Over the past seven decades, China has risen from the ashes of war to become a leading global economic power, and its education system has been transformed. The 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China is an opportunity to take stock of what we have achieved in educational development and look forward to action that will be taken to accelerate the pace of turning China into an educational powerhouse.
Education as a national priority
China has a long tradition of respecting teachers and valuing education. Since time immemorial, Chinese philosophers have produced ideas on facilitating the dissemination of knowledge and nurturing talent to sustain the country’s growth: to wit, Confucius famously remarked that “education should be for all” and “teaching methods should espouse individual diversity”.
Since 1949, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has kept this tradition alive by prioritizing education and transforming these lofty ideals into reality. It has constantly deepened its recognition of education’s strategic importance in national development. The Common Program adopted at the first Plenary Meeting of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in September 1949 enshrined the all people’s right to education and stressed the need to foster the talent urgently needed by the country. The first national education conference held in December 1949 specified the overarching goal of education and charted the roadmap for educational development. In 1950, Chairman Mao said in the inaugural issue of the journal People’s Education that “recovering and developing education for all was among the most urgent tasks at hand”.
At the third Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee in December 1978 where the reform and opening-up policy was adopted, Deng Xiaoping noted that “leaders who neglected education would be unable to succeed in any ambition to modernize their country, since it would be a mark of lack of visions and insight.” In the 1990s, China’s Communist Party reemphasized the importance of prioritizing education, and reinvigorating China through science, education and human resource development. Former President Jiang Zemin said that “human resources are the raw energy”, while “education is the engine for national development”. Former President Hu Jintao also recognized the strategic importance of education, declaring that “educational development is a priority for any national economic and social development plan and education is the first priority for government money and resources”.
At the 18th National Congress of the CPC in 2012, the Party Central Committee unveiled a new vision for professional training and education, providing holistic and strategic guidelines for educational development. At the latest national education conference in September 2018, President Xi declared that “education is decisive for the future development of our country and the Party,” thereby giving education a central strategic role.
Over the past 70 years, China has labored tirelessly to build a comprehensive and modern education system, demonstrating the effectiveness and vitality of the unique path with socialist characteristics that China has followed to realize educational progress.
China has leapfrogged into the mid-to-top range of world education rankings. In 1949, 80% of China’s population (at the time 450 million) was illiterate with an enrollment rate of school-age children of only 20%, and number of registered students receiving tertiary education totaling 117,000. Today, the nine-year compulsory education has achieved universal coverage. In 2018, the net enrollment rate in primary schools reached 99.95%, and the gross enrollment rate in preschool, upper secondary and tertiary education reached 81.7%, 88.8% and 48.1%, respectively. These impressive results at all levels of education have raised China’s rank among middle-to high-income countries. Government funding for education has been increasing year on year: in 2012 the aim of raising it to 4% of GDP was finally achieved, and this percentage has continued to grow ever since. Meanwhile, a series of high-profile events—from Chinese students’ outstanding performance in PISA assessment, to China becoming a full signatory of the Washington Accord, an influential international mutual recognition agreement between national engineering regulatory bodies—have showcased advances in China’s educational sector on the world stage.
Moral education has also been made a priority, stressing the importance of adhering to the correct political direction, maintaining firm belief in socialism with Chinese characteristics and cultivating patriotism. After substantial exploration and practice in reinforcing moral education, the country has produced generations of young people well-prepared to join the socialist cause and ready to dedicate themselves to national rejuvenation. In March this year, President Xi presided over a national seminar for teachers of political theory, calling on them to be confident in delivering quality political education so as to equip students with knowledge of Chinese socialism in the new era. Today, young students in China enthusiastically demonstrate their strong will to champion and practice core socialist values.
The education sector has provided strong support to national rejuvenation by raising people’s general moral and intellectual attainments. In less than two decades, China has succeeded in achieving universal coverage in compulsory education — a goal which most developed countries achieved in no less than a century. Higher education has become more accessible, with its gross enrollment rate jumping from just over 15% to nearly 50% in just over ten years — a threshold for the mainstreaming of higher education. In 2018, China’s working population has received an average education spanning 10.6 years, and more than 48% of new entrants into the workforce had higher education qualifications with on average 13.6 years of education, exceeding the world average. Over a billion people have managed to better themselves and achieve higher standards of living through education.
Keeping the spotlight on education as a strategic priority
President Xi’s proposition of “education being decisively important to national development” represents a culmination of the lessons learnt and successful practices garnered by the Party through 70 years of educational reform. This legacy should form the pillar for future plans and policies, in order to align education with people’s expectations and the country’s modernization and rejuvenation objectives.
We should acknowledge and applaud the Party’s leadership role in all educational endeavors, as being a prerequisite for a sound education system. The more important the issue at hand is, the more thought we should give to where we are going in the process of addressing it. For this reason, the direction of educational development is the decisive factor in its success. By enhancing the Party’s central leadership role, we can therefore ensure the right direction when forging ahead with educational reform.
We should be fully aware that education is the bedrock of national rejuvenation and social progress. Booming economy, vibrant culture, and powerful national defense—all contribute to a country’s independent and powerful position in the world, and demand a robust education system. Education goes hand in hand with social development: rising educational attainment can promote social progress, through the transmission of cultural heritage, the preservation of social cohesion and as a source of well-being.
We should increase our understanding of the role played by education in fostering all-round talent. Education is a fundamental source of enlightenment. We have to develop education for the benefit of each and every individual by offering universal access to better and more equitable education so that everyone can have a chance to shine and acquire the ability to contribute to society.
We should recognize the capital importance of moral education as a tool to consolidate the country’s political system and maintain social stability. We must ensure that the next generations are also committed to the goal of following and improving socialism with Chinese characteristics.
Finally, we should acknowledge that the other critical mission of education is to support the multiple factors underpinning national development. Investment in education must serve China’s overarching goal of boosting economic and social development.