Matters of Education

Learning Happens Everywhere

China’s Home Front, Part I

Original Publication Date: August 2008

Chinese Culture


The place that is known as China has been four millennia in the making. And while the geographic boundaries have changed over time, there is an essence that is indeed China. More than a physical space, it is comprised of a series of attitudes and values commonly held although realized differently by groups within society. Like all national identities, it is based on perceptions and bias and is true just often enough to have validity. This commonality is both evident in and perpetuated by economic, political, and social institutions. For many in China, the market revolution of the last thirty years has caused drastic changes in these societal institutions. One wonders the extent to which there will be a resulting change in the shared cultural veneer.


The physical borders of China have changed a great deal over its 4000 years, beginning with settlements along the two rivers, the Yangtze and the Huang He [Figure 18]. As the successive dynasties established themselves, declined and were replaced by others, a cultural reality pervaded whatever the geographic space was. Like most comprehensive attitudes, it was not all of any one thing but a mixture of complex and frequently contradictory elements. Even in the modern era, this veneer of commonality persists despite increasing divisions and incursions by foreign ideas and practices. For millennia, foreigners have been expected to assimilate to these ways, at least in terms of behavior.

Chinese culture tends to focus on the collective rather than the individual as opposed to the West where individual rights take precedence and different interests are all deemed valid. In China, consensus and collective purpose take priority. The group exists before the individual who by design cannot have rights over and against the collective to which he or she has responsibilities. Human beings are the measure of things. Social connections and family matter most; one displays favoritism to those to whom he or she is connected. This intertwining set of relationships, guanxi, speaks to both an institutional relationship and a personal one.

This collective mentality dates back several centuries before the Common Era, and was institutionalized in government and education through the Confucian ethics that framed public policy. This sentiment exists on a national level with strong expectations of loyalty. In the dynastic period allegiance was to the emperor, the family, the parents and one’s ancestors. Today, loyalty to the Party and the state reflects this foundation of relational rather than individual participation in society. Although there are divisions by ethnicity, language and region, there is a common appreciation of the particularistic approach in which all are not deemed equal. One treats those to whom one is close differently, preferentially.

One must wonder how these attitudes will translate in the rapidly shifting economic landscape of China. Capitalism tends to promote individual gain over group achievement. Chinese companies that want to succeed in the global market place in the long run will have either adapt themselves or alter the operating style of Western businesses. But old habits do die hard and any foreign company doing business in China will need to some extent incorporate this particularistic approach. Other ingrained aspects of Chinese business culture, such as petty corruption and ritualized drinking, are also subject to re-evaluation in the market economy that increasingly defines Chinese business.

For much of its history, China believed itself superior to those who surrounded it, deeming them barbarians. China’s current leadership has successfully generated renewed feelings of nationalism among its people. After a century of humiliation from the middle of the 19th to the middle of the 20th centuries, and then thirty years of political experimentation that led to great loss for many, the last thirty years have witnessed enormous growth and success. Now nationalism is based on positive results and the ability of the repressive political regime of the ruling Communist Party to promote its version of events. With the decline of socialism as its framing ideology, nationalism has become the state religion.

The Chinese also remain highly superstitious. The May 2008 earthquake in the Sichuan province [Figure 31] unleashed centuries of folk wisdom. Even in an era of enormous economic growth, there is still widespread belief in lucky numbers, signs, omens and feng shui. What currently drives many in China is a desire to compete, to adapt and to be a player on the global stage. As many foreigners observe, they are the masters of innovation, great at figuring things out on the fly whether it is driving a car or managing a corporation.

Chinese culture has always reinforced the notion that there are differences between the elite and the masses. Throughout history, resourcefulness meant access to food and survival. This trait continues today. From the dynastic era to the Communist Revolution to the rise of a market economy, Chinese people have adapted and many have thrived. Uncertainty has persisted through much of its history, whether it was peasants on small plots of land or international corporations functioning in a global industry. The Chinese have learned to take advantage of all opportunities because they often do not know what is around the next corner.

Finally, despite a strong sense of the past, the current government displays a great willingness to obliterate history and those institutions that have been the foundation of daily life for millions of Chinese people. As it razes centuries old neighborhoods in Beijing to build up the city for the upcoming Olympics [Figure 28], it has destroyed structures that were the foundation of communal behavior. Likewise, Party leaders have ordered the destruction of villages that had existed for centuries to make way for major engineering projects like Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River [Figure 35]. But perhaps the most pervasive aspect of Chinese culture is the ability to adapt and survive. Four thousand years is a long time to remain in existence, whatever form that existence might take.


The result of Chinese actions and attitudes has been deep divisions that underlie these commonalities. This inherent contradiction is part of a particularistic view of the world that identifies difference at every level. During times of weak central rule, these divisions of language, ethnicity, region, and location have not only surfaced but dominated Chinese society. In contemporary times, the rapid shift to a market economy has led to wide income disparities. Currently the greatest divide, which is often a proxy for the class division, is the urban/rural split. 60% of China’s population works in the agricultural sector. And while Party policies matter increasingly less in the cities, local officials are still the elite in the country side, controlling access to land, funds and education.

More than 70% of China’s population lives on less than $2 per day. While the elite of many portions of society are treated well, a billion Chinese are suffering with little opportunity to improve their circumstances. Ethnic divisions persist as well. Only 8% are minorities, but in a country of 1.3 billion, that is more than 10 million people. The most well known minority to Westerners is Tibetans, but in general, residential concentration of minorities allows for easy exploitation. Many of the children identified in the recent labor ring scandal in the Guangdong Province [Figure 31] came from the Sichuan province. Their parents did not speak or read Mandarin and they were easily fooled into sending away (or in some cases knowingly parting with) their children.


China’s vast educational system mirrors and perpetuates the surface commonalities and underlying divisions of Chinese society. Its mission is enormous. There are 375 million children under the age of 18. While China has 26% of the world’s school age students, it expends only two percent of global educational resources. The current approach is a pyramid system. Only 40% of the students go past ninth grade and of that group, only five to ten percent of high school students will get a world class education in one of 100 universities.

China hopes to build a system that will eventually support its burgeoning economy and reflect its world status. Education is planned by the Party leadership that establishes hurdles for advancement at each level. There is a strong curricular emphasis on math and science. Those who do make it to the university level, get the best facilities, teachers, and equipment. Selectivity is skewed towards the wealthy, urban elite. One rural village reports three students have made it to the university level in the last thirty years.

The education itself tends to be more descriptive than predictive and requires mastery rather than responsiveness. One questions the value of such a pedagogical approach in a rapidly industrializing society. Teaching tends to focus on repetition rather than inquiry. The strident exam system diminishes the value of subjects not being tested. Although some teachers are excellent, and knowledgeable about both pedagogy and content material, many are not and it is difficult to get the best teachers to take assignments in rural areas.

Elementary education is funded by local communities through a mix of local government revenues, donations for buildings, and fees for books and activities. Schools stress both the collective and the individual. Students and teachers work together to raise everyone’s achievement but only so many can move forward through the exam funnel. Schools tend to cover a few topics in great depth. Class size is quite large with an average of 40 students per class in primary grades and 60 to 70 in high school classes.

The strength of the system is in its good intentions; the weakness is in the details with a strong emphasis on repetition and memorization. Much of the school day is designed to foster political ideology. In addition to content learning, students monitor one another in class, over homework, hygiene and politeness. Children are evaluated on many factors, and judged using national standards in areas such as cherishing the honor of the group, loving the nation, and participation in labor for the common welfare. Education is also a vehicle for Party indoctrination. Textbooks include the government’s version of historic events. Tibet is presented as always having been part of the country and foreigners are presented as having brought nothing but humiliation in the 19th century. There is little about Communist Party failures, such as the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.

The government is trying to ease the burden on parents by abolishing primary school tuition and other fees. In most cases, students are required to leave home if they are to attend school past the elementary level. Local schools are usually inadequate in terms of teacher quality, facilities, student achievement and access to higher education. As the May 12, 2008 earthquake showed, schools in provincial areas are often not even built to safety codes.

Education in China reinforces the cultural value of the collective over the individual. Parents make great sacrifices for children to have educational opportunities that are selective for advancement at each successive level. Children spend about twice as much time in school as students in the US do, but for Chinese youth, study and school are it. There is very little volunteer work, sports, church groups, or debate teams. None of these aspects factor into college admission, so few resources are devoted to them. Educational performance is one illustration of the ways in which children are to show loyalty and obligation to their parents. The death of so many children in the May earthquake underscores the fragility of a society that allows only one child.

As is often the case during a time of rapid growth, opportunities for advancement are often not linked to educational attainment but the model persists. The elite are identified, considered almost public entities and provided unlimited resources, but their success belongs to the collective. This paradigm certainly describes the training of Olympic athletes. They receive seemingly unlimited resources but are expected to sacrifice everything for the glory of the country. The Chinese government has been targeting those sports that could yield the largest number of medals for the fewest participants, such as boxing, rather than team sports. Boxing in particular illustrates the new China. Mao had banned the sport because of its violence, brutality and ruthlessness, all of which he deemed the hallmarks of capitalism. The current leadership now fields world class competitors in 11 weight classes.


Language is incredibly important to Chinese culture. Mandarin has been the official language for 2500 years and while there are over 250 dialects, there is only one written system. That served as the primary means to unify China throughout its history. Mandarin is not a phonetic language and each character stands for an idea, not a sound. This absence of a connection between written and oral language serves as an excellent illustration of the collective veneer of commonality that overlays widespread diversity within the country.

English now plays an important role in China’s culture. For a long time, English was denigrated by the Chinese. For centuries, it was the language of barbarians and then the language of conquest, both economically and culturally. After the Communists took over in 1949, Mao expelled all missionaries and by 1960 there were only 900 English teachers in the country. Mao considered English the language of class struggle and forbade its use.

After his death in 1976, more practical leaders prevailed, and English was extolled as a means to compete within the international arena. The current leadership views conquering English as a way to make China stronger. The problem is that while many learn textbook English, few learn how to speak the language. As a result, English language schools have been opening up, especially in anticipation of the Olympics this summer. Beijing cabdrivers, for example, have been issued the Olympic Taxi Handbook, a 312 page primer on the world which lists useful English expressions.

English is providing a new layer of veneer to Chinese culture. With increasing divisions by class, opportunity and power, the English language is rapidly becoming a unifying force. Every college freshman must have a minimum level of English comprehension and it is the only foreign language tested. But English, like so many other subjects in China, is taught by rote memorization.


In 1980, the government mandated that all families would be limited to one child. Concern over rapid population increase as well as a desire to raise living standards motivated this drastic measure. Perhaps there will be the desired economic effect but one must question the impact on traditional family structure and behavior. So much of Chinese culture is relational, based on the notion of filial respect and responsibility for one’s parents. The impact on this social obligation has yet to be felt but as the parents with one child age, we will begin to see the repercussions of this policy.

One reality that has already surfaced as a result of the one child restriction is a marked increase in late term abortions, particularly of female fetuses. It was the son who was to care for the aged parents; if one’s only child is a girl, parents frequently questioned their future security. The repercussions of this gender imbalance cannot fully be known, but by 2005, the ratio of male to female births in China was 1.08. The May 12, 2008 earthquake was devastating for many reasons, but particularly to parents who lost their only child, and in essence, their future security. The government recently announced its decision to continue the one child policy given that 200 million people would be entering childbearing age during the next decade.


  1. How is China both a place and an idea?
  2. How is the tension between the general and the specific perpetuated in contemporary China?
  3. Have recent developments undermined the collective sensibilities of the Chinese?
  4. Divisions have always existed in China. To what extent have these shifted in recent decades?
  5. How have the institutional foundations of Chinese culture persisted over the centuries and accommodated enormous change?


China Politics


The political entity known as China has existed in one form or another for over four thousand years. There have been periods of chaos and order, flowering and decline, isolation and internationalism. Although geographic parameters may have shifted during this time, one constant has been the ability of authoritarian leaders to exert control disproportionate to their numbers. China’s current leadership, the Communist Party, has been in power for almost 60 years and in many ways copies the model of the great dynastic leaders, yet China exists in a modernizing world. Will Party leaders retain this tight control or like so many empires before them, eventually crumble due to internal weakness and foreign aggression?


Despite a great many changes over the course of four millennia, much of the political landscape of China looks remarkably similar. Although there are exceptions, pervasive patterns of behavior and attitude mark the nature of governing this diverse landscape. A central concept dating back to a thousand years before the Common Era is the Mandate of Heaven. Rulers were endowed by the heavens with the authority and talent to administer the country. In a shift of cause and effect, times of famine or internal disorder were taken as signs that the mandate had been revoked. This concept enabled long dynastic periods where rule transfer did not need to be based on blood and often was passed to the most capable successor, insuring lengthy administrations. The result was the perpetuation of a distinct culture that could change without losing its essence. The question is whether the current Community Party leadership can outrun the Mandate of Heaven argument or will it merely be another dynasty whose inability to maintain growth and success will lead to its demise.

For much of its history, the Chinese perceived their country as a civilized geographic entity surrounded by barbarians with little to offer them. This strong sense of national superiority lost much of its luster from the middle of the 19th to the middle of the 20th centuries as first the Europeans and then the Japanese overran the country [Figures 7 and 25]. Otherwise, Chinese nationalism has deep roots in a sense of superiority which seems to be reinforced by contemporary growth and economic superiority. The Chinese have always expected foreigners to adopt their ways. This sentiment extended well beyond immigrants but to foreign conquerors as well. Two of the great periods in Chinese history, the period of Mongol rule [Figure 22]in the 13th and 14th centuries, and the Qing (or Ch’ing or Manchu) dynasty [Figure 25] from the mid-17th century to 1900, were times when foreigners conquered China but employed domestic political, economic and educational systems to rule. Today, those who wish to succeed in China also understand the need to adapt to the local customs and approaches rather than impose external models, particularly in understanding the authoritarian approach even within the country’s economic arena.

The Chinese also have a definite world view, quite comfortable with particularistic notions, allowing for the favoritism of those deemed worthy of special treatment. Social connections matter most and one treats family and those to whom one has connections more favorably and more conscientiously than those to whom there are no connections. The Confucian system, established 500 years before the Common Era, was characterized by a series of relations. Obviously, this system has been abandoned under the Communists, but the expectation of preferential treatment still characterizes the modern period. Politics is about the personal more than the ideological. No one understood this better than Mao who spent thirty years bringing the Communists to power, one village at a time. Even the current premier, Wen Jia-bao, encourages the people to think of him as kindly Grandpa.

Chinese governments have always had to manage expanding populations, avert natural disasters and administer this unwieldy geographic entity which often extended its reach via direct or indirect rule throughout the Asian continent. An important tool to accomplish this task was a written language standardized during third century BCE. Despite oral linguistic variation, the existence of a common means of communication served to unify the country. This cohesive entity did not dispel internal divisions, most notable between local and central rulers as well as urban and rural areas. Usually strong central rule was associated with dynastic ascension. Local bosses, whether they were feudal lords 1000 years ago or local Party officials now, tend to rise during times of overall national decline. Currently the Party leadership in Beijing exerts enormous control, but local political bosses have their own spoils to distribute which enables them to maintain control.


The Communist Party assumed full control of the Chinese government in 1949, creating the People’s Republic of China [Figure 29]. The Party is both ideological and practical, identifying guiding principles and setting up the detailed components of government and administration of a country with more than a billion people. That the ideals and practice are so often contradictory reveals the ability of the Chinese people to be at peace with seeming paradoxical elements. To many of those observers, both in and out of the country, the abandonment of principle for power is intellectually dishonest.

When Mao and his forces finally defeated the Nationalists in 1949, they adopted the Soviet model [Figure 34] of a one party system with voters registering approval of the Party’s decisions. The Communists ascension at the end of a thirty year struggle, both within and outside of the country, resulted in the brutal elimination of enemies and rival ideologies. Millions were executed or imprisoned. The official Party position is that China is a diverse but unified nation of 56 ethnic groups that have assimilated into the concept of China over the centuries.

Currently, the Party has approximately 70 million members, less than 5% of China’s total population. It controls many aspects of life for the Chinese, from education to birth control. The main decision making body of the Chinese Communist Party is the Central Committee that has roughly 200 members with 150 alternate members. It meets in plenary session twice a year. In the interim, most power is vested in the 24 member Politburo, overseen by the nine person Politburo Standing Committee. Despite this seemingly hierarchical structure, there are various secretariats and commissions. The Party’s power is still absolute yet clearly diminished by corruption, the widening wealth gap, and big layoffs at State Owned Enterprises. These government-directed companies were once the largest employer of the industrial workforce but now have been diminished with the advent of market forces over the last 30 years.

The current leadership is determined to have its military power reflect the country’s economic position and has increased military spending over 17% in each of the last two years, although China still spends less than a quarter of what the United States does on defense. The government claims that its activities in this area are purely defensive. Domestic order is an important task of the military and China has the world’s fastest growing market for security and crime control equipment.

Party leaders certainly appreciate the need to modernize and in March 2008 they reorganized the central government by creating five super ministries. The intention was to stream line an overlapping array of government agencies whose turf wars led to inefficiency. Bureaucrats spent more time protecting their interests than trying to accomplish their goals.

At present, Beijing recognizes the importance of strong local Party bosses while retaining ultimate national authority. Village politics remains central to lives of nearly 60% of China’s 1.3 billion people that reside in rural areas. The local Party member controls access to funds. He or she wields enormous power and handles all major land transactions and approves individual applications for government loans. They also control taxes, regulation, and land use. While Party influence is waning in the cities, in rural China, the Party still represents the elite and membership can protect individual interests. The Party secretary of each local chapter is chosen every three years during a closed session of local members. There is no formal campaign and candidates are not declared. The system is designed to protect power instead of inculcating ideology.

Much of the economic transformation of the last thirty years is the result of ceding power to local Party officials to maintain the requisite stability for growth. Now that Party leaders in Beijing want to enact system wide measures, particularly to combat the environmental problems generated by the rapid industrialization, they find themselves limited by local officials who are able to prevent or circumvent comprehensive measures.


The Party represents the highest ideal of the communist understanding of China but also draws on longstanding attitudes and beliefs shaped by centuries of history and foreign relations. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, China viewed itself as a superior culture, with little regard or use for outsiders. When outsiders came, either to trade or conquer, they adopted Chinese ways.   Its humiliation at the hands of first the West [Figure 7] and then Japan [Figure 14] over the course of the next century, very much influenced the political approaches of the Communists when they took over in 1949.

Mao and his followers looked to the future as it established its political system in the middle of the twentieth century, but much of that was grounded in centuries of glory and accomplishment. How had the culture that produced so much advanced thinking and accomplishment while the rest of the world resided in caves been reduced to such military and strategic weakness? China needed a twentieth century model of Communist rule as well as a practical ally, and the Soviet Union willingly provided both [Figure 34].

Mao appreciated China’s history, past glory, and unique opportunities. He also understood the peasantry and the tension between local and central authority. Anything that was tainted by capitalist approach or bourgeois sentiment was forbidden. He believed mightily in the power of the ideal of Communism and the ability of the Chinese people to embrace and act upon these principles. Despite some big failures, Mao’s faith in the people was undeterred and he truly believed that they would be motivated by moral incentives. They would give up their personal needs for the goals of the revolution and building a strong China. His faith was in the masses that had made the revolution rather than the intelligentsia who analyzed it. His efforts during both the Great Leap Forward (1958 to 1960) and the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1969) were disastrous and millions starved to death. The impact on the Party was a fundamental split between the ideological and the practical.

For the first thirty years of Communist rule, China’s leaders had to decide how much importance to ascribe to ideals and policies. Did capitalistic behavior make China a capitalist country? Would all contact with the West prove disadvantageous to the country? Were certain actions unworthy simply because they were done by China’s ideological enemies? In recent decades, the post-Mao leadership forged ahead with a confidence that the country could adopt the behaviors of the West without losing its national soul. Mao’s successors rationalized his mistakes as departures from Marxist/Leninist ideology in pursuit of party politics, allowing his legacy to remain intact while different economic paths were and are pursued. To many, the incredible success of the last thirty years appears to justify the current capitalist economic system and authoritarian rule.


Most of these questions could not be raised while Mao was alive but upon his death in 1976, Chinese leaders were able to grapple with the practical application of Communist ideals as they looked towards the future. They understood the need for technological advancements, industrial expansion, Western contact, and capital generation. They agreed to allow some aspects of a market economy to return to China and recognized that they would also need to have ongoing relationship with the West.

To move forward to establish a modern, socialist state, China would also need a stable bureaucracy and political equanimity, both of which had been in flux for much of Mao’s reign. The combined wisdom and approach came in the person of Zhou En-lai who gained control of the Party apparatus. By 1978, Mao’s followers had been driven out of party leadership. Deng Xiaoping was a symbol of new leadership that understood first and foremost that China’s people had to be put to work and the agriculture sector needed to yield enough to feed its massive population. Likewise, there needed to be reforms in education, science and technology.

Deng began in the agricultural sector and abandoned the large collective farms favored by Mao. Agricultural production reverted to small, household units where the Party would set production quotas and any overage could be sold at market prices. Here the control of a command economy would be coupled with the practicality of market forces. Within a decade, Chinese farmers were producing enough to export crops. It seemed to some observers that material incentives were much better motivators than ideology.

In certain arenas, the government maintained enormous control and to some, intruded in ways that have truly undercut Chinese culture. It is one thing for the government to retain authority over scarce natural resources and set economic policy that affects the money supply. It is far more drastic to issue edicts that restrict people to one child in order to raise the living standard. The government has prevailed in this area despite changing millennia old values of children caring for aging parents to say nothing of a culture in which ancestor worship remains profound. New medical tests enable parents to know the sex of their children before birth, leading many to abort female fetuses far into the pregnancy because they believe that sons are more valuable. There are many reports of wealthy families who have more than one child because they are willing to pay fines of up to an equivalent of $100,000 US.

The Chinese certainly see the value of a strong and comprehensive educational system although it both perpetuates and reflects the divisions within Chinese society. The current system embodies strong central planning with the creation of elite institutions that provide an excellent education to a small percentage of its students. Much of the curriculum relies on rote memorization, reminiscent of the exam system of the literati developed under Confucius 2500 years earlier. The elite of urban China have the best opportunities to become well educated. Those who are poor and/or live in rural areas have limited access to education with little real opportunity to improve their circumstances.

Ideals and practice diverge in other areas well. The government has embarked on major projects, such as Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River [Figure 35], a combination of state planning and capitalist opportunity that will also provide less expensive and cleaner energy. For the project to begin, millions of people needed to be resettled and the government destroyed villages that had existed for centuries. Beijing does try to solve the problems rapid industrialization has caused but has had limited success. Either the government does not enforce its own legislation or fails to pursue measures that would result in actual change. This reluctance is evident in a variety of regulatory arenas, from banking, to product safety, to environmental damage, to minimum age and wage laws.

The May 12, 2008 earthquake in Chengdu [Figure 31] illustrates both the power and limitation of China’s political apparatus. Party leaders have been able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of soldiers, get people to safety, and engage in engineering projects to prevent further damage from aftershocks. But the mere presence of development in an area known to be earthquake prone, and the widely variable application of building codes, resulting on the destruction of some buildings and survival of others, speaks to an unwieldy system that is difficult to control completely.


The Chinese government’s default position is to repress dissent or criticism. Organized protest is forbidden although individual efforts, particularly in the area of environmental problems, have been gaining strength. Many advocates are often punished, particularly as dissidents are often treated as bigger threats than the harmful effects about which they are protesting. Despite obstacle, members of the rapidly growing middle class have had some success, particularly in preventing activation of power plants that do not comply with the government’s own environmental regulations. In urban areas, the upwardly mobile middle class has been vocal about protecting its property and gains.

There are also times when the government does allow protest to achieve its own ends. The unregulated stock market was booming to the point of danger last year and the Party was reluctant to publicly curtail these practices. It allowed complaints about stock manipulation and insider trading to surface, so that the resulting protests could be an impetus for first efforts at controlling this volatile force that might undermine economic growth.

The Chinese government’s efforts to limit the power of modern communication have produced mixed results. A recent scandal involving child labor rings was uncovered despite government efforts to conceal this problem. The government works as hard to keep the shades drawn as some do to expose the problems. In response to the way in which the Olympic torch was greeted in France, some Chinese proposed a boycott of French stores in China. Text messages sent to inform supporters were blocked. Typing the name of French stores into Chinese language search engines returned black pages explaining that such results “do not conform to relevant law and policy”.

China’s leaders are particularly sensitive as the opening of the Olympics approaches. The government promised to improve its record on human right’s abuses, but clearly the approach has been to eliminate the protesters rather than eliminate the problems about which they are protesting. China has arrested more dissidents in 2007 than it had in the previous eight years.


The history of the world is one of innovation, of the replacement of one paradigm with another. Perhaps this shift describes the current situation in China. There are both economic and political systems to be considered. Capitalism seems to flourish when combined with democracy, as the openness of the latter allows for opportunity but keeps the worst repercussions in check.   The success of the Chinese over the last quarter century, where market forces are combined with repressive and often brutal politics, seems to be the harbinger of a new age. The central government does not exert complete control and in the dialectic process that propels humanity through history, the Party leadership has been forced to respond as well as shape its landscape.

Political approach and economic policy are both long in coming and long in lasting. China’s 4000 years of gain and loss, wealth and poverty, triumph and disaster, are all present today. Too many calls for change and too much freedom in the markets is met with repression but the path of expansion continues, with an awareness that more change is inevitable. The questions become what choices are available and who gets to make them. Central Party bosses face restrictions, both of their own design and from those who are able to ignore their power. By allowing market forces and global trade, they opened their country to ancillary ideas of freedom and openness that might be controlled for a while but they will not be ignored.

It was the strength and weakness of the most-Mao leaders to open China. Perhaps calls for change could be forcibly repressed 20 years ago, as was the case with the massacre of students at Tiananmen Square in 1989. The government will continue to silence such dissent but by opening up in one area, they have left themselves vulnerable to the power and problems concomitant with these changes. Real opportunity to make gains, to influence one’s livelihood, and to provide for one’s family has brought more real change than all of the idealism of the past. And indeed this has been China’s story for 4000 years–one of chaos and order, flowering and decline, isolation and internationalism.


  1. Can China’s current leadership claim the Mandate of Heaven?
  2. Is the Communist Party merely another in a long line of Chinese dynasties?
  3. How is contemporary China both shaped by its past yet determined to outrun it?
  4. To what extent is the Great Man Theory of history applicable to China?
  5. What are the real challenges to the power of the Communist Party in China?
  6. How is the political landscape of China both reflective of the nation’s history yet also a completely new entity in world history?


In Print


Beck, Roger, et al. World History: Patterns of Interaction. Evanston: McDougal Littell, 2003.

Brower, Daniel. The World in the Twentieth Century. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1999.

Phillips, Richard T. China Since 1911. New York: St. Martin’s Pres, 1996.

Schoppa, R. Keither. Columbia Guide to Modern Chinese History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.


French, Howard. “Far From Beijing’s Reach, Officials Bend Energy Rules.” The New York Times. November 24, 2007.

Hessler, Peter. “Underwater.” The New Yorker. June 7, 2003.

___________ “Wheels of Fortune.” The New Yorker. November 26, 2007.

___________ “The Wonder Years.” The New Yorker. March 31, 2008.

Kahn, Joseph and Yardley, Jim. “As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes.” The New York Times. August 26, 2007.

Lague, David. “Despite US View, China Plans Steep Rise in Military Spending.” The New York Times. March 5, 2008.

Osnos, Evan. “Crazy English.” The New Yorker. April 28, 2008.

________     “The Boxing Rebellion.” The New Yorker. February 4, 2008.

Yardley, Jim. “China Retools Its Government in a Push for Efficiency.” The New York Times. March 12, 2008.

______      “China Says One Child Policy Will Stay for At Least Another Decade.” The New York Times. March 11, 2008.

“The New Colonialists.” The Economist. March 13, 2008.


Country Briefings: China: Political Forces The

“Education in China: Lessons for US Educators”

Report of US Education Leaders Delegation to China, September 2005.