China’s important lesson for the world: get educated

Many people outside Asia have heard little about China other than that it is a source of cheap labour and goods, has a wider menu than most countries and is an exotic holiday destination.  Stories of shocking conditions for workers detract from an intriguing phenomenon: Chinese people are becoming more and more qualified.


money (Photo credit: 401(K) 2012)

In China’s cities it is not unusual, for example, for a company executive’s personal assistant to hold a Masters degree. It would be unusual to find a secretary who is as well-qualified as the top management in a company in Africa or elsewhere.

Nor is it strange in China for kindergarten teachers at private schools to hold a similar postgraduate qualification, or for white-collar workers to be reading for a PhD in their spare time. In South Africa, arguably Africa’s most developed economy, pupils at many schools are fortunate when they are taught by teachers who have studied beyond the final school year’s Matric.

There is some debate about whether being overqualified is cause for concern in China, particularly as the  6m or so people who are graduating from universities each year are finding it increasingly difficult to find jobs. But, the fact of the matter is that education is cherished by many of its people – and the government.

A photo of Chinese graduates wearing lace-up m...

A photo of Chinese graduates wearing lace-up mortarboards. Distributed publicly. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Statistics on the numbers of people taking up higher education are impressive. The government intends to keep encouraging more school leavers to study for higher qualifications.

Millions of university students

People’s Republic of China government officials reckon there were more than 23m students at universities in 2009. Enrolments have leapt dramatically in recent years. In 2000 about 6m students were on the books of higher institutions.

Chinese people have been increasingly seeking out opportunities to study abroad, too. It is no secret that China’s education-hungry young adults have played a major role in boosting education as a major export in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.

It is a pity a country like South Africa hasn’t done more to tap into the international student body as a source of foreign currency. Some of its universities are up there with the best, with the University of Cape Town (UCT) a case in point.

UCT was recently ranked among the Top 200 universities in one important international higher education survey. And as South Africa has proved to be a big source of professionals – medical doctors being just one of many examples – it stands to reason that the country has something valuable to offer in this sector.

Opportunities for Africa

At the very least South Africa, and Africa in general, should be doing more to beef up education standards and educate many more of its people – or it can expect to get left far behind in the developing world’s race to rank alongside wealthier western economies. Ultimately, education and training are vital if countries want to create jobs along with the economic growth, as the Chinese example suggests.

Education is a big theme in China’s bold new plan to create a highly skilled workforce within the next decade. The country has set itself new targets so that it will no longer be just a case of “Made in China” but “Created in China”. There are many facets to China’s human resources strategy, however the government “gives priority to education” (in September 2010 the Information Office of the State Council – China’s cabinet – released a white paper on China’s human resources).

Nine-year compulsory education, introduced in 2000, has already almost wiped out illiteracy among people between the ages of 20 and 50, the government has said. No doubt the obligatory schooling has played a role in swelling student numbers at the country’s universities.

Looking for ways to keep the country on its impressive economic growth trajectory, China now wants to “rejuvenate the nation through human resources development”.  As with everything in China, the scale of its plans is enormous.

Upgrading skills, retraining workers

It aims to train “thousands of millions of high-quality workers, hundreds of millions of professionals and a large group of top-notch innovative personnel”. It started this campaign in 2001 and has increasingly intensified its plans. Big money is being poured into scholarships, student subsidies and a national student loan system.

For those who aren’t academically inclined, China lays on training courses so they can master vocational skills. The unemployed are offered “re-employment” training courses to equip them with more relevant, practical skills. Entrepreneurship training courses are also available for people who want to start their own businesses. The government itself is, of course, a major employer.

Africa should follow China’s lead and throw a lot more energy and resources into education.  Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe understood the importance of education in his earlier days as Zimbabwean president, and a superior education is perhaps one of his few legacies for which many Zimbabweans obliged to find work elsewhere will be grateful.

Other African politicians have made the right noises about improving standards of education, but somehow the talk has never translated into implementation en masse. Politicians have got side-tracked by other issues, like colonial legacies and grabbing land in the case of Mugabe, or seem to have been overwhelmed generally by the deep-rooted social and economic challenges in providing quality education.

Perhaps achieving important national objectives requiring the full effort of all citizens is easier when your economy has been built on a bedrock of social control, thanks to a Communist regime. Or perhaps the Chinese have Confucius to thank for the cultural importance attached to education and self-control over centuries. You don’t hear of teachers in China simply not pitching up for work or of students showing huge disrespect to their teachers in the ordinary course of events.

Careful planning, not luck

There are many reasons for China’s competitive advantages internationally these days – and none of them is serendipity. Careful, long-term planning and meticulous implementation, with continual adaptations as circumstances demand, have been essential. Importantly, the economic and social vision is broadly supported by the people.

The Communist Party has emphasised that its policies “put people first” – all 1,3bn of them – particularly since the reform and introduction of “opening up” policies were introduced in the late 1970s. The State Council says that a “significant aim” for the government is developing the country’s human resources “so as to provide powerful labour and intellectual support for China’s modernisation drive”.

Human resources are the key for the country to “realise its transformation from a country rich in human resources to one with powerful human resources”, says China. It acknowledges it lacks “high-level, innovative people” but is determined to change this.

In the “new phase of the new century” the country aims to “build a complete lifelong education system with the focus on making education more equitable and with improving educational quality as the core, so that all people can enjoy their rights to education, make progress and apply what they have learned to bear”. The Chinese government says it will “work harder” to cultivate innovative scientists and engineers and train professionals needed for economic and social development.

These comments, carried in a government paper, may sound like political rhetoric. But China has shown over the past 30 years that not only does it dream big, it puts collective energy into making the dream a reality. The lesson for the rest of the developing world is to get educated or get left behind.

*This article was first published at

Jackie Cameron is a freelance journalist who recently settled near Edinburgh and Glasgow with her family after working as a correspondent in Asia and Africa. Contact her at and read more of her recently published work here.


One thought on “China’s important lesson for the world: get educated

  1. Pingback: Worst day of my life: Flashback in China | jackiecamerondotcom

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