From Jiang Qian, an overseas Chinese physicist trained at Harvard, about the "is Chinese education any good?" theme introduced here and here. The LA Times article, by Randy Pollock, that started this discussion talked consistently about "critical and creative" thinking as being the weak spots of the Chinese system; Jiang Qian's criticism is mostly about the "critical" part. Still an interesting complement. More on the way.
I do not doubt that some reform in the educational system de-emphasizing rote learning would be helpful, nor do I deny that there are anxieties among Chinese educators in promoting "creativity" or "critical thinking."
But just to point to the other side of the story, I would like to suggest that it is not clear whether "liberal art", or anything being taught in school, can improve "critical thinking". In fact, as [an attached article] points out, "critical thinking" is not a skill like reading or carpentry that can be taught, but rather something attached to a specific set of knowledge. And the American schools' efforts to actively promote "critical thinking" have at best a mixed track record.
Of course, the essay did not address whether one set of educational environment is better at making students think critically or creatively than another. But given the rather nebulous nature of the concept itself, I have my doubt whether any specific effort to retool the education system for the express purpose of promote "critical thinking" or "creativity" will help in China's long term growth.
Given the amount of entrepreneurial spirits and activities evident in private enterprises in China, it is not clear the bottleneck of Chinese business growth is "creativity". I would suggest maybe in fact the real shortage lies in competent middle managers who understand modern managerial practices and have concrete white collar skills like accounting and finance. These are solid skills business schools can provide. After all, many if not most successful and dare I say "creative" new businesses in U.S. are not done by MBAs steeped in "original" two hour business plans.
As anecdotal evidence, among my high school classmates, people who did well and went to elite universities all end up working for big multinational corporations or state own enterprises. The only guys who start up their own companies, whom I admire, were not especially good at schools. My specific high school class is a so called "experimental class" in a "key high school" which strenuously foster free style of learning, the allegedly "advanced American" style, so it is harder to argue that it is my high school who smothered the creative impulses of its best and brightest.
Two parts of this ring true to my observations in China: that there is a big gap in the "middle-management" skills, and that the entrepreneur class has little overlap with the "did great in fancy universities" class. But that's not a phenomenon confined to China.
AND, just now, from another overseas Chinese reader:
Education in the States are good for people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs (OK, wrong examples - but you got my idea). Education in China are in general good for people who will work for Gates and Jobs.
Education in the US is good for the top 10 or 5% of the students and bad, very bad, for the average students. So you have a bi-nodal distribution of high school graduates, the good ones become great contributors to the society and the bad ones cannot even fill out a job application form at a fast food joint. And they will not be able to even total the fast food purchase with a calculator. But they do not need to do it. The top 10% graduates will design a key board to punch 1 Menu A, 2 Menu B, etc for them to use.
The Asian education is good for majority of the students (of course, it can be greatly improved further), but bad for the top 5 to 10% of the student body. No large number of great scientists, educators, journalists will come out of their education system, except those who go on to the US or Europe graduate schools, as you suggested.