Education and national development in China since 1949 (1) Featured

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If you have ever wondered how China got to this stage as a major economic power in the world today, follow Mun C. Tsang’s peek into how the country’s educational plans have evolved to transform the largest populous nation in the world into the most prosperous one.


Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China (China) in 1949, Chinese society has undergone tumultuous changes in its socio-economic, political, and cultural realms.

Led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the Chinese people began national experiments, the scale of which were said to be unmatched by previous ones in the written history of humankind. Among these experiments, observers of contemporary China could easily point out the bold Great Leap Forward campaign towards communism in 1958-60, the social upheaval of the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976, and the gigantic economic transition from a centrally-planned economy towards a market-oriented socialist economy in the post-1978 period.

These experiments in national development were characterized by big policy changes and impressive successes.

Educational policies in China in the past five decades have also been characterized by bold moves and major shifts. Educational change is inextricably linked to changes in the larger society. Some observers have pointed out the substantial gain in literacy of the great masses of people, the large expansion of the education system, and the nurturing of some world-class scientists and engineers. The Chinese government certainly believes that splendid achievement has been achieved in education under the three successive generations of CCP leadership of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemini. And China’s educational development compares favorably with countries with similar level of economic development.

The CCP has been the ruling party of China since 1949, with monopolistic control of the Chinese State. Although party’s grip on power in the State has loosened somewhat in recent years, it maintained tight control of the State throughout much of the post-1949 period. Struggle for power and for national development directions among factions within the party has been a defining feature of the Chinese State in the past five decades. Outside observers often label the two major factions as the radicals and the moderates (or as the conservatives and the reformers in more recent years). These two factions differ fundamentally in their goals and approach to national development and in their policies for education.

Led by Mao Zedong and others, the radicals see the achievement of political consciousness, ideological devotion to communism, and human liberation as the primary goals of the development of Chinese people. The approach to national development is characterized by continuing class struggles and revolution to transform the social relation of production and by having communist politics and ideology at the core of social life. National-development efforts are to be undertaken under the leadership of the CCP, the uncontested dictatorship of the State by the proletariat class, the CCP-led active grass-root level participation of the masses, and the unrelenting use of large-scale social movements and media campaign.

Being a part of the super-structure of society, education has a key role to play in political and ideological development of the Chinese people and society. In additional to fostering a love for communist ideals, the education system should be a vehicle for promoting social equality and socially-oriented goals. The radicals oppose stratification and elitism in education.

Led by Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping and others at various times, the moderates focus on the material and moral improvement of people’s life. According to them, the approach to national development is mainly economic and technical, and much less political and ideological. The first major step in socialist national development is the transformation of the forces of production, not the social relation of production; and it consists in the development and application of science and technology, the modernization of key sectors, and the development of a skilled labor force. Education has a key role in developing the human input to production and supporting the development of science and technology. Educational institutions should foster the acquisition of skills and knowledge (“expertise”) as well as moral development of the learner.

The moderates favor stratification within education to prepare a diversified workforce for an economy in need of different types of skilled labor. They also favor the establishment of key schools and universities and competitive examinations to effect educational selection and the preparation of leaders and elite. The “two-line struggle” between the radical and moderate factions of the CCP during much of the post-1949 period has led to wildly oscillating policies for national development and for education.

In the education section, in particular, party leaders have been sharply divided over three enduring policy dilemmas: education for political/ideological development versus education for economic development, education for social equality versus education for efficiency (e.g., education for the masses vs. education preparing well-trained elite), as well as enlisting intellectuals and high-skilled personnel in socialist development versus treating them as antagonists and suppressing them. Policy shifts in education reflect power shifts among party factions.

The Soviet model of economic development was later adopted. Unity in focus and in specific policies was also found in education. The major focus was on building a national system of education for the new country. This involved nationalizing existing educational institutions, building new schools and new types of institutions (especially specialized technical and research institutes based on the Soviet model of higher education), creating and extending control of CCP over a new centralized educational bureaucracy, and setting a policy to popularize putong-hua (the common language) and simplify Chinese characters.

Mao and the CCP leadership had launched the Three-Antis and Five-Antis campaigns against some potential adversaries of communist development (such as corrupt officials and capitalists) in 1951-52. Thinking that intellectuals were essential and sympathetic to communist development, he initiated the Hundred Flowers Campaign at the end of the First Five Year Plan to ask intellectuals to air their views about the party and the country’s development. However, the out-pouring of criticisms of the party and its policies by the intellectuals in 1957 caught Mao by surprise. Mao’s view of intellectuals turned negative; he stopped the Hundred Flowers Campaign and then promptly launched the Anti-Rightists Campaign.

The Great Leap Forward during 1958-1960 was a history-defining national experiment in communist development. It represented a bold and idealistic attempt led by Mao Zedong to achieve an accelerated move towards communism; its disastrous failure also led to a split in party leadership and the intensification of the two-line struggle. Believing that people’s love for communist ideals could move mountains, that collective goals could transcend individual interests, and that peasants in the vast country side could only be liberated in a mass-line revolution, Mao organized rural production into communes and set ambitious production targets for all sectors of the economy. This was accompanied by a corresponding shift in the focus of and approach to education.

The political and ideological function of education began to gain dominance over acquisition of expertise for economic production. Promotion of social equality was a key national-development goal and was to be achieved through a substantial expansion of access to education for peasant and working-class children. A scientific approach to education must combine Marxist-Leninist theory with manual labor. Mao’s educational perspective set into motion a rapid quantitative expansion of education at all levels, the proliferation of new schools (especially work-study schools) for children from peasant households, and the incorporation of political education and manual activities into the educational curriculum at all levels.

After three years of sharp economic decline, Mao relinquished control of national affairs to Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping in the winter of 1960. Liu and Deng quickly ushered in policy adjustments in both the economy and education. They reset production targets to more realistic ones, introduced private incentives and individual responsibility in economic production, proposed two systems of labor (full-time and part-time employment) with two systems of education (full-time and part-time studies), abruptly reversed the expansionist policy in education, and further diversified the structure of education through vocationalization. By 1965, a dual system of education consisting of regular schools and work-study schools, aiming to produce trained elite and to educate the masses. Regular schools had much higher academic standards and could lead to university education. Work-study schools were attended by children from peasant background with negligible probability of getting into the university. Key schools (regular schools with a concentration of the best teachers, best students, and best facilities), first experimented by the party during the Yanan years before the defeat of the Nationalist Party, were re-introduced into the education system. Expertise was re-emphasized, along with redness. Intellectuals had a positive but guarded role to play in education and in national development.

The 1958-65 period witnessed the first major and complete oscillation in CCP policy for national development and for education. The leadership split in the CCP hardened and the struggle for control of the party between the two factions intensified. Dissatisfied with the policies of Liu and Deng, Mao launched the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution (GPCR) in 1966, seized control of the party again, and stayed in power until his death in 1976. Assisted by his supporters, particularly the “Gang of Four”, Mao returned to the earlier emphasis on collectivist production, ideological and political conformity, and egalitarianism.

During the 1966-76 period, political opponents were purged, intellectuals were oppressed, and peasants and workers were elevated. In education, the pendulum swung back towards redness and towards a unified structure for social equality. The education system came to a halt during the first few years of the GPCR, and the education of a generation of Chinese was lost.

In 1971, the party issued the “two assessments” highly critical of the education system and educators: it contended that Mao’s proletariat education policy was not implemented during the 17 years after 1949 and that most of the teachers had a capitalist world view.

Mao died in 1976 and the Gang of Four were captured by their political opponents. By 1978, Deng Xiaoping gained paramount leadership in the CCP and carried out a major reversal of Mao’s policy. In the subsequent two decades, he led China through the largest economic transition to a “market-oriented socialist economy” known in human history. With a focus on economic development and modernization, his twin policies of reform and opening up to the outside world succeeded in achieving a rapid and sustained economic growth and a clear improvement in the living standard of the Chinese people. At the same time, the tight control of the people by the party has begun to loosen somewhat and the overall environment has become less oppressive. However, the legitimacy of the party has been on a long-term decline because of the social upheaval brought about by the party leadership in previous periods and by corruption of party members and government official six.

Aggregate economic progress was accompanied by substantial and widening socio-economic disparities and by inequitable access to power and resources. Student protest in 1989 brought into question of whether a more prosperous and open society is possible within accompanying political reform. While top Chinese leaders have been in general agreement with the focus on economic development and the adoption of the twin policies, there is still difference in opinion among them about the pace of reform and on specific policies issues. Thus, although one does not see gigantic shifts in national policies, relatively small swings do occur in both directions.

In the education sector, despite occasional calls for a balance between redness and expertise, the persistent major goal of the education system since 1978 has been to prepare a mix of skilled personnel for the developing economy. Sustained economic growth over time has created an increased demand for skilled personnel and thus an expansion of the education system. Over time, the scale of the education system has enlarged substantially to provide expanded access for children and adults from various backgrounds; and a segment of key educational institutions at all levels has been re-introduced to prepare highly trained elite.

To be continued

Last modified on Monday, 09 January 2017 14:36