China Policy Institute: Analysis



The experiences of Chinese Students and Returnees

Written by Qing Gu.

Over the last two decades, Chinese student mobility has undergone profound changes. Exponential growth has taken place, driven ‘in part by the demand for a knowledge-based economy and highly skilled human resources’. China’s economic expansion has played a significant role in the internationalisation of global higher education, and China now has a prominent position in the global ‘business’ of internationalisation. Within this context, three important phenomena stand out. Continue reading “The experiences of Chinese Students and Returnees”

Education policy in China

Written by W. John Morgan.

In June 1981, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party stated that: ‘The “cultural revolution”, May 1966 to October 1976, was responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the Party, the State, and the People since the founding of the People’s Republic’ (CCP Central Committee, 1981). Since then, despite formal consultations of public opinion, policy decisions in China have in practice been made by the technocrats of the Chinese Communist Party and State. The aim was to reconstruct an effective system of formal education, to provide an administrative-legal basis, with financial support, and to ensure its delivery in practice. The policies devised relied increasingly on the use of statistical data and other quantitative analyses. Such policy-making and its implementation was carried out initially on the basis of central planning, but the technocratic policy-makers of the Chinese Communist Party have attempted increasingly to reconcile society, state, and market, as do governments elsewhere. Continue reading “Education policy in China”

Overseas study as ‘escape route’ for young Chinese women

Written by Fran Martin.

“Study abroad fever” (留學熱) is a notable trend in Chinese society. Every year over 400,000 Chinese students study abroad–the largest number of any country. Most of these students go to study in western nations like the USA, the UK, and Australia. What is less often noticed is that, despite a birth-sex ratio skewed toward males, a small but significant majority of Chinese students in some western nations are women. To date, research on the motivations of Chinese international students provides a course-grained picture: they are motivated by a higher quality of education abroad, improving job prospects, or migration pathways. But my current research sheds light on the motivations for female students to study abroad. Continue reading “Overseas study as ‘escape route’ for young Chinese women”

Fashion, China, and Trends: A Critical Perspective

Written by Tina Mai Chen and Paola Zamperini.

In June 2015, the runways for Moda Uomo in Italy celebrated China in more ways than anyone could have expected even in 2007, when Jean Paul Gaultier wove his dystopian haute couture gowns inspired by a delirious conflation of Japanese and Chinese motifs in his Spring collection for Christian DiorOn this occasion, fashion designers like Ji Wenbo and Zeng Fengfei travelled to Milan, and joined Carlo Capasa, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Italian Fashion (Camera Nazionale Moda Italiana), who met with his counterpart from mainland China, Li Dangqi, head of the China Fashion Association. With their usual contrarian attitude, Dolce and Gabbana snubbed Milan and Paris and held their show in Palermo, Sicily. But they certainly were not turning away from China: rather they went to Sicily to hold their show in the Palazzina Cinese (the Chinese Palace), a Baroque masterpiece of Chinoiserie to showcase their ‘Chinese’ turn as they flooded the catwalks with handsome male Chinese models.

These events should not surprise anyone. For over two decades, Vivienne Tam has seamlessly woven Asian inspiration, partners, and social issues into her fashion design. Moreover, since the turn of the 21st century, Chinese fashion designers have moved from looking longingly to the European capitals to establishing themselves as fashion revolutionaries who now have standing invitations to major fashion events all over the world. Perhaps even more importantly, fashion buyers from Hong Kong, the P.R.C., and Taiwan who converge on the Western fashion capitals for these occasions are quickly outnumbering those from Japan and even South Korea. Fashion, in other words, has not only discovered ‘China’ (whatever that means, a point to which we will return below); ‘China’ has discovered and in many ways taken over ‘Fashion’. But what does this mean for scholars, students, and critical thinkers following these trends? And what can we make of the surprising similarities between fashion trends involving China, and cycles of discovery of fashion in China within academia?

The publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1977 initiated decades of impassioned and critically astute scholarship that eschewed Eurocentric knowledge systems and interrogated the ways in which the Orient is seen and known. In 1997, the launching of Fashion Theory, under the editorship of Valerie Steele, pushed academic studies of fashion to be fully engaged in the critical investigations that animated cultural studies more generally. Fashion Theory integrated scholarly work on Asia, while exhibits curated by Steele and her publications including China Chic (1999) and Japan Fashion Now (2010) placed Asia firmly within an understanding of fashion as a site of production of embodied identities, power, and social relations. The rich possibilities of placing historical and contemporary bodies and clothing at the centre of inquiries into the meaning of Asia and gender generated considerable excitement in 1999 amongst a small group of emerging scholars, us included. With perhaps more ambition than experience, Peter Caroll and Tina Chen convinced Valerie Steele (Director and Chief Curator, Fashion Institute of Technology) and Patricia Mears (then Brooklyn Museum of Art, now Deputy Director for the Museum at FIT) to join them on a panel at the 1999 Association of Asian Studies, which was then followed by a workshop organized by Paola Zamperini at University of California-Berkeley, and a special issue we edited in 2003 of Positions: Asia critique entitled Fabrications.

This, we hoped, was the beginning of a more prominent place for fashion studies within Chinese studies in particular and East Asian studies in general. Drawing on Western canonical sources and a broad range of primary sources from our respective areas and periods of expertise and specialization in Asian Studies, we began a dialogue about clothing and fashion that moved from the propaganda images produced in the People’s Republic of China, to late imperial representations and practices, to feature films, to advertising and trade publications, to actual manufacturing of textiles. We examined multiple Chinas, through lenses at once sartorial and analytical, and in ways that made clear that these Chinas needed to be situated regionally and globally. Fabrications thus looked at East Asia and explicitly refuted interpretations of a monolithic, monochromatic ‘China’ that came into fashion only when recognized by EuroAmerican authorities, or when those fashions allowed discovery of what we already believed was there. Following in Valerie Steele’s steps, we wanted to tear open the fabrications of narratives that relegated Chinese clothing of interest to the imperial court, and fabric to the competence of museum curators and auction houses.

So where are we now? In the week leading up to the Moda Uomo shows and these important groundbreaking meetings, in one of Italy’s most respected universities, the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milano, Modacult, the Center for Fashion and Cultural Production, held an important international conference entitled ‘Fashion Tales: Feeding the Imaginary’ from 18 to 20 June 2015 targeting scholars from a variety of disciplines. One would have expected – especially in the year in which Milan is hosting the World Expo, with accompanying bias towards celebrating the rise of East Asian countries’ soft power from food to clothing – a recognition of the importance of thinking critically about that which is considered Chinese (or more generally non-Western). Strikingly, however, only four of more than one hundred and fifty scholars at the conference worked on China and its fashion system, and only a handful of scholars working on non-European fields. None of the fourteen keynote speakers and discussants discussed Asia, except tangentially as the site of sweatshops and unfair labour practices, and only one of them spoke about a non-European country.

Even more troubling, panels dedicated to non-Western fashion systems were relegated to the last day of the conference at 9AM, ensuring that only the panel presenters and few hyper dedicated scholars already committed to the study of non-Western fashion systems would find the energy to attend. The Europeanists did not attend; apparently not compelled to, as Dipesh Chakrabarty has advocated, provincialize Europe. In this recent conference, the global interactions – economic, cultural, and social – that make local fashion were placed on the margins rather than rendered constitutive of a larger intellectual project of theorizing fashion at the contemporary moment. Regardless of why and how this occurred at this specific conference, we need to think about how the fashion world and academic discussions of fashion create hierarchies of space through modes of inclusion, exclusion, sampling, accessorizing, discovery and reinvention. Fashion – and how we study it — is a creative system that can reproduce social orders or challenge normative frameworks. Is the marginalization of non-Western fashion at an academic conference an oversight due to a long history of Eurocentricism?; or can it be read as indicative of broader efforts globally to contain precisely those soft power initiatives that bring China more directly into the intimate spaces of the everyday lives of the fashion conscious global citizen?

When approached from within the field of Asian Studies, we may ask if discovery, reinvention, and sampling function differently when fashion and clothing become the material of scholarly analysis for those firmly focused on Asia? Thematic conferences, volumes, and panels at the Association of Asian Studies’ annual meetings have taken place regularly since 2000. Yet, despite work by scholars like Sean Metzger that examines how clothing and fashion unsettles categories of gender, nation, place, race, and ethnicity at key moments in US-China relations, the trend in fashion studies in the China field is to place analysis of fashion a priori within comfortable narratives of nation, gender, capitalist development, and global engagement. For example, references to the monochrome nature of everyday life under Mao Zedong abound, even though previous scholarship has challenged precisely this convention. Moreover, current scholarship on clothing and body within China seems reluctant to interrogate the body and its accouterments, even though scholars regularly cite the work of Tani Barlow, Sarah Dauncey, Gail Hershatter, Lisa Rofel, Angela Zito, and others. Perhaps this is because even as scholarship on a vast range of cultural aspects of pre-modern, modern, socialist and post-socialist China flourishes, there is little interest in pushing beyond sub-specializations and the scholarly equivalent of collection, display, and catalogue in ways that make sense according to the norms and expectations of peers. While we currently know much more about clothing and fashion in China as a scholarly community, whither immanent critique? Rather than present sources on clothing and fashion as discovery, celebration, or illustration, we still believe it is more productive to begin from a position that recognizes fashion in ‘China’ at various historical moments as a site of production of historical, theoretical, cultural knowledge – and, yes, theories and practices of fashion.

At the end of the 2015 Fashion Tales conference, Tim Lingdren, an Australian designer and cutting edge scholar of the 21st century P.R.C. fashion system, and one of the handful of scholars in attendance working on fashion in China, past and present, offered similar thoughts when he reflected that the only place it makes sense to host other future conferences on Chinese fashion is Shanghai. That is where the clothes are designed, made, worn, and where fashion studies beyond the Eurocentre are encouraged and promulgated. And what, if in doing so, the language of communication also changed, perhaps to Chinese? This provocative thought is a reminder that the language of discovery requires translation, based upon presumptions of legitimate audience and what can be understood. As sinologists in the Anglophone world interested in fashion, perhaps the translation of our work and ideas into English, rather than Chinese, has done us all a disservice. There is not one language, place, or body of fashion (nor even primary ones); and the work of locating China in Fashion Studies and fashion in China Studies requires that the centring and de-centring impulses of both be held in tension, rather than conflated. What this will look like – and how it will be clothed – is the question we ask ourselves and that we put forward to all of you.

Tina Mai Chen is Department Head of History, Faculty of Arts, University of Manitoba. Paola Zamperini is the founding chair of the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at Northwestern University. Image Credit: CC by Max Talbot-Minkin/Flickr.

Unequal Opportunities, Unequal Outcomes

Written by Jane Golley.

In the six and a half decades since the foundation of the People’s Republic, China has achieved remarkable advances in educating its vast population. This increase in human capital has contributed to, and in recent decades been facilitated by, the rapid rates of economic growth that have transformed China into the economic powerhouse that it is today.

Yet a persistent gap has remained between urban and rural China, with urban residents receiving between four and five additional years of schooling on their rural counterparts throughout the Communist era (see below chart). This remained the case even during the Cultural Revolution, when rural schools expanded rapidly and millions of Chinese youths were ‘sent down’ to the countryside, missing out on high school and university altogether. By the late 2000s, children from Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin were 35 times more likely to make it to college than children from rural areas, where progression beyond high school was limited to just 1.3 per cent.


To understand these lingering rural-urban disparities, Sherry Tao Kong from Peking University and I are currently examining the determinants of educational outcomes (measured in years of schooling) in China using the China Family Panel Survey (CFPS) for 2010, which covers approximately 16,000 households in 25 provinces. The most obvious first contender is an individual’s hukou status, given the long-standing system that excludes rural migrants from a wide range of urban social services, including education. Indeed, we find that having an urban hukou at the age of 12 is associated with three additional years of schooling compared to rural hukou holders. Although this has dropped to a little over two years for the two youngest cohorts in our sample (those born in the 1980s), this remains a substantial ‘gift’ to receive simply for being born in one place, and not another.

The second major ‘gift’ comes from being born to parents who themselves were relatively well educated. This persistence in educational attainments across generations builds on a common theme in research on educational outcomes in China (and elsewhere) to date: that family origin matters. In urban China, it has been argued that even during the Cultural Revolution, the largest negative impact turned out to be on children with parents of lower educational achievement and occupational status. Likewise, during the reform period, education has increasingly favoured the most advantaged members of society, with the male children of well-educated high-ranked cadres and professionals in large cities coming out on top.

Analyses of rural China have similarly shown that the class-based biases of the Cultural Revolution did not last long enough to change the fact that people from higher ‘class status’ (chengfen) and their children would continue to out-educate those below them. Other research points to weaknesses in the rural education system from early childhood onwards, which keep poor rural and migrant children ‘behind before they begin’.

All of these points are confirmed in our regressions, which include father’s educational attainment in the set of explanatory variables. We find, for example, that having a father who completed senior high school or above is associated with an additional 3.2 years of education, and that this association is stronger in rural China (at 3.3 years) than in urban China (2.6 years). In separate regressions that look at each cohort, we find a diminishing (but not vanishing) relationship between child-parent educational outcomes for those cohorts most impacted by the Cultural Revolution, while we see rising persistence over much of the reform period, in both urban and rural areas.

We also find that there are educational rewards for having parents with Communist Party membership, while there are penalties for being female, having siblings, and belonging to an ethnic minority. Furthermore, both these rewards and penalties tend to be higher in the rural sample.

None of this is good news for rural-urban inequality in educational outcomes. But even more importantly, our analysis confirms a serious and growing problem of inequality in educational opportunities. A surging international literature on ‘equality of opportunity’ attempts to measure the share of inequality in any given economic outcome (i.e., years of schooling here) that can be attributed to ‘circumstances’ that are beyond the control of an individual, as opposed to ‘effort’. In our analysis, it is clear that the worst ‘circumstances’ you can be born into are to be female in a large, poor, rural family with uneducated parents of non-Han ethnicity. And the impact of these circumstances on educational outcomes is getting worse over time, not better.

These different circumstances are likely to widen the education gap between rural and urban China over time, unless government policies can effectively target the least favoured members of society. While this may seem an entirely obvious conclusion to draw, it has not always been heeded the past – the most obviously failure being the educational policies of the Cultural Revolution, which targeted those previously most favoured instead. This is not something anyone in their right mind would support today (nor was it then).

Even more worrying are the signs that the Chinese government may not be heeding it now either. In 2012, this was seen in the protests of several young women in Beijing and Guangzhou over the rising trend of gender quotas and gender-based university admissions, for which girls need higher scores than boys. These were subsequently deemed to be in ‘the national interest’ by the Education Minisitry, earning it (quite reasonably) a ‘zero score for fairness’ by the protesting women. The introduction of new rules in Beijing this year, which are forcing rural migrants to return to their home villages to complete their schooling, also tilts the playing field in favour of those traditionally blessed by circumstance. With policies like these, equal opportunities for educational advancement across the country and a narrowing of the persistent gap in rural-urban outcomes, will remain a long way off.

Dr Jane Golley is an Associate Director of the Australian Centre on China in the World, ANU. Image credit: CC by Micah Sittig/Flickr.

Voices from China’s Rural Ethnic Margins

Written by Jinting Wu.

In the broad strokes of media accounts, China presents a success story in education. Not only are many foreign universities vying to tap into its rich educational appetite by setting up offshore campuses, its “ruthlessly dedicated students” both home and abroad have impressed the world. In the 2010 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Shanghai students surpassed their foreign counterparts in maths, reading and science, producing deep anxieties in the western hemisphere about an educational ‘China Rising.’

In 1986, China passed the Compulsory Education Law, stipulating that basic education (grades 1-9) be free and obligatory to all school-age children regardless of gender, ethnicity, region, religion, and family socio-economic status. Three decades after the law’s implementation, China has improved in leaps and bounds in education provision. With a 99% literacy rate (up from 20% in 1949) and high mass participation at all levels of schooling, it demonstrates remarkable success in the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals.

However, this is only part of the story. In the diverse landscape of China, education is a study in contradiction, and educational resources are as unequally distributed as economic wealth. While urban elites seek greener grass overseas by sending their children for a developed-world education, children in rural, inland, minority regions are pressed by more immediate concerns of earning a livelihood, and are often subject to early drop-out, child labour, and migration-induced family separation. While the urban desire for education is palpable, for many rural and ethnic residents, education does not change one’s destiny as the state law promises, yet remains an elusive ideal that prepares them only for factory sweatshops.

In the Miao and Dong villages of Southeast Guizhou where I spent some 16 months conducting research, villagers reason that schooling’s uncertain outcomes can hardly justify monetary and time investment. Some decades ago we heard stories of cash-strapped families striving to educate their children so that they could be gainfully employed in the future. Now the dominant narrative is that even college graduates couldn’t find a job, let alone children in remote villages where teaching quality is poor, and where farmers do not have necessary cultural capital or social connections. Why waste the money and time? Many are seriously pondering this question. If children are unlikely to continue beyond the free compulsory years (high school and college education is not free), and if they are ultimately going to end up in menial jobs, why not start earning a livelihood earlier?

According to a recent survey of 17 middle schools in 14 rural counties across 6 northern provinces, conducted by the Rural Education Research Institute of the Northeast Normal University, dropout rates were running at about 40%. Despite the persisting difficulty at obtaining accurate statistics in China, in general, ethnic minority children are found to have higher dropout rates than Han students, and rural children higher than urban students.

Poverty is an obvious deterrent, but it is far from the only reason. Besides financial constraints, disinterest and fatigue are often cited to be a contributing factor to the soaring dropout rates. Teachers continue to teach students to take tests, and disengagement and poor academic motivation are common in rural classrooms. Furthermore, despite the government campaign to revitalise the countryside, rural schools continue to deliver an urban-centred, national-standard curriculum. Textbooks in rural schools are replete with abstract contents of urban life. Students are de-linked from the domain of traditional knowledge production, such as batik making, singing, and embroidery, which used to perform important educative roles before state schooling came into existence. The cultural and material supremacy of the urban has produced significant brain-drains from the rural community, and for those who have little hope of continuing education, a deep sense of doubt and helplessness.

In addition, exam scores do not singularly determine one’s educational trajectory. Guanxi (having social connections) serves as an important political, social asset to help one navigate the educational and employment market. Lacking the essential social lubricant of guanxi and the economic means to grease the web of personal connection, the children of peasant descent are put at a decided disadvantage at the start of the educational race. Overall, rural ethnic schools in Guizhou suffer from resource shortage and physical isolation to varying degrees. While schools in township-centres are better equipped and serviced with public buses, schools in remote hamlets often face dire conditions without vehicle-accessible roads. Due to lack of facilities and qualified teachers, many schools are forced to put two grades into one classroom, where the teacher divides class time into halves and handles one grade at a time.

Moreover, in compulsory education policy agendas, all students must move ahead and not repeat grades even if they do not perform well, as the state provision of free education is for nine years only. Teachers complain that students have less incentive to work hard now, knowing they can always move up grade levels and that the teachers have a stake in keeping them in school. With yearlong school audits where higher-ups pay school visits to gauge the local implementation of compulsory education, teachers spend much time and energy preparing materials and entertaining inspectors; many skip classes or teach in a perfunctory manner. As teachers’ morale declines, teaching quality also plummets.

For the Miao and Dong youth, many finish junior secondary schools inexperienced for a soil-bound life; nor do they have credentials for salaried jobs in urban centres. Upon graduation or after dropping out, some remain in their native village to work in hair salons and retail shops; others become truck-drivers, vegetable vendors, and hotel security guards. A few go to high schools or attend technical academies. The majority of them leave home to work on factory floors in the bustling cities on the coast. Scaling the walls of the school, rural ethnic youth do not necessarily jump out of their peripheral status.

There are better visions to be dreamed of, but until then, compulsory education remains a double-edged sword that produces both hope and discontent in China’s rural ethnic margins.

Jinting Wu is Assistant Professor of Education Policy at the University of Macau. Image Credit: CC by Thomas Galvez/flickr.

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