Are Creativity and Innovation Possible in Chinese Schools?

Access and Inclusion April 14, 2015

The 1899-1901 Boxer Rebellion was imperial feudal China’s last gasp. The Boxers were a cult of mystics who sought to hack to death all foreigners and foreign ideas, and when the Western powers bloodily put down the uprising they also dragged “the Sick Man of Asia” from the 17th century into the 20th. China’s two best universities – Peking and Tsinghua – were founded, China’s best and brightest were shipped to America to learn “science and democracy,” and visionaries like Cai Yuanpei and Hu Shi led an education revolution to cure a broken, weak, and insular China. 

Today, China is strong, confident, and open, and it is embarking on another education reform movement that promises to be just as transformative as the one that occurred over one hundred years ago. In this one, China’s best universities – Peking and Tsinghua – plan to hack their own DNA in order to overtake Harvard and Oxford.  Millions of Chinese are already studying abroad, and the aspirations of China’s new middle-class are causing seismic shifts in China’s education terrain: Chinese public schools and private companies are introducing creativity and innovation in order to better serve this lucrative high-end market. Then there’s the Communist Party, whose mantra of “to get rich is glorious” has now stumbled into an obstacle in China’s antiquated, ossified, and insular public school system: In 2010, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said that China’s economy needs more creative citizens if China is to continue to prosper. The slumbering giant that is China’s education bureaucracy has heard the call, and is now slowly awakening.  

As a consultant to Chinese schools that are innovating their curricula, I often ask myself: Are creativity and innovation possible in Chinese schools? Yes, Chinese schools are experimenting with creativity right now, but will this lead to a more free and open China – or will it instead unleash a conservative backlash? 

Against creativity taking root in Chinese schools stands the powerful force of inertia:   

  • China’s Communist Party, like the Chinese empires that preceded it, see schools as a tool for ideological conformity. They’re interested in Western creativity in the same way that the Qing empire was interested in Western gunboats – as a way to ensure its monopoly of power in China while carving out its influence on the globe. If the Communist Party ever figures out that creativity entails individuality and free-thinking, then it will deem creativity to be a threat, and nip it in the bud.
  • China is a nation of test addicts. Just like video games, testing offers immediate feedback and instantaneous gratification; just like science, it quantifies, simplifies, and clarifies a dynamic, complex, and murky world; and just like religion, it provides a sense of self-worth, purpose, and meaning. And like any addiction, teachers, parents, and students don’t know they’re addicted – but if you take away testing from them then the withdrawal symptoms kick in, and they’ll fight tooth and nail to get back their hits. 
  • Finally, there’s how ordinary Chinese perceive education as their only shot at a better life. The elite have managed to rig every other game, and ordinary Chinese are right to be paranoid that the elite want to rig the education game as well. That’s why there’s a public uproar anytime Peking or Tsinghua announces a plan to admit students using holistic criteria rather than solely relying on the numbers game that is the gaokao (China’s national college entrance examination).  

Standing against these powerful historical, cultural, and political forces is the naked self-interest of China’s wealthy parents, education institutions, and private investors:  

  • Now that China’s wealthy have accumulated their wealth and have found ways to protect it, they’re mainly concerned with legitimizing and propagating their wealth. That means differentiating their children with foreign accents and attitudes, and this explains the flood of wealthy Chinese studying overseas. In other words, “creativity” is just a euphemism for what is essentially elite differentiation.    
  • The creativity fad is creating a huge market for posh private schools, and this in turn puts tremendous pressure on China’s best public schools. In America and in Britain, the best private schools have siphoned from the public system many of the wealthiest and the brightest students, and the same will probably occur in China. To remain competitive, China’s best public schools need to co-opt creativity and innovation. 
  • Throughout China’s economic reform, the powerful have monopolized lucrative opportunities (real estate, land, telecommunications, the financial industries, the Internet, etc.), and in so doing they helped to open and free these markets from their once iron political fetters. Education is politically sensitive in China, but it’s also the last untapped lucrative market in China. That’s why the powerful and wealthy are investing in posh private schools that have a Western focus on creativity and innovation, and in so doing are promoting education reform.  

Naked self-interest does not always trump inertia, and whether or not creativity finally does take hold in Chinese schools will depend on:

  • Political, social, economic, and cultural trends that are unpredictable and constantly in flux.
  • The sheer force of the personalities working in the education reform movement.
  • Luck.

I count myself very fortunate to be working in education reform in China today. I’ve always wanted to contribute to a more open China, and there’s really no better place to achieve my dream than within Chinese schools. I also see now that what happens in Chinese schools won’t just affect Chinese children. The world is keeping a close eye on China, and so what happens in Chinese schools will help determine what happens in schools in Africa and in America as well. 

In this series of articles, I’d like to introduce the world to the social trends, the innovative programs, and the brilliant people who are transforming Chinese education today. We’ll look at how China’s best universities are trying to overtake their global peers, how Chinese public schools are trying to transform from test prep factories into cradles of creativity, and how education entrepreneurs are trying to make good for themselves by doing good for society.

Education reform in China is ultimately a journey into the heart and soul of a nation, a culture, and a people.  I hope you’ll learn with me as we travel on this journey together.  

Jiang Xueqin is a China-based writer and educator. He tweets at @xueqinjiang
Jiang Xueqin was a speaker at WISE 2014. Watch his session here

Read the other articles in the series: How Chengdu Schools Do InnovationThe China Education Debate: Equity Versus Excellence; The Pioneer Way: Emotional Scaffolding; The Xingwei ExperimentThe Secret to School Transformation: Emotional Plumbing