China Policy Institute: Analysis



Welfare, Work, and Poverty: How Effective is Social Assistance in China?

Written by Qin Gao.

China currently has the world’s largest social assistance program, the ‘Dibao,’ or Minimum Livelihood Guarantee. My new book, Welfare, Work, and Poverty: Social Assistance in China (Oxford University Press), provides a comprehensive evaluation of the performance of this program. How effective has it been in targeting the poor and alleviating poverty? Have Dibao recipients been dependent on welfare, or have they been able to move from welfare to work? How has the Dibao affected their consumption patterns and subjective well-being? And, what policy lessons can we learn from the existing evidence to strengthen and improve the Dibao system in the future? Continue reading “Welfare, Work, and Poverty: How Effective is Social Assistance in China?”

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”

How China’s education strategy fits into its quest for global influence

Written by Ye Liu.

Recent debates about China have focused on its role in the gradual eastward shift in the global economy. This process was accentuated by the financial crisis of 2007-08 and ensuing recession in the West.

But China’s rapid rise over the past two decades holds significance beyond the economy. As an emerging economic giant it is also becoming an increasingly important geopolitical and cultural force in the world.

If this is to be the Asian Century, global interest in China’s cultural traditions and institutions will undoubtedly increase.

For the Chinese government, education is an important instrument in building the country’s global status. There is no doubt that mass production of Chinese graduates will contribute to the country’s continued economic development. This is particularly true of its transition from an economy based on cheap labour and low skills to a technology and innovation-oriented economy.

But education is more than a provider of high-skilled labour. It has been constructed to demonstrate China’s ambition of becoming a global power. China has been excellent at showcasing its soft power, from hosting the 2008 Olympics to the 2010 World Expo. Top status in the international education league table is just another signal.

China’s education system is already attracting widespread interest. This is both for its massive expansion of higher education as well as its performance in the Program for International Student Assessment.

The 2009 and 2012 assessment showed Shanghai topping the world league in reading, math and science. In math, Shanghai students outperformed the equivalent of nearly three years of schooling above most OECD countries.

So what have been the key successes and failure of China’s educational development since the 1980s?

Overall increase in enrolment at all levels

There has been an impressive achievement in the gross enrolment ratio at all levels of education.

By 2010, compulsory education was universal to all social groups. The enrolment ratio in upper secondary education increased from 36.7% in 2000 to 84.3% in 2013. Enrolment in higher education rose from 1.15% in 1980 to 29.7% in 2013.

Progress was achieved by a series of reforms. The nine-year compulsory education change came after the 1978 market reforms. It was subsequently legalised in the 1986 Compulsory Education Law. This aimed to provide the eligible population with free access to six-year primary schooling and three-year lower secondary education.

The “two basics” policy was introduced in 2008 for implementing compulsory education in rural areas. This was aimed at universalising nine-year compulsory education and eradicating illiteracy among the youth.

Higher education has also expanded massively since the 1990s. The “binggui” policy, initiated in 1995, ended the era of state funding and introduced private contributions to financing higher education. This was a contributing factor to the expansion of higher education opportunities.

Narrowing the gender gap

This has been one of China’s most significant achievements.

The female to male ratio of participation in higher education was 0.35 in 1980. By 2010, the ratio had risen to 1.00.

Female students were particularly impressive in achieving participation in higher education. Since 2010 more girls have been enrolled in tertiary education than boys. This can be related to the one-child policy, which was introduced in 1980.

The policy changed the family strategy in investing in education, especially in urban areas. Urban families achieved equal educational expectation and investment in the schooling of their only child. When a girl was born, she benefited from being the focus of all her parents’ aspirations and investment.

The failures

The most striking failure is persistent geographical inequality – in the educational provision as well as life chance and opportunities. Educational studies have highlighted geographical disparity in terms of provision, resources, quality of teachers, funding and attainment at the schooling level.

The regional difference is explained by the decentralisation of education funding and the devolution of responsibilities from the central to the regional level. For example, it has been shown that the ratio of primary education expenditure per student between Shanghai and poorest provinces doubled between the 1990s and 2000s.

My research shows that the most acute inequalities in access to higher education in China are geographical. The highly uneven distribution of higher education institutions had direct implications on access for students from different geographical origins.

Also, decentralised admission criteria and the quota policy gave powers to the local and institutional levels. This increased geographical stratification.

The inconvenient truth of the devolved planning is that the power of the eastern political elites has grown. They support preferential access for their local populations.

The quota policy and differentiated selection may have been influenced by concerns about inter-provincial migration. Graduates from eastern universities who originated from outside would be highly likely to remain in eastern cities on graduation. This would have increased the number of migrants.

By limiting meritocratic access to eastern universities, the authorities were perhaps also seeking to reduce the problems associated with high levels of internal migration.

Hence, the political justification for decentralisation policies in higher education results in a deep-seated contradiction. On the one hand is its development strategy. On the other are uneven regional interests.

China has achieved an impressive record of educational development in terms of universalising compulsory education and improving gender equality. But there’s still a long march ahead to reduce geographical inequality and balance the interests between different regions.

Ye Liu is a Senior Lecturer in International Education at Bath Spa University. This article was first published on The Conversation and can be found here. Image credit: CC by See-ming Lee/Flickr.

Left-behind children: Who to blame?

Written by Xiaogang Wu.

A tragedy took place in June 2015 in the countryside of Guizhou Province, China. A local family of four brothers and sisters in Bijie, the oldest 13 and the youngest only 5, committed collective suicidal by taking poison. In 2012, also in Guizhou, five homeless children were found dying in dumpsters—it was presumed that those kids just wanted to get warmed by huddling there but died of suffocation. During 2013 and 2014, hundreds of cases of sexual assault on children that had occured in poor rural areas were uncovered by Chinese authorities.

If the sexual assaults on children and youth fatality events are not unique to China, the peculiarity is that the majority of vulnerable victims are so-called “left-behind” children. These children are “left behind” in rural areas by their migrant parents working in distant cities. They are under the care of grandparents who are mostly uneducated, or relatives and family friends who are likely to pay little attention to their well-being. In some extreme cases, these children even have to take care of themselves. Poverty is arguably an important reason for the abovementioned tragedies, but not the whole story.

In 2013 the All China Women’s Federation (ACWF) estimated the number of left-behind children had reached six million. The 2010 census, put the population of migrant children in urban areas at three and a half million. This indicates that approximately two thirds of migrant workers’ children were left behind.

A serious consequence of parents’ working in these distant areas is a severe lack of education,  as shown by the findings of our recent article on school enrolment of children from 7 to 14 years old in urban China. By analyzing the micro-data from population censuses in 1990 and 2000 and the mini-census in 2005, we found that the absence of parents or grandparents significantly decreases the likelihood of school enrolment. If the left-behind children are living with people other than parents or grandparents, they also perform poorly.

Left-behind children’s school drop-out rate and general negligence have attracted public attention. However, the situation of children who are brought with their parents to urban centres, i.e. migrant children, cannot be ignored either. Through further examination of the 2000 and 2005 census data, we find that, compared with non-migrant children in both their origin counties and destination areas, the migrant children are significantly less likely to be enrolled in school. Thus migrant children fare even worse than the children left-behind.

The education and other wellbeing of left-behind and migrant children have been a national concern for years in China. Strong efforts and attention have been called for to protect children from abuse and to promote their welfare. Whereas the former requires law enforcement, the latter is mainly in terms of public sympathy and donations, 9-year compulsory education and local officials’ administrative accountability system. Unfortunately, the education problem of both the left-behind and migrant children seems to be as serious as it gets, especially in terms of subjective well-being.

Three questions arise from these observations: (1) why do parents choose to leave their children behind instead of raising them personally? (2) what are the critical factors underlying these children’s lack of education and care? (3) what obstacles lie between the actual effects and policies implemented to improve children’s education and other wellbeing?

The Chinese ‘hukou’ system is first to blame for restricting the ability of families to stay together. The mismatch between the social service systems, mainly the education and the medical care service, and the rapid relaxation of population migration control is the major obstacle for parents to raise their children. Installed in the late 1950s, the ‘hukou’ system was employed by the Party to control population migration during the country’s socialist-style industrialization. Since economic reform, along with the speedy development of the Chinese economy, this administrative control was relaxed in the 1990s, and labour resources were able to gravitate to where the jobs were. Thereafter geographic mobility has increased more rapidly than ever before. The size of the “floating population” reached 144 million in 2000 (Liang and Ma, 2004) and 147 million in 2006 (National Bureau of Statistics in China, 2006).

Nevertheless, subsidized health care and public schooling are strictly linked to the ‘hukou’ and are inaccessible to migrants, unless they pay extra fees. To avoid a costly urban life, most migrant workers either choose to leave their children behind or are inattentive if they have to raise their kids personally. Such discriminatory policies have created special hurdles to socio-economic attainment not only for the adult rural migrants themselves, but also for their offspring, particularly in regard to the latter’s access to educational opportunities in urban destinations. For as long as the left-behind and migrant children’s issues are still developing, ‘hukou’ reform carries on at a very slow pace: while the ratio of children living in urban areas has increased from 16.75% in 1990 to 37.93% in 2005, the ratio of children with a rural ‘hukou’ only increased from 14.73% to 19.47% during the same period.

Another critical factor keeping these children away from education is the loss of social capital in the migrants’ original counties. The geographic move directly brings detrimental effects to social capital embedded in family, neighbourhood, kinship and the community, of which parental care for children is probably the most significant. Sociologists have repeatedly shown that family structure plays a crucial role in affecting child development and subsequent socio-economic attainment. While social exclusion based on the ‘hukou’ system may affect family living arrangements and child care, the real damage is that done to the social norms associated with frequent movement, such as deteriorating interpersonal communications and rising divorce rates.

Poverty alone cannot account for people who shirk their obligations. Empirically, we find that, while the children with a rural ‘hukou’ are particularly disadvantaged in school enrolment, the effect of migration status applies to all children in urban China regardless of their ‘hukou’ status, confirming the importance of parents’ care for their child’s education. Our empirical study on the left-behind and migrant children education problem has policy implications for ‘hukou’ reform and the social support for children affected by their parents’ migration.

Xiaogang Wu is Professor of Social Science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Research Affiliate of the Populations Study Centre at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Image Credit: CC by Thomas Galvez/flickr.

How Can One Become a Teacher in China?

Written by Aihua Hu.

Teachers play an indispensable role in education. The significance of this role cannot be underestimated; teachers educate future generations for the advancement of a nation. Research has indicated that qualified teachers should possess knowledge of the following three fields: subject matter, professional knowledge (didactic knowledge and psychology), and practical knowledge (teaching practice). However, according to various sources, it seems that there is a prevailing problem within most countries when it comes to recruiting teachers who possess this requisite knowledge. The Chinese education system is no exception.

To attract talent and to facilitate high quality applicants, the Chinese government has taken different approaches to recruiting teachers. I have looked at the changes in the practices for recruiting teachers in China at various stages. The first stage is before 1995, when the teaching profession was generally open to those with subject knowledge. The second stage is from 1995 to 2013, during which time it was possible to take up the teaching profession via two routes. And the last period spans from 2013 onward, when only those with official teaching certificates are eligible to teach.

Before 1995

Before 1995, teachers were recruited via two routes. One was through allocation, meaning that the local Education Bureau would allocate teachers to schools according to either the needs of the schools or the number of graduates that year. The vast majority of these allocated teachers were graduates from teacher education colleges or universities, which were called ‘normal colleges’ or ‘normal universities’. This approach sometimes meant that there were times when, even though schools did not require any new teachers, new teachers might be assigned to them. Another means of schools recruiting teachers was via open recruitment / vacancy announcement. Applicants with the desired education and who passed the job interview, which would include giving a teaching demonstration, would be employed. As part of this process, the schools were required to send an application to the local Education Bureau to ask for “quota”. Quota (名额in Pinyin Ming’e ) was a very popular term in the 1970s and 1980s. A teacher awarded the the quota was regarded as a state employee and as such was paid by the government. Teachers not awarded the quota would not get paid by the government and thus would not get stable and fair pay. This is because salaries of teachers were allocated by the government at that time, thus only teachers with “quota” were entitled to a salary allocation from the government.

From 1995 to 2013

As a result of the economy’s development, teacher education became largely marginalised, resulting in a decrease in the quality of teachers. Realising this problem, the government implemented a process for controlling entry into the teaching profession. In 1995, the State Council issued an ‘Ordinance of Teacher Qualification’ requiring that those who had not received a formal teaching education take exams to become a teacher. There were still two routes for taking up the teaching profession. Graduates from teacher education programs could directly take up teaching jobs and automatically receive a Teacher Certificate upon their graduation. Those who did not receive this Teacher Education could enter the profession by taking exams organised by their provinces. Those who held an undergraduate degree and a certificate of Mandarin Proficiency could take the Teacher Certificate exam – a test on the examinee’s spoken proficiency of Mandarin, comprising three grades with six levels. Grade I A (score of over 97) and B (92-97), Grade II A (87-91) and B (80-86), Grade III A (70-79) and B (60-69). Teachers who taught Chinese language had to hold Grade II A; for teachers of other subjects, Grade II was enough. The exam tested the knowledge of two main fields: education and psychology. After the applicants passed the exam in these two fields, they applied to the Education Bureau in their province for a Teacher Certificate. The certificate was valid nationwide without an expiry date. Demonstration teaching and a face-to face interview were also mandated as part of the application requirements. When all elements had been achieved, the applicant would receive a certificate and was able to become a teacher. No professional training was required.

After 2013

Since 2011, changes have taken place in the exam for Teacher Certificates. As mentioned previously, the exam for the Teacher Certificate was organised at provincial level and the certificate was valid nationwide. However, in 2011, an exam for teacher certification at national level was introduced, which meant that applicants would take a uniform exam designed by the central government. This national Teacher Certificate Examination initiative was trialed in six provinces in 2011. From 2013, all provinces were required to follow suit, which meant that anyone who wanted to be a teacher would have to take this national examination. Consequently, since 2013, there is only one way to become a teacher in China and that is to take the national exam for the Teacher Certificate. However, student teachers who were enrolled on teacher education programmes before the implementation of this policy are still able to automatically get the Teacher Certificate upon their graduation. Table 1 illustrates the types of certificates and the contents of the written or computer-based exams. Compared with previous Teacher Certificate exams, more content has been added.

Table 1. An overview of the components of national exam of Teacher Certificate

Types of certificate Subject 1 Subject 2 Subject 3 Mode of exam
Kindergarten Comprehensive quality Knowledge and skills in pre-school education Computer based
Primary school Comprehensive quality Knowledge and skills in education Computer based
Junior &Senior secondary Comprehensive quality Knowledge and skills in education Subject matter knowledge and teaching ability Paper-based


To obtain the Teacher Certificate, all applicants must first pass the paper or computer-based examination and then go through a face-to-face interview in which they are asked to demonstrate their teaching and answer some questions raised by the interviewers. The major goal of the interview is to test the applicants’ teaching skills and techniques.

These three stages of the recruitment of teachers illustrate that professional knowledge and practical knowledge of teachers were not seriously taken into consideration during all the changes that have taken place. However, according to studies, teachers’ professional knowledge and practical knowledge play as important a role, or a more important role, as subject matter knowledge. Those who have not studied psychology, education, or pedagogy know little about these areas. The great majority of applicants usually memorise what is going to be tested in the exams. Although there is a demonstration of teaching and a face-to-face interview, this is far from enough to judge whether a person can teach in a real classroom setting. Worse still, few of the applicants have practical experience. They do not really know what teaching is. Their knowledge of teaching is what Lortie calls “apprenticeship from observation”. The extent to which the new Teacher Certificate policy can help improve the quality of teachers thus requires further investigation.

Dr Aihua Hu is based at Hong Kong Baptist University. Image Credit: CC by Marco Klapper/flickr.

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