By: Victor Fic

Yong Zhao is an internationally recognized expert on education who has delivered over 400 presentations in close to 20 countries. He was born in Sichuan and taught English at the Sichuan Institute of Foreign Languages. He is the author of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the Word” (Jossey-Bass, 2014). He is particularly scornful of the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment [PISA].

Asia Sentinel contributor Victor Fic interviewed Yong, presidential chair and director of the Institute for Global and Online Education at the University of Oregon, on why he holds those seemingly contrarian views of China’s education system.

Q: Your grasp of Chinese history spans how ancient rulers used the keju or exam system to squelch rivals – amplify.   

A: The Sui dynasty’s emperor Wen (581-618 CE) seized power through murder. He configured the keju to neutralize adversaries. Ambitious men had to pick up the pen – not the sword. Succeeding emperors emulated that indirect strategy.

Q: You say keju stifled Chinese innovation. But historian Joseph Needham enumerates myriad inventions in farming, silk making, cooking, etc. Why do you denigrate these as minor or accidental?

A: Ancient China had scores of scientific and technological discoveries. They were accidental because no deliberate social or government plan or institutions supported science and technology as during the Industrial Revolution. Inventors could not secure government positions unlike keju. Inventions were intuitive and improved or abandoned over lack of institutional support. They never evolved into systematic, cumulative science-driven revolutionary changes. 

Q: You say China invented gunpowder only for fireworks. Yet American Sinologist Tonio Andrade at Emory University told this interviewer to appreciate “traditional Chinese firearms expertise…in the 1100s, 1200s, and 1300s.” Later, impressed Europeans “immediately began copying.” Are you wrong?

A: They invented it by chance to scare away evil spirits. But yes, it was first deployed militarily in China. However, the Middle Kingdom was defeated in the 1800s by modern, Western and much more sophisticated firearms. 

Q: Yes, it lost wars. You excoriate the keju. But was the specific reason the exams per se or the dogmatic belief in anti-scientific Confucian ideas — or both?  

A: The keju was the major tool to perpetuate doctrinal Confucianism. It excluded dissent, innovation and exploration by rewarding orthodoxy. 

Q: What are the chief demerits of China’s school system today?

A: It is too test-driven and is based on passing the gaokao, the National Higher Education Entrance Examination. It values memorization, is too examination-oriented, provides a narrow education experience, imposes an excessive academic burden and harsh competition, promotes homogeneity, is risk-aversive, rewards compliance and discourages individuality and logical analysis.

Q: Chinese citizens do not demand political rights, but you document the notion of a “right to cheat.”  

A: In Zhongxiang city, Hubei province, in 2014, a new rule said that examiners could not be the students’ teachers but must be randomly selected. The invigilators used metal detectors to expose secret transmitters disguised like small pencil erasers. Angry parents demanded a right to cheat, one punched an official, students smashed things and trapped the officials inside. Hundreds of police rescued them.

Q: Why do naysayers even doubt the basic methodology behind the Chinese results?  

A: Simply because it is unclear if PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment, itself examines merely scores from Shanghai or if Chinese officials submit only that data.

Q: For ‘real world  proof’ of these demerits,  you write that only 10 percent of the graduates of Chinese universities have the skills that multinationals want.

A: It is from a study conducted by McKinsey in 2005, a global consulting firm.

Q: But didn’t China’s graduates generate the post – 1977 growth?

A: It stems from the state’s retreat from over-governing. After 1977, the government empowered farmers and citizens for micro-economic decisions and permitted foreign investment. Discipline is not purely from schools. The multiple, military-style political campaigns before and during the Cultural Revolution inculcated obedience, too. China now needs more innovation. 

Q: Beijing insists that it wants trailblazers. But you catalogue “fooling the emperor” innovation:  pressure to appear successful and to meet officials’ demands means creative scandals.

A: The most infamous case may be the Hanxin computer chip scandal. Dr. Chen Jin of Shanghai Jiaotong University tricked many experts, multiple ministries, Jiaotong University, the Shanghai government and others into believing he had developed the first high-end computer chips in China with chips he bought from Motorola. He was showered with hundreds of millions of R&D money, granted a college deanship at Jiaotong, won 12 patents and numerous honors and awards. 

Q: Isn’t Chinese society now doubtful when the media trumpets these creative sensations? 

A: The public is skeptical because so many claims of genius are exposed as scams.

Q: Who lionizes the Chinese system? 

A: Andreas Schleicher, who heads the Program for International Student Assessment of the OECD. 

Q: And why do you perceive that the assessment is shrewdly “marketed?”

A: It is sold to government and business leaders as a test for 21st century skills. Additionally, PISA insists it can detect what factors improve your system. Its cardinal technique is its ranking based on test scores. Shanghai is first in math and science, but it also gauges reading. For politicians, a high outcome wins plaudits.