First, from reader Terry Foecke. After the jump, from a non-Chinese person currently teaching in a Chinese school who doesn't want his (or her) name to be used. I'm not planning to run every letter that comes in -- lots have -- but these are very representative of views from non-Chinese people working inside Chinese schools or companies and valuable in that way. They also resonate with Randy Pollock's LA Times op-ed about his business students.
My connection with these effects is through working with second- and third-tier Chinese suppliers to US-based companies. My job was to improve the production process (mostly electroplating, with some heat treating and stamping/machining) enough to assure consistent results.
After a personal run-in period, I finally got it through my head that even my own (Chinese) engineers were extremely reluctant to deliver bad news. Furthermore, their definition of "bad news" was far broader than I could have imagined. This leads to a lively chase when Step 1 is "Identify Problem(s).
We did our best work when we had a late night and stopped for their kind of Chinese meal.
Over beers and stinky tofu [name of a dish, not a perjorative anecdote] and too much of everything we would finally bond and they would let loose some details. But next day all was non-lubricated and reluctant. I was told by factory rats more grizzled than I that this was due to their education, or the culture, or that they had been working in an SOE [State Owned Enterprise] where only quantity not quality mattered.
I don't think I ever heard a convincing train of logic, though. The closest I came was when my business partner (resident in China for 18 years) suggested that expecting linear reasoning and what he called "single" answers was not going to work very well. Every answer has a context, he explained, and sometimes if the context changes, the answer changes. Everything is fine when you are measuring thickness-0.001 mm is always just that. But terms like "withdraw quickly" or "bend until snaps" or "high gloss"-to say nothing of shades of colors-were not going to be very useful. And asking if a worker is "well-informed" or "a hard worker" - even in the interest of process investigation-was pretty much hopeless.
I think I get it, but I don't, not really. Some is just working in another language. I've done process optimization aimed at sustainable manufacturing all over the world, so I know how poorly I actually can communicate. But China is different, and might be different in some ways that education can't reach.
A foreigner teaching English in China writes:
Man oh man! We are up to our lips in this, this, mmmmmm, stuff!
Left to ourselves with the customers, because we are at a third tier school glad to have us (basically a money pump for 'economically motivated' local leaders) and because our students understand us for the well intentioned, take no prisoners, YOU WILL LEARN TO DO THIS, jerks that we are, we are having a wonderful time initiating many projects, some based on Mr. Liu's ideas. [An educational reformer profiled in this China Daily article.] This is not a common Chinese experience for expat teachers of English.
I come firmly down on the 'China's education system sucks and must be completely remodeled for the country to have a future' side of the discussion. China (including Tibet and Taiwan) has been awarded six Nobel Prizes. The United States, with less than one fourth the population, has been awarded 309. Canada has 17! [List by country here.]
The Nobel is just one indicator of course, but it is awarded for creativity. Chinese college students have had creativity leached out of their systems by the stupefying experience of their first 12 years of school. I have been, as I trust you have as well, in Chinese rural schools from Baotou to Lhasa. They are a disaster. I have come to believe that such horrific conditions cannot be an accident. Ignorant people are easier to control than are those who have a glimmer of understanding, and ideas of their own.
I think it is a well thought through, deliberate policy. Perhaps these news articles [the one on Mr. Liu, plus this] are signs of high level change?
I am extremely chary of using Nobel prize lists as a proxy for anything. The literature prize is notoriously "political," to say nothing of the peace prize. The economics prize -- technically not a Nobel prize but the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Memory of Alfred Nobel -- is often political in its own way. And the hard-sciences prizes are in part a proxy for the wealth and sophistication of the research establishments in various nations. Ie, working in an advanced nation may be a necessary though obviously not a sufficient condition for front-line research. Someone with the most inventive and creative mind imaginable might have a hard time doing prize-worthy work if she spent her life in, say, Equatorial Guinea.
Still, the huge disproportions on the list do show something -- especially given (a) that Chinese emigrees and ethnically Chinese scientists are very successful in labs in North America, Europe, etc, and (b) that China, while on average still a very poor country, does have the resources to pour into high-end research and could afford to equip labs as fancy as anyone's -- much as it has created the sports-training establishment on display at last year's Olympics.