The Chinese Academic Threat, In German Eyes

Germany confronts the Chinese threat – and all within the pages of the leading German commentary weekly Die Zeit! That is what we can now find on-line in the form of the article Should I learn Chinese now? Look closer, though, and the treatment is not quite what it might seem from the title; the piece actually originates from the Zeit Campus spin-off magazine, and so the article (by Nadja Kirsten and Philipp Schwenk) in its essence explores what the authors describe as “China as learning-factory that spits out cheap competitors into the world academic market.” Ultimately, as they show based on interviews conducted with a handful of German students actually studying in China and other available experts, this image is hardly true at all – despite that photograph of massed ranks of identically-clad graduates (yes, mostly in red) that the Zeit Campus editors chose to adorn the space just below the article’s headline and lede.

Kirsten and Schwenk do bring forth amazing facts about Chinese schools and Chinese students, some of which we have surely all heard before. The idea is that, seemingly throughout the entire breadth of the 1.3 billion citizens making up Chinese society, education is attended to fanatically as the best (and for many the only) means to advance oneself. So students routinely show up at school in the morning up to an hour before classes actually start, to get some preparation time in; and throughout their academic careers they have to deal with a constant stream of publicly-posted lists of class-rank and who scored precisely in what order on any individual examination.

Much of this is due to the Chinese government’s infamous “one child” policy, which results in the entire weight of parental (and grand-parental) expectations coming down on the frail shoulders of that one son or daughter; those parents, Kirsten and Schwenk report, are glad in the evening to go put the toothpaste on the child’s toothbrush ahead of time, to save him/her that much more time which can instead be devoted to studying. Other than constantly scoring as high as possible on those ubiquitous class-rank lists, the ultimate focus of all this study is the dreaded gao kao, the State examination that will determine whether you are allowed to go study at a prestigious university. If you do succeed and have a place offered to you, by all means grab it, no matter what faculty is involved! For what matters above all is the reputation of the university’s name on your degree, not what you studied there; write the authors, “if a student at Peking University [one of the best, needless to say] has to study machine-engineering instead of literature – then so be it.”

But right there we get a hint that maybe the Chinese education system is not quite the over-achieving monster – despite the seeming fanaticism of many of its students – that many in the West make it out to be. Why this desperation to get into the top schools, for example? That is easy to understand from the sheer status attendance at one of those confers, and from the better jobs that are thereupon made available to those students, but in China that struggle gets an added edge, according to this article, from the fact that any other higher education institutions than the most elite are really rather bad. In addition to all that, these days China is suffering through its own unemployment crisis – notwithstanding all the cheery economic news emanating from there – so that graduates from those “lesser” universities will have difficulties finding employment after graduation at all. Indeed, the piece cites indications that the Chinese universities – even the very best – too often are teaching their graduates skills which are not really relevant to Chinese employers.

Too Much Rote, Too Little Imagination?

Here we come to the idea that maybe there is something wrong with fundamental Chinese teaching methods, specifically that they emphasize rote-learning rather than the development of a student’s ability to think creatively. That certainly seems to be true; and although the article mentions an explicit campaign to reform the schools so as to encourage more creative and individualistic thinking, you have to wonder how swift any such reform can proceed. (What sort of answers do they still demand on that gao kao, for example?)

Accordingly, although quite a lot of research and development sponsored by multinationals is currently taking place in China, that, according to one academic expert, “has not so much to do with top-of-the-line research but rather often processes that are cost- and time-intensive, for example protracted test-series.” Also, other R&D happens there merely in order to ensure that any results will issue close to a huge market where the resulting new products can be sold. Still, all that may be true now; it is nonetheless clear that in the future China will indulge in more and more “serious” R&D itself, whether sponsored by multinationals or by the Chinese government, as the country is no longer content to be merely the world’s cheap workshop.

But back to the title: Should I learn Chinese now? In itself that phrase is of course meant as a caricature of the attitude of submission before a perceived cultural (or political, or just purely military) juggernaut, especially given the fact that Germany lies just about on the opposite side of the world. Nonetheless, Kirsten and Schwenk do devote a little space to consider the idea at face value. “Much more than ten months’ intensive training is necessary,” they declare, “before foreigners can even compose a simple e-mail, while many Chinese leave school with at least a solid knowledge of English.” Clearly, actually taking up the Chinese language for study is a concept that itself cannot be treated lightly – much like taking up for discussion the prospect of (eventually) a much greater Chinese influence on the world economy.

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