Leaving China

Today my co-worker informed me that she would be sending her 14 year-old son to study in New Zealand, and she was understandably sad about it. For the last year he has struggled to meet the school’s standards, but has been left behind by teachers who care more about their own performance bonuses than helping him reach his potential. He is a good kid, who simply does not fit the model of Chinese education. His family feels like there are no decent choices for educating him in China, but hate to be separated.

My co-worker revealed part of the problem when she explained that every night he’s given hours of homework focused on memorizing answers. He doesn’t see the point, and she doesn’t either. After all even with her help, his English grades are only mediocre, and she has been handling English communications for the hospital for 2 decades (not error free, but certainly good enough). “Their grammar points aren’t practical, and none of them learn how to actually speak” she said, and from what I’ve seen, it seems to be a fair assertion.

Part of the problem is that China has attempted to develop faster than any other nation in the history of the world, which has provided many benefits, but seems now to be the source of many problems as well. Problems like: excess infrastructure, poor construction, rural protests, and a myriad of other concerns. While it’s clear that it is possible to build at record speeds, it’s not really possible to gain experience at the same speed.

This problem can be seen quite clearly in education. It’s an undisputed fact that there are thousands of English teachers, Chinese and foreign alike, that are not able to speak English fluently and clearly. So these teachers focus instead on text based activities that help cover their own deficiencies. Of the universities I have worked for, there have always been several teachers who have exclaimed that I was the first foreigner they had ever spoken to.

The problem is that China continues building (and expanding English programs) regardless of the ability to staff these projects. In education we can see that between 1978 and 2011, China established over 1,900 universities, and expanded enrollment from 850,000 students to over 22 million. If you do the math, you would see that schools have gone from an average of 850 students per campus, to over 11,000 in just 30 years. The lack of qualified professors seems to have been of little concern, as China heralded the success of expanding education.

In the effort to improve health care, China built nearly 20,000 clinics, hospitals, and health centers over the last few years, but only trained 60,000 new general practitioners. Of the health professionals I’ve talked with, experience is far more important than med-school itself, so these new graduates barely make a dent in the need for qualified medical staff. While the effort to expand health care should be applauded, it is not enough to simply build clinics, it will be years before these facilities are actually staffed with experienced practitioners.

In another discussion I had this week with a foreign engineer working here, I was told that crashes like the ones in Wenzhou and Shanghai were unavoidable without experienced operators. My Chinese friend quickly pointed out that this would mean that China shouldn’t be rushing ahead with new technologies, but instead be more cautious in expanding. The engineer agreed and shrugged his shoulders wondering out loud if the government would actually be willing to slow down. He said, “My company has provided many technology transfers to our Chinese partner, but simply having the hardware, and being able to build a safe and effective system requires much more than that.”

While China has seen nearly a hundred years of change in just thirty glorious years (note to self, it’s time to cut back on the People’s Daily reading), it has been largely a superficial change. Teaching methodology, medical experience, and engineering competency are still lagging behind what the infrastructure might suggest. For my co-worker’s son, it means he will be leaving behind his family and country for the next 4-5 years, and might never return, for others it has been far more costly.

Important note: I do not mean to say that all change has been pointless, simply that there are limits to how fast a country can develop. Literacy is up across the board as a result of expanded primary education, but English proficiency is still a distant dream and university education does not compare to Western universities. Life expectancy is up across the board, but this is partially a result of the civil war ending, and putting a stop to many of the Party’s early and disastrous policies. These numbers are also skewed in favor of China’s eastern cities, with life expectancy still lagging behind in the countryside. China has built thousands of miles of road and rail, which have helped improve China’s economy, but they are now crumbling under the weight of their own debt and occasionally simply crumbling from poor construction.

39 responses to “Leaving China”

  1. mrchopstik says:

    So, to go along with the barefoot doctors of a previous generation, we now have the barefoot teachers and engineers of this generation?

  2. whatsaysyou says:

    Man, I cannot help but emphatise with your friend who has no choice but to send her child to New Zealand. It is sad but true that education doesn’t always fit for everyone. If teachers only care about their performance bonuses than to help a child reach his or her potential, then they are failing this child.

  3. Lorin Yochim says:

    Tom, I’ve recently read a couple of authors whose work might be worth having a look at. One (Andrew Kipnis, Governing Educational Desire) discusses the link between expansion in higher education and the need in the late-90s to stimulate spending in the face of stagnation and low consumer confidence. Long and short: expansion of higher education took advantage of existing education aspirations to get people spending money, thereby creating jobs (in higher ed institutions) and, at the same time, supporting the project of creating people with “gao suzhi.”

    Also,mrchopstik, the barefoot doctor comparison does apply to English teaching to some extent, though I would argue that the problem is more complicated than the poor oral English of teachers. In many areas poor conditions, pay, and the draw of urban life make retaining highly qualified teachers of all subjects difficult. Further to Tom’s concern about poor language ability of teachers, teachers and students with otherwise excellent exam English may also be quite poor in the oral/aural domain. Teachers don’t focus on textual activities because of their own poor English, though in many cases that is no doubt true, but rather because they believe that the current form of examinations demand these tactics. I’m not so sure they’re right about this, but…

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      I forgot to mention the second author. She is Teresa Kuan, whose work may be hard to come by for free (contact by email if you are interested in following up). Her research concerned parenting in China with respect to the education of children. I was particularly taken with her insight that parents struggle over the dilemma of doing what they feel to be right for the child and doing what they feel the must do to put their child in a position to have a good life: “the heart says one thing but the hand does another.” The mother in Tom’s story is fortunate enough to have the resources (including money and apparently, access to travel/residency privileges) follow her heart and do what she believes is right. Clearly most Chinese parents don’t have this choice.

    • Tom says:

      While teaching to the test is something I have covered before, there are also thousands (literally) of English teachers in the Western part of China that could not teach an oral class if the test was changed.
      The draw of urban life effects all of the areas mentioned, the 20,000 new medical centers will be competing with rapidly expanding urban hospitals (the one I work in hired over 400 new doctors this year), and always expanding infrastructure projects.
      China’s rapidly expanded university system has given millions of Chinese students diplomas (some of higher value than others) but there are still not enough jobs that require these skills to absorb so many graduates. I noticed during the financial downturn that enrollment grew quite quickly at my university (and others) as a way to delay these youths entrance into the job market. Now they are graduating but there are still not enough jobs. According to informal surveys with about 500 students, with a high school degree vs. a college degree graduates could expect to earn 3-500 rmb extra per month. Which is nothing to sneer at, but not as much as one would expect.

  4. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    I have worked with parents who have physically and emotionally abused their children (sexual abuse results in removal of the child from the family in Scotland). A strategy I employed to engage these often hostile parents was to acknowledge that they wanted a good life for their child – parents univerally acknowledged this, despite their parenting difficulties. Teresa Kuan acknowledges a dilemma known to all parents, no matter where they are and how they parent. People who are poorly parented face great difficulties when they become parents. People in China bear many scars from being raised in turbulent times (The Great Leap Forward, The Cultural Revolution). The effects of these events will be felt by all members of society, from youngest to oldest. The teachers require “bricks of money” (quote from earlier Tom Blog) as bribes in order to do their job. One can only speculate on the psychological damage suffered by these teachers, how they themselves were raised. Meanwhile, they are educating the next generation of children, the most important role in society, next to parenting.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      The psychological damage from historic experiences angle is an interesting one, Teresa. This comes up in Canada most often in relation to the historical (and present day, in fact) experiences of aboriginal people (dispossession, residential schools, and consequent decimation of family and economic structures). Of course these events and conditions bear on more than just the children of parents left incapable of parenting or, in many cases, disallowed from parenting. The damage is collective, hard to ascertain, and the road back a long one. I’m not sure if you were suggesting you’ve read Teresa’s work, but she is talking about parents dealing with the high pressure that comes with raising and educating a child in the present educational environment. She doesn’t, as far as I know, talk about the issue you’ve raised.

  5. yaxue c. says:

    …not to mention that China, under the leadership of one party, has done very little—indeed, could not possibly have—to build the rule of law, the social infrastructure that makes sustained development and the long-term wellbeing of the people possible.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      What do you mean “could not possibly have”, Yaxue?

      • Yaxue C. says:

        Lorin, you grew up in a democracy, and you should know better than I do: Is it possibly to have rule of law under one-party rule?

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        I see where you’re coming from now. I thought at first that you were suggesting that democracy must come from the bottom up.

        I’m no expert in political theory, so I approach the question with caution. It goes without saying that some would say that one party rule is incompatible with rule of law. But I’m not so sure that it is a necessary relation. Maybe it would help to ask a different question. Given that China is mostly undemocratic at the moment (leaving aside the task of defining what it means to be democratic), we could ask, what is the relationship between democratization and rule of law? Put differently, which is the cart and which the horse, and is the apparent contradiction between the two resolvable such that both can come out the other end? I don’t think the Party can retain its monopoly on power, but I also hope that, contrary to your conviction, that the Party can lead China toward both some form of democracy and rule of law. I have trouble imagining another way forward that wouldn’t involve a terrible tragedy.

        Finally, I hope that democracy with Chinese characteristics improves upon the assumed models. I’d like to think that the socialist tradition contains some of the resources of critique needed to make such a democracy a reality.

      • Yaxue C. says:

        Dearest Lorin, I have always thought Canada is to the north of the US. Is it still? While I was sleeping last night, did it move to Mexico, or become a neighbor of Fuji?

        Or perhaps I came from outer space? I just don’t know anything about anything anymore. 🙁

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Yaxue. I’m confused, but smiling. Yes, Canada is north of the U.S. What are you trying to ask me?

      • Yaxue C. says:

        Lorin, hopefully this will bring you all smiling and no confusion: Next time you visit your southern neighbor ( I live in DC), let me know, and I want to take you to a place to have Cantonese tea.

        (No fear, this is not the same as being invited to “喝茶”–drink tea–by the Public Security in China :))

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        That sounds great, Yaxue. I’ve actually never been to DC, but would like to have a try someday. I do have a friend in Pittsburgh I should visit, though… I’ve been reading your stories. Will email about that when I have some time.

  6. Lao Why? says:

    On a different note, I guess congratulations (?) are in order Tom. Your site is now blocked. Unaccessible in Beijing at least thanks to the great firewall.

    • Yaxue C. says:


    • Chopstik says:

      I would say unbelievable! But perhaps it was inevitable. Maybe you should say nicer things. Or maybe your posters should say nicer things…

      Though I can imagine you have started to attract some attention from fifty centers and your blog has had its name go up the pole. Hopefully, though, it’s just a temporary glitch…

      • Tom says:

        we do seem to be blocked in China for the time being…nobody knows why, there could be hundreds of reasons. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

      • Chopstik says:

        Yes, when it comes to being blocked in China – there is no “reason” why. One of the wonders of the wall of fire with no rules to be governed by…

        Hopefully things do improve…

  7. kingtubby1 says:

    Tom, having some experience in the medical area, I question your use of the term general practitioner in the Chinese context. I never encountered any all-round gps in chinese hospitals. ….either you looked at ulcers all day or you were a burns guy or similar.

    Having run an overseas trained doctors entry program which was all about accrediting gps from os, I can assure you that not one chinese doctor would pass the preliminary written medical knowledge test , and they would also fail the on-the- job clinical placements in spades and for many reasons, including piss-poor patient communication.

    • Tom says:

      I used GP’s because that was the only reliable number I could find, not sure exactly how that source qualified the term. In any case, my point is that while China does have some top tier hospitals in the cities, with exciting research, but these new hospitals are sure to be woefully understaffed. Like the one my friend visited in Gansu that had x-ray equipment but no one who could use it. China’s medical training is not keeping up with it’s construction of hospitals and clinics.

      My hospital experience currently involves working with Chinese doctors on communicating with their patients.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Looks like Tom was taking the term GP from the link he posted. In what context did you visit Chinese hospitals? RE your overseas accrediting program, was that run in China or in a non-Chinese speaking country? I’m not sure if you’re saying they had poor communication skills in general or poor skills in English.

      • kingtubby1 says:

        Let me clarify.
        China does not turn out general practitioners as understood in the western sense as all-round medicos for reasons I noted. You simply don’t have your suburban solo practice or small local clinic (which is not a hosptial) of generalists.

        As I said, I ran (alongside p/gcounselling and STD training courses for already practicing medicos) a program for emmigrating doctors from overseas seeking accreditation to work in my home/western country. And yes, I’ve encountered doctors/general practitioners from most countries in the world…..some of the best came from India and Iran.

        @ Lorin. Seven years in China, so I can assure you that the majority of Chinese doctors lack the patient-communication skills regarded so highly in most Western countries. I was not commenting on their general English skills: everyone has to start somewhere.

        I’m not sure whether Tom is teaching medical English, patient/counselling communication skills or both . I”ve done both.

        Would you like me to break down the 5 sub-disciplines in Western medicine into their 81 sub-categories.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        If you like to break them down you can. I hadn’t noticed anyone asking about that. And since your meaning in these two posts is a little unclear, I’ll assume from the fact that these were emigrating doctors that the accrediting program was run inside China.

  8. Two thoughts (and I will not make apologies for them):

    (1) If there are “no decent choices for educating” your kid in the PRC (or anywhere else in the world), then send your brat someplace else if you have the wherewithal. If that’s impossible or if money’s tight, then stop dreaming. Either get a move-on with getting the kid to the ‘better’ place, or stick with the hand that Life has dealt to you.

    (2) If you’ve decided (AmE: made a decision) to send your kid abroad, stop this nonsense called “I’ll miss my kid” (or choose your favourite phraseology). That kind of attitude is quite pathetic (in my mind). It also makes me wonder if EITHER (a) the parent in fact truly wants ‘the best’ for the kid, OR (b) just trying to use the kid to advance the parents’ own ‘social capital’ with other parents. You can’t have your cake and eat it. It’s either/or – no two ways about it.

    In my own experience of Chinese people sending kids abroad (Chinese mainlanders as well as Hong Kong Chinese), I’d say as much as 90% are in the miss-my-kid camp – and, frankly, their kids don’t come back to homeground too well, and the parents are mostly frazzled by the experience (which, frankly speaking, is of their own doing: sorry, you get no sympathy). The remaining 10% roughly is in the kid-should-get-on-with-his/her-life-over-there mindset – and both parties often (though obviously not always) are in a better, healthier frame of mind and body after their kids return. I make no representations, but just what I see – and I do see quite a bit, even if I say so myself.

    Two more BONUS points:

    (3) Tom is spot-on about high-speed [economic] progress not being the same as getting experience at the same speed. China comes up with this rash of mega-universities to show that it is on the technological or knowledge-based road – trying to ‘dance the dance’ like those European mega-universities like the University of Bologna, but not actually doing it like Bologna does it because of a variety of economic, human resources and political factors. But that’s fine – the mega-unis in China aren’t hurting anyone and, in time, they’ll do better. So there.

    (4) This is something I hear quite frequently among mainland Chinese, so I would appreciate PRC-based readers to confirm or deny its existence: Homeboy (or homegirl) goes off overseas often are not welcomed with open arms once they return to home turf mainly because they are then seen as being corrupted by Western ways, as if they’ve lost their quintessential Chinese ways. I don’t know, but I’d put it at 80% for mainlanders and maybe about (as much as) 25% among Hongkongers. Again, I make no representations – just what I see. Or maybe it’s the crowd I run with.

    Apologies for the longwindedness.

    • mrchopstik says:

      Regarding your fourth point, and I can only address based on my own experiences, but that does seem to be spot on. I’ve spoken with several friends who studied overseas, went back home and felt distinctly uncomfortable upon their return home. Whether it was just from family/friends or self-imposed, it was often enough to cause them to leave China permanently.

      It is enough to make one wonder, though…

    • wngmv says:

      (3) There is no way the mega universities are going to do better. My advisor in college (I was in Sichuan Univ, one of the top 20 or something universities in China) was busy with meetings and other “non-academic” related stuff all day. And he is a member of Academy of Science. All my professors always complain of too many meetings and no time to do research. The advancement of your academic career is not proportion to your research ability, but more like everywhere else in China, related to guanxi. But my professors are all very vigorous in terms of teaching and training, especially since I am in math dept.

      (4) I can’t really see that happen. If our country-men saw a student as too influenced by western culture/political opinion, they would shun him/her, but I can’t really see them shunning everybody. I think they will try to probe your political opinion first, and decide if you are still a “good” Chinese. Also, I have classmates in the US who are still very firm champions of the PCP and remain deaf and blind to every “bad” thing the western media say about CCP, so it’s not like everyone will be “westernized”. But again, that’s my personal opinion and what happened to me on my last visit home. And the question I got asked most was, did the Americans discriminate against you….

      Now going overseas for education is not as glamorous as it used to be. As the example in the blog, a lot of teenagers were sent overseas because they are “failures” of the education system, while it used to be only the top students got scholarship and went overseas. I’m sure my school’s accepting more Chinese students for the tuition they pay, and the quality of the students has slipped. This semester, the English ability of my students is borderline on ridiculous. Their English is so grammatically incorrect and so Chinglish I can’t stop laughing when grading their homework. Also, they are doing much worse in a math class where Chinese are supposed to be good at.

      About the education, and especially English.I always scored top in my city in any English test, and I did almost all the tricky multiple choices by hunch. A lot of parents asked me how I “studied” English, and I said I browsed English websites a lot, and listened to English songs a lot, and read English novels. And then I can saw their mouth dropped since they were expecting something more close to the book.

      • re: mega-unis
        I agree with you. Things are mostly like to get worse before they get better. Here in Hong Kong (small as it is at just under 300 square miles or 1024 square kilometres), our unis are trending towards to mega-uni setup. Like the situation in the PRC, there are more and more rounds of bureaucratic meetings taking up time and space at the expense of teaching and research work. Even in those purely academic facets, our Hong Kong unis are trending towards the “rack’em and stack’em” routine of teaching purely “by the books” – in short, churning out grads who just fulfil the paperwork requirements of their courses. (This I realised early on when I went back to uni for my ‘continuing professional (dys)education”, and more or less confirmed to me privately by my professors.) If the Hong Kong situation is anything to go by, then the PRC situation is more than likely to run that course.

        re: reverse discrimination
        True enough. Absolutely speaking, not everybody gets discriminated after going abroad and coming back. Relatively speaking though, this homey-corrupted-by-the-West attitude is becoming harder to miss even in Hong Kong, which is a much more Westernised or Western-prone society than any other Asian society. Again, if that’s the situation here in Hong Kong, then I reckon the situation in the PRC will be more accentuated, relatively speaking. But, please, this is of course only a constructive generalisation – it’s always up to the persons involved on the ground if there is or isn’t reverse discrimination. It’s just that if such a trend is starting to materialise in Hong Kong 13 years after the handover, the could reasonably assume/presume such a situation could exist in a stronger form on the mainland. But I get your point. Good point.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        @wngmv. Great post. On your point (3), having been resident in a research intensive Canadian university for some time now, that the expansion of non-academic duties of academic staff is a global phenomenon. In other words, it’s related to the spread of managerialism, regimes and routines of audit and accountability, and, perhaps most insidiously, the spread of the idea of educational consumerism. An important difference in the Chinese context, of course, is guanxi. On your point (4), a former Chinese classmate (Ph.D. in Canada) encountered a lot of difficulty upon returning to China, but as she explained to me, it wasn’t around whether she Chinese-ness. Rather, her colleagues felt that, having won her “golden rice bowl” overseas, she ought not to be coming back to take from theirs. You can probably guess that she was going back to a lower tier city, so the resources (especially salaries) were much lower than those in the big national level universities. Interestingly, in her university, the regimes of accountability I referred to above were present in the form of annual performance reviews that determined salary increments.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        My god. I thought I had edited my post more carefully than that!

  9. […] 中国见红博客:离开中国——博主从同事将孩子送到国外读书的经历,分析了中国教育中的一些弊端。从1978到2011,中国新增1900多所大学。他们不在乎缺少合格教授。 […]

  10. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    What’s that old World War song – “How you gonna keep them down on the farm once they have seen Paree ?”(Paris). This is a very common experience of returning sons and duaghters!

  11. I’m a New Zealander – do you know what city your co-worker is sending the child to? What school?

  12. […] few weeks ago SeeingRedinChina.com was not accessible within China. My initial urge was to figure out which post had led to being blocked, and decide what that would […]

  13. […] support their family, frequently when a working family member falls ill or dies. Meanwhile urban children who fall behind their classmates are pushed out of schools by teachers who fear losing the bonuses that come with good exam […]

  14. […] These circumstances mean that millions of children from China’s poor families are not receiving the 9 years of education they are entitled to. Ensuring that families in poor counties send their children through high-school should be a major priority at all levels of gov’t, but unfortunately, so many of these children will become migrant workers anyway, local gov’ts have little incentive to expend the effort to keep them in the classroom. Migrant workers also frequently leave their children with family members, who may not force unwilling children to attend school. Migrant workers who do bring their children to the city also find it difficult to keep them enrolled in school. Furthermore, due to perverse reward schemes that in many ways punish teachers for under-performing children, some teachers actually push their students out of their classrooms (I talked about this some in a previous post). […]

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