"Oh, and there's one more thing," the supervisor told me. "When you're in the school, don't mention the 'three T's'"
"The three T's?" I replied, curious.
"Yes. Tiananmen, Tibet, and Taiwan"
As I've discovered in my month or so in Dalian, north-east China, the 'three T's' are nothing out of ordinary in the Chinese education system. It is a unique program, a mix of strict rules, rote learning and rigorous testing designed to breed passive hierarchical obedience, conformity, and, to some extent, jingoism.
First graders, I was told upon arrival, are commonly subjected to a 10-hour working day. By the time they reach Middle School, students are expected to put in four or more hours of additional study after they go home for the day. It is final year high schoolers in China, however, who face the most grueling mental labour of all, often working until midnight and commonly dedicating Saturdays or Sundays to additional study.
Even during China's main national holiday, Spring Festival, this workload barely abates, as the reams of assignments one student showed me shortly before his 'vacation' attested to. "Study, study, study, that's all we do, to pass tests" he complained.
Much of this study is geared towards one single, notoriously competitive college entrance exam, the Gaokao, the result of which is the sole determinant of whether a student will end up at a prestigious institution such as Peking or Tsinghua, or whether they will be relegated to a bottom tier university.
The dreaded Gaokao drains every last ounce of energy - and creativity - from students. For two days in June every year, the entire country enters a state of unwavering obsession with the examination, where roadblocks and a police presence enforce silence around some schools. Before last year's Gaokao period, photos circulated online of students in Hubei province attached to ceiling mounted intravenous drips fuelling them with performance enhancing drugs in preparation for such a defining moment in their young lives.
Things get a little easier if one is fortunate enough to conquer the Gaokoa and make it to one of the country's elite universities, but this somehow feels like making a molehill out of a mountain given the trauma of the previous decade or so of education.
Some students I spoke to, however, remain adamant that gritting their teeth and bearing this seemingly interminable workload is worth it in the end. It is taken as a cultural given in China that no respectable woman would ever marry a man without a decent car and a decent house. For that, one needs a decent job. And for that, one has to confront the Gaokao head on, navigating the myriad rules and regulations that go alongside it in order to emerge victorious.
I had, prima facie, a certain degree of admiration for any student who could conquer all of these arduous trials to end up a valued member of Chinese society. I thought of how gifted they must be to have withstood all the pressure and scrutiny of their learning environment, both at home and at school, and to have emerged (relatively) unscathed through it all.
These illusions were rapidly shattered a few weeks into my stay when I desired a sample of the local nightlife, so asked a group of students where the best drinking spots in Dalian were.
"I'll have to look it up on the Internet" was the first response I received. I was completely nonplussed at how one track minded the system had made these children that they, between them, could not recommend a single bar or pub.
This encounter immediately reminded of something I had read in a New York Times article some time ago. "Our education system is like ancient Sparta," said the interviewee, an IT professional. "Not physically, but mentally. Our children learn to calculate fast, play the piano, to do everything well. They have a lot of skills. But when they grow up they are lost, because no one ever asked them to think about what they want."
What Chinese students appear to want nowadays, first and foremost, is a share in the profits of any one of the country's most successful enterprises. At university, graduate level business specialisms are becoming increasingly popular, and there is a mind-boggling array of options available to the next generation of entrepreneurial talent. I have frequently come across students with bizarrely specific degree titles such as 'international shipping representation' and 'logistics administration' - whatever that means - and the most common ambitions I have encountered are to be a businessman or banker some day.
Most intellectually gifted Chinese adolescents certainly don't want to pursue professional academia as a career, given the pitiful financial reward it entails. The average real spending power of a professorial salary in China is approximately $259 a month, a meagre stipend that ranks the country right near the bottom of global tables in terms of how academics are remunerated. China even ranks below the likes of Armenia ($405) and Ethiopia ($864) in terms of how well it pays its scholars.
Compare China's average to that of the United States for a real sense of perspective. The average recently hired faculty member in the US can expect a real monthly spending power of around $4,950 - with full professors averaging nearly $7,500.
Thinking critically, being creative or independent, remains anathema to the more popular aspirations of Chinese students; abandoning the social mores that constrain them wouldn't help them pass the Gaokao. If anything, it would get in the way of their progress up the social ladder. When lessons are 'delivered' as opposed to taught, there is little room for mental maneuvering by children, and liberal philosophies are hardly likely to last through all of this academic training, let alone make it into the workplace.
Yet the real tragedy is that, behind the allusion of achievement, Chinese children are quite literally being drilled to death. In 2011, a government report revealed suicide as the leading cause of death for those aged 15 to 34. Given the pressure it puts on its young, this should hardly come as a surprise. Nor should the fact that, overall, China has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, accounting for roughly a quarter of self inflicted deaths globally. Every year around 287,000 Chinese take their own lives. That's a suicide every 2 minutes, a burden that falls particularly heavily upon adolescents.
Even some local news agencies managed to slip in derogatory references to the Chinese education system when they reported these trends - sounding out the country's inflexible scholastic environment as a potential cause of the 60 percent increase in suicide rate China has experienced in just 50 years.
Unsurprisingly there is a growing discontent amongst China's youth at an education system that fails to represent their best interests. Some children truly detest their nation's uncompromising work ethic, borne of rigid education structure, that has spread to pervade business culture. I have encountered an interesting stereotype on several occasions during my stay: that the people of South China are generally thought not only to have a more relaxed attitude to work, but also are thought to be better at business as a result.
Unlike in other parts of Asia, however, Chinese students are unable to mobilize their voices into any form or effective protest. Hundreds of high schoolers turned out to protest in central Seoul, South Korea, in 2005. "We are not study machines!" they cried. These demonstrations were partly inspired by a spate of suicides by students who had apparently caved under the extreme competitive pressures of Asian education.
In July this year, a march opposing Chinese national education lessons hit the streets of Hong Kong, attracting a crowd that numbered in the tens of thousands. Slogans such as "Communist China, leave them kids alone" and "Stop brainwashing us!" were splashed across banners left, right and centre. And just a few months ago, around twenty Tibetan students were injured at a protest in western China. They were apparently demonstrating against the use of anti-Tibetan propaganda in Communist Party textbooks, as well as the lack of freedom in the Chinese education system as a whole.
Hong Kong, however, remains officially autonomous from China, and relations with Tibet are clearly still contentious enough for me to be banned from discussing them in a school by the staff there. So I trawled the Internet for some time looking for traces of indigenous Chinese protest against their educational climate. Unsurprisingly, I came up empty handed.
But to claim that this is because students in China are content at how their schools operate would be disingenuous to say the least. In China, officials don't exactly encourage active demonstration (to put it mildly), and if students did have any misgivings about their education, they would hardly be likely to popularize them by taking to the streets, or even to the blogosphere, heavily policed as it is, for fear of immediate and brutal reprisal.
This allows the government extensive control of education in China, often using schools to forward their own political agenda. Even classic novels, such as "The Little Match Girl" by Hans Christian Andersen, are taught along Party lines. Forbes contributor Junheng Li wrote recently of her own personal experience of learning the "key lessons" from Andersen's book at school in China: "Specifically, it was about the brutality and selfishness of capitalist society such that the protagonist's very life depended exclusively on her commercial enterprise, and that capitalist class divisions promoted exploitation of poor workers like the little girl."
It's not surprising that with all the issues in their home grown system, more and more ambitious Chinese youngsters are choosing to broaden their options by learning English in the little spare time they have. One English language school I visited saw sales growth of 10% last year alone, and plans to open another two branches in Dalian in 2013.
The choice to study more English is indicative of the real effort being made by significant numbers of Chinese students to ingratiate themselves with Western culture. At the aforementioned English language school one student, who had just read a book on British history, asked me if Winston was still a name in common use, and whether it would be an acceptable choice for his English pseudonym. Though this amused me somewhat, it could not conceal the underlying philosophy that many of the students held, studying English simply as a means to escape the issues that plague their own social environment, in particular their schooling.
Its not as if China's leadership is ignorant of the serious flaws in their national education either, a leadership which is choosing to outsource the education of its own offspring as a result. General Secretary of the Communist Party Xi Jinping, for instance, sent his daughter to study at Harvard several years ago, and other high profile officials are following suit.
That is, if they can afford it. Thanks to exorbitant admissions fees, Western higher education remains a pipe dream for all but the wealthiest Chinese families. When only one child is allowed to bare the family name, parents still have a vested interest in continuing to squeeze them through the mental ordeal at home, lest they disgrace the family with sub-par scholastic achievement.
In the end, the fact remains that China isn't going to resolve its social and environmental issues with the memory and rote learning techniques that characterize its educational system - impressive though the mastery of these undoubtedly is amongst the nation's students.
It is a nation in desperate need of independent minds, minds that are enlightened by progressive ideas from home and abroad. Such minds and such ideas will forever be marginalised in a system where what you learn is paramount, never mind how you use it or even how you learnt it in the first place. The sad truth is that critical thinking on the part of Chinese students is today conspicuous only in its sheer absence.
Untenable levels of stress are the inevitable result of such a regimen, which is unhealthy for both Chinese students and for the nation's economy. From my experience, it boils down to the rigid, prevailing notion of what constitutes 'success' in Chinese schools, which should be discarded at the earliest opportunity.
This starts with the Gaokao. If politicians can get reforming that right, maybe they can stave off China's impending societal implosion for a good while yet, and safeguard the future of the nation's children in the process.
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