and having the private sector involved in schools were all key tenets of Tony Blair's pre-election pledges. The last of these three is particularly interesting. Ever since the founding of the People's Republic, the Party has been the commanding influence in education, setting curriculums, running schools, and ensuring that the sector runs in harmony with the Party's wider socialist aims. This was of course epitomised during the Cultural Revolution, when the Maoist authorities (whether or not they constituted the CCP is a different matter) maintained an iron grip on academic institutions and what they taught to China's students. Bearing in mind it was students who were the vehicle of the movement in its first two years, this is far from surprising.

If the Party further reduces its direct control in the education sector as Hu appears to be suggesting, this will intrinsically weaken its authority. Influence over what students are learning and the environment in which this learning occurs is one of the best ways the Party shapes the attitudes of China's future generations- a fact that contributes to legitimising the CCP's authority and the Chinese revolution as a whole. Yet, while it seems unlikely that the Party will cede all control over schools to individual institutions or private companies and groupings, this attempt to reduce bureaucracy in education can be seen as the Chinese government trying to streamline an ever expanding sector. In addition, increasing investment to 4% of GDP by 2012 reflects the growing need for China to be producing educated and well-qualified graduates. As the PRC's technical and financial industries continue to grow, the emphasis has firmly moved away from 'red' to 'expert'. By involving private companies with learning, China will be hoping that this partnership will ensure future students enter the workplace with the skills to contribute to the Chinese economy rather than be a burden on it. If Hu's new policies are successful, a reduced role for the CCP in education will have been a small price to pay.

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