7/16/13 - education in china

In today's selection -- in China, the disastrous 1958 Great Leap Forward was characterized by a series of huge, nation-wide pushes to increase production of such items as steel and grain, which led in the case of steel to overproduction and waste, and in the case of grain to catastrophic shortages and famine. Popular Beijing commentator Yu Hua has memories of the Great Leap Forward when noting China's current astonishing growth and efforts to push the country forward in areas like construction and education:

"Even after so many years, while people still reflect on the disaster of the Great Leap Forward, that same type of development keeps rearing its head in our economic life. One sees signs of it in the frenzy to construct airports, harbors, highways, and other such large-scale public works. These projects in theory must first win approval from the central government, but in reality many local governments first launch their project and only later submit it for approval. Thus impractical, extravagant, and duplicate initiatives are common, and they are pursued as vigorously as a revolutionary campaign. Take port construction as an example. Along the four hundred miles of coast in Hebei and Tianjin there are no fewer than four major ports: Qinhuangdao, Jingtang, Tianjin, and Huanghua. In 2003, although all four ports were underutilized, this did not stop them from constantly increasing investment and expanding their facilities.

"With the rapid growth of the Chinese economy, some of the more forward-looking Great Leap Forward-type construction projects have progressed quickly from being undernourished to having indigestion. But other such projects remain in a state of persistent neglect. Some expressways, like the Shi-Huang Highway in Hebei and the Tai-Jing Highway in Jiangxi, have been in service for more than ten years but rarely see more traffic than just a few cars and tour buses. The Internet is rife with jokes about how you could hold a Formula One Grand Prix on one of these highways any day of the week, or that they would be great places to go for a nice quiet honeymoon.

A farmer carries a shovel over his shoulder as he walks to tend his crops in a field that includes an abandoned castle-like building that was to be part of an amusement park called "Wonderland", on the outskirts of Beijing, China, on December 5, 2011. (Reuters/David Gray)

"In 1999 the Ministry of Education decided to greatly expand enrollments in higher education, and China's educational Great Leap Forward began. In 2006 institutions of higher education recruited 5.4 million new students, five times as many as in 1998; the total number of those enrolled was 25 million. The ministry proudly declared:

In the scale of its higher education, China has overtaken Russia, then India, and now the United States, to become No.1 in the world. In just a few short years of assiduous effort, under conditions where per capita GDP is just US$1,000, higher education in China has achieved the shift from elite to widespread education, completing a process that other countries have needed forty or fifty years -- or even longer -- to complete.

"Behind all the glorious statistics in China today, crises tend to lurk. The loans that Chinese universities have relied on to fund their enrollment expansion already exceed 200 billion yuan. This staggering debt is likely to become another fiasco for China's commercial banks, because Chinese universities lack the wherewithal to repay their loans. At the same time, university tuition in the past ten or fifteen years has risen enormously, to twenty-five or even fifty times as much as it used to be, ten times the rate of income growth. Supporting a college student today is estimated to require the equivalent of 4.2 years of an urban net income or 13.6 years of a rural net income. The Great Leap Forward type of enrollment growth has created immense difficulties in the job market: every year we are adding more than 1 million college graduates who cannot find work. Many low-income parents are prepared to bankrupt themselves and take on enormous debt to put their children through college; but after graduation those children join the army of unemployed, and their parents can only sink deeper into financial hardship. Given this harsh reality, some children are forced to abandon their dreams: as soon as they graduate from high school they put a bedroll on their backs and become migrant laborers instead. In 2009, after thirty-two years of increases, there was actually a drop in the number of high school students taking the university entrance examination."


Yu Hua


China in Ten Words


Anchor Books


Copyright 2011 by Yu Hua


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