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Population, Education

Zhongshan University, Chinese higher education, slack season, Nankai University, major review

Education has played a major role in China’s long and rich cultural tradition. Throughout much of the imperial period (221 bc-ad 1911), only educated people held positions of social and political leadership. In 124 bc the first state academy was established for training prospective bureaucrats in Confucian learning and the Chinese classics. Historically, however, relatively few Chinese have been able to take the time to learn the complex Chinese writing system and its associated literature. It is estimated that as late as 1949 only 20 percent of China’s population was literate. To the Chinese Communists, this widespread illiteracy was a stumbling block in the promotion of their political programs. Therefore, the Communists combined political propaganda with educational development. By 2001 China’s literacy rate had reached 98 percent, although literacy levels between the sexes were different. The literacy rate for males was 99 percent, whereas the rate among females was only 97 percent. Literacy in China is defined as the ability to read without difficulty.

One ambitious CCP program has been the establishment of universal public education for such a large population. From 1949 to 1951, more than 60 million peasants enrolled in winter schools, or sessions, which were established to take advantage of the slack season for agricultural workers. Communist leader Mao Zedong declared that a primary goal of Chinese education was to reduce the sense of class distinction among the population. This was to be accomplished by reducing the social gaps between the manual and mental laborer; between the city and countryside resident; and between the worker in the factory and the peasant on the land.

The most radical developments in Chinese education, however, took place from 1966 to 1978, during the Cultural Revolution and the years that followed. From 1966 to 1969 the government closed virtually all schools and universities in China. Many of the 131 million youths who had been enrolled in primary and secondary school became involved in Mao’s chaotic efforts to shake up China’s new elite. These efforts involved using students as youthful critics to attack governmental programs and policies. Primary and secondary schools began to reopen in 1968 and 1969, but institutions of higher education did not reopen until the period from 1970 to 1972.

During the Cultural Revolution, government policies toward education changed dramatically. The traditional 13 years of primary and secondary schooling, spanning from kindergarten to 12th grade, were reduced to 9 or 10 years. Colleges that had traditionally had a 4- or 5-year curriculum adopted a 3-year program. Part of these 3 years had to be spent in productive labor in support of the school or the course of study being pursued. A 2-year period of manual labor also became mandatory for most secondary-school graduates who wished to attend college.

Following Mao’s death in 1976, the government began a major review of these policies. As a result, and because of an increased interest in the development of science in Chinese education, curricula came to resemble those of the pre-Cultural Revolution years. Programs for primary and secondary education were gradually readjusted to encompass 12 years of study (although only 9 years were made compulsory). High school graduates were no longer required to go to the countryside for 2 years of labor before competing for college positions. The Cultural Revolution thus resulted in a decade of disruption in China’s educational programs. During this period nearly an entire generation of students simply was not educated or received only a marginal education heavily flavored with the radical politics of the Maoist era.

Since the late 1970s the educational system has changed significantly with the reinstitution of standardized college-entrance examinations. These exams were a regular part of the mechanism for upward mobility in China before the Cultural Revolution. During the Cultural Revolution, radical leaders eliminated the entrance exams by arguing that they favored an elite who had an intellectual tradition in their families. When colleges reopened between 1970 and 1972, many candidates were granted admission because of their political leanings, party activities, and peer-group support. This method of selection ceased in 1977 as the Chinese launched a new campaign for the so-called Four Modernizations. The stated goals for this campaign, which sought to rapidly modernize agriculture, industry, defense, and science and technology, required high levels of training. Such educational programs by necessity had to be based more on theoretical and formal skills than on political attitudes and the spirit of revolution. However, after students agitated for greater democracy in the 1970s and 1980s, which culminated in the government’s violent crackdown on student protestors in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, university students were again required to complete one year of political education before entering college.

Chinese higher education is now characterized by the key-point system. Under this system, the most promising students are placed in selected key-point schools, which specialize in training an academic elite. University education remains difficult to attain; as many as 2 million students compete each year through entrance examinations for 500,000 university openings. Students finishing secondary school may also attend junior colleges and a variety of technical and vocational schools. Among the most prominent comprehensive universities in China are Beijing University, Fudan University in Shanghai, Nanjing University, Nankai University in Tianjin, Wuhan University, Northwest University in Xi’an, and Zhongshan University in Guangzhou. Prestigious science and technical universities include Qinghua Technical and Engineering University in Beijing, Tongji University in Shanghai, and the Chinese University of Science and Technology in Hefei.

In the past, students received free university education but upon graduation were required to accept jobs in state-owned industries. The government instituted a pilot program in 1994 whereby the state allowed university students the option of paying their own tuition in exchange for the freedom to find their own jobs after graduation. This enabled graduates who paid their way to choose better paying jobs with foreign companies in China, or to demand better pay from state-owned enterprises. By the late 1990s, all incoming university students were required to pay their own tuition, although government loans were available.

Certain fields of study have grown in popularity in Chinese higher education. While engineering and science remain very popular, other fields, including medicine, economics, literature, and law, have grown considerably in recent years. Another trend has been the rapid increase in the number of advanced students who study abroad, mainly in North America, Europe, and Japan. In 1978, at the beginning of the reform period, approximately 11,000 Chinese students went abroad to study. By 1996 more than 163,000 Chinese students were studying abroad.

In 1998-1999 China had 145 million pupils enrolled in primary schools, and 77 million students enrolled in secondary schools. By contrast, enrollments in 1949 had been about 24 million in primary schools and 1.25 million in secondary schools. There were 6.4 million students enrolled in institutions of higher learning in 1998-1999.

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