The challenges of change

December 17, 2004

As China strives to build links with the West, itsscholars disagree over whether change is always for the best. Tom Mcgrenery reports

With China now the place for Western universities to set up base and, with many Chinese academics having studied in Europe and the US, a system that has been fairly closed to outsiders is beginning to open up.

The result has been an exchange of ideas on a variety of academic subjects and on attitudes to study.

For some Chinese scholars, the exchange has until recently been very much Western-dominated, too much about the East taking on Western ideas rather than a genuine dialogue of equals. Li Shiqi, professor of the psychology of mathematics education at East China Normal University in Shanghai, says this is "slowly and slightly changing" with more attempts being made by China to let other countries know what its traditions are in fields such as mathematics.

Li is president of the Mathematics Education Research Association of China Teacher Education Institute, deputy director of the Institute of Mathematics Education at his university and is organising an international conference next year on the strengths and weaknesses of maths education in East Asia. He is also an editor of How Chinese Learn Mathematics: Perspectives from Insiders , an English-language monograph, published in Singapore in August, that provides a comprehensive picture of how Chinese students learn in classrooms and at home, their cultural and social influences and the pros and cons of Chinese educational methods.

Maths is just one subject that has been adapting in response to contact with other countries' approaches to different subjects. According to Li, Chinese maths education has tended to be viewed as excessively and rigidly focused on rote learning. Chinese teachers, he adds, tend not to consider the practical application of their subjects to be very important or to study the context from which mathematical concepts and methods spring. But in the past ten years, he says, the style of teaching has changed, with teachers focusing more on fostering students' creativity and their ability to apply maths to practical problems. For example, teachers now allow students to take part in more creative projects rather than sticking to routine exercises. But he warns that China, which traditionally performs well in global leagues of maths achievement - most recently in last week's Programme for International Student Assessment report - should not be too quick to throw out its "excellent cultural and educational traditions" in the name of blind progress.

Another subject that is undergoing marked changes is economics. The shift of the Chinese economy from a centrally planned system to a market-oriented one, begun in the late 1970s under Deng Xiaoping, has led to an explosion in business interest in China and to rising demand for business courses in the country.JAs recently as ten years ago, says Tian Lihui, assistant professor of finance at Peking University's Guanghua School of Management, the focus in economics was still on state regulations and policies, but since then there has been a shift to an interest in subjects such as corporate finance, governance and emerging markets, and a more evidence-based methodology.

"Before, people just used to talk and talk," he says. "They would make statements without them being based on any data or any kind of mathematical model, but now people take care over how they use data and how they set things up formally." He adds that the changes are being driven by the explosion in the Chinese economy and by the return of students from Western universities to China. But although returning students are often viewed within China as being more qualified than those who studied at home, Tian says this is no longer necessarily the case since domestic students now tend to read a lot of English textbooks and papers that use scientific methods of research.

Tian is one of the returning students: he studied at London Business School, but he decided to return to China as he wanted to study the impact of Western theories of finance on the world's biggest emerging market. He thinks this can be properly done only from within the country. "Only when you understand the culture and equip yourself with real knowledge can you feel what China is going to be," he says.

However, despite his views and the fact that he sees the expansion of China's business and economic education provision as positive and a sign of the country's commitment to being more business-oriented, he thinks the Government may be overoptimistic in predicting a surge in the number of foreign enrolments on its business programmes. "I don't think there is any big advantage for students coming to China to learn about business if they are going to go back to the US or Europe to do business in those countries," he says. "But there definitely is for those with an interest in China."

Tian is defensive about critics who say that the sudden expansion of Chinese higher education, particularly business education, has led to concerns about quality assurance. He says that universities are just responding to student demand and that concerns that the emphasis in business education is more on making money than on quality are common in other countries.

But Wang Mingming, professor of anthropology at Peking University, is more cautious about the rapid expansion of the Chinese higher education system.

He thinks quality has suffered as a result. "They are trying too hard to make Chinese universities the greatest in the world and too quickly. The result is not very satisfying." He would prefer it if the expansion "cooled down a little". "There is a kind of nationalist ideology behind this need for international competition," he says, "and I think it is harming China a lot."

Wang, who originally read archaeology in China before switching to anthropology, has also studied in the West doing his PhD at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies. He says that despite the rapid expansion, Chinese higher education is, ironically, still much more staff intensive than it is in the West.

"Most Chinese universities have more teachers than they should have because education is a kind of state-owned concern. So I have only five hours a week of teaching, unlike in Britain where it would be much more," he says.

"For me, it's very good - I have a lot of free time, but the courses are not diverse enough. Many professors teach virtually the same course content as each other - the perspectives are not diverse so the students are at a disadvantage."

In social sciences such as anthropology there has also been a problem of state interference in what is studied, mainly because the only source of funding for research is the Government, Wang says. "It's a kind of mutual support that I find quite disappointing. Too many Chinese anthropologists are influenced by politics. I think too few are really keen on promoting the spirit of independent scholarship. That applies to social sciences in general in China, not just anthropology. Social sciences in China are quite different from in the West."

As an example of government influence on research, he cites anything that touches on official policy on ethnic minorities. "You can't say anything that disagrees with official policy," says Wang. "That is a hidden regulation. Also, too few scholars are encouraged to criticise the drive to economic development because such development is now part of official ideology. That's very different from Western anthropology."

He adds that, although the Government has realised that it is stupid to throw people into prison for such things because you would need too many prisons, censorship still operates with regard particularly to sovereignty issues and modernisation.

The close ties between the Government and researchers also mean an emphasis on applied anthropology, with a concentration on research that will be useful for government policy and that does not criticise state ideology.

Over the past ten years, the funding has been increased for areas regarded as important by the Government, studies on western China, tourism and cultural conservation for example.

Wang says another difference between Western and Chinese anthropology is that in China the subject is very loosely defined and often overlaps with other subjects such as history and ethnic-minority studies. "This means that academics suddenly become anthropologists overnight, when maybe they taught something such as history previously," he says.

Things are changing, though. Wang comments that there is a movement among academics to promote anthropologists' independence from the state. He says it started in the late Seventies as anthropologists sought to hark back to the advances made in the discipline by Chinese scholars in the Thirties and Forties. "There are more and more anthropologists in China who are trying to reconstruct the discipline as a liberal academic one instead of one that is tied to the state apparatus. I regard myself as one of them and I am doing my best to work in this direction."

He adds that international exchange has made a big difference to Chinese academics - not just contacts with the West but with academics from places such as Taiwan and Hong Kong. "It really helps to have contact with them because scholarly social science never ceased to exist in those countries, but in China it stopped for 30 years, so there's a lot to learn from these.

They write in a better way, they have more freedom and more ideas. They are more creative. Our social sciences have, until ten years ago, been too influenced by ideology. My generation has suffered in educational terms. I was born in the early 1960s and grew up during the Cultural Revolution, so the earlier traditions of Chinese education passed me by."

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