Children of the (Cultural) revolution: Chinese Higher Education 35 years after Mao’s death

Studying in China
This week China will quietly commemorate the anniversary of the death of Mao Zedong. On the 9th September 1976, the founder of the Chinese Communist Party died at the age of 82. During that time, Chinese universities have followed the modernization movement within the country in their goal to become world-class institutions.

35 is about the age that a professor begins to be respectable in academia. Even if the white hair isn’t quite there yet, at least they can claim to have distanced themselves from the students they are teaching and have gained a bit of experience along the way.

This week China will quietly commemorate the 35th anniversary of the death of Mao Zedong. On the 9th September 1976, the founder of the Chinese Communist Party died at the age of 82. His death led to the events that brought Deng Xiaoping to power which in turn led to the massive economic transformation that the country has undergone.

Education in China under Mao

Would Mao understand modern China?

35 years on, Mao’s gigantic portrait still looks across Tiananmen Square. One wonders however, if the former ruler would comprehend the people walking past. Long gone are the stereotypical Red Army uniforms. Young girls walk past in the shortest of skirts more reminiscent of the swinging sixties London. They carry multi coloured drinks in plastic cups (what happened to the hot tea in a flask?) that match their multi-coloured clothes and chatter constantly into an electronic gadget that is firmly pressed against their ear. Two things are now omnipresent; cars and tourists. Last year China overtook the USA as the world’s largest purchaser of cars and now ranks as the world’s 4th more popular destination for international holiday makers after France, the USA and Spain. Indeed, the Middle Kingdom is arguably more open today to foreigners (53 million last year) than it ever has been in its entire history.

China becomes largest buyer of cars in the world

China takes the world´s pole in vehicle sales.

Chinese Higher Education

There are so many articles and reports today about China’s impact on the world economy that it is difficult to know where to begin. Less documented, however, is the development the higher education system. This sector of the economy has perhaps come even further than the manufacturing industry that has brought the country such wealth. The Cultural Revolution of the late sixties led to professors being imprisoned, demonised and or sent to the countryside to work with the local peasantry to “re-educate themselves.” Any Chinese person over 45 (and universities all over the world have lots of them teaching) would have been caught up in this turmoil if for no other reason than lack of adequate education from fully qualified teachers during their early years.

Chinese students in the classroom

Chinese students: Confident and with plenty to say

Today then, Chinese universities are still in a catch up with regard to their colleagues from the USA and Europe in particular.  The Shanghai Jiaotong University Ranking System which ranks the top 500 universities in the world has no Chinese university in the top 100.  The USA has 53 alone while Europe has 27  (UK 10; Germany 6; Switzerland 4; France 3; Sweden, Finland, Norway & Denmark 1 each).

Shanghai Jiaotong University Ranking System 2011

Academic rankings Shanghai Ranking

The Shanghai Academic Rankings 2012…and the winners are…

However, they are developing at a fantastic rate. Indeed, two of China’s top universities, Peking University and Tsinghua are now in the top 200. Mao would have been particularly pleased about the first one, having worked as a librarian there. 22 Chinese universities in all can be found in the world’s top 500 and the past few years has seen a net increase in the number.

In 2005 there were only 12, four of which were in Hong Kong.  Indeed, the Shanghai Jiaotong University has created a world ranking system that has advertently terrorised certain European government (and France in particular) into reforming their higher education system. For example, in France, the creation of large campuses and the regrouping of certain institutions is a direct response the perceived lack French universities in the Top 100. In this context the impact of just one Chinese university is enormous.

This rise is perhaps not surprising given the enormous appetite they Equis Accredited  schools charthave for improving their higher education institutions. Having arrived late to accreditation China now has 11 business schools with the prestigious European label, EQUIS. Only the UK and France can claim to have more. The business schools that don’t have it all seem to be talking about how it can be obtained. At the same time massive new universities are being built across the country in modern complexes easily comparable to their North American counterparts.

Shanghai University? No, just the library!

Shanghai University Library

Shanghai University? No, just the library.

And within a few years, these universities will be producing 3 times more graduates per year than the USA.  China already graduates 75 000 students per year compared to 30 000 in the USA and 60 000 in India.  These students have changed as well. Anecdotal evidence from professors across the world suggests that the idea of students benignly copying every word of their professor is a thing of the past. At a recent EFMD Conference one Associate Dean of a prestigious Chinese university stated that his problem wasn’t getting his students to talk, it was “getting them to shut up.”  China’s one child policy would seem to have produced a generation of children that expect to be listened to by their elders.

For many years after China opened up the free market, Western countries comforted themselves with the notion that even if manufacturing jobs were being outsourced the intellectual development was still being done in the Europe and North America. This “West thinks, Asia makes” mentality is disappearing fast as major corporations begin to outsource research laboratories and the like. The rapid developement of the university system in China is contributing to this process.

See also:

Changing symbols of a unified nation

The White House over the years The news last week was dominated by the commemoration of the terrorist attacks on New York & Washington on September 11th 2001. During such difficult moments people often try unite around their nations. In this context, symbols of the nation become important. However, such symbols will vary from country to country. Read more

Death (and Rebirth) of a Salesman

Sales courses in business schools Arthur Miller’s 1949 play, “Death of a Salesman” deals with the demise of Willy Loman, an American salesman, who finds his professional and personal life simultaneously degenerating. The play could almost be symbolic for the treatment of the subject as an academic discipline over the past last half century. Business schools hate the word “sales”. We love “marketing” and “finance” and “strategy”, but the word “sales” with its second-hand car salesman connotation, is distinctly unwelcome in the classroom. Read more…

Summertime blues: How much vacation did you really get?

Summertime blues and lack of vacationIn many countries, it is time to get back to work / school after the summer break. Depending on where you live, this break will have been of varying lengths. Read more….

China doubles research output, leaving West in its wake

Research Management: “Research output in China has exploded in the past five years, far outpacing activity in the rest of the world, according to a new report by Thomson Reuters. China has already overtaken the EU and Japan and will leapfrog the US within the next decade, the report predicts.”

Level 5 leadership by Jim Collins Borderless Economics book review coca cola book review
One of the most important business  books of the 1990s and has been in the best seller list ever since. Fantastic read for anyone thinking about their leadership style. Wonderful essay that lays out the benefits of international trade. Oh my God ! Possibly the worst biography ever written!

France   Study Abroad  French Business School  Grenoble EM  International Affairs   Higher Education   ESC Grenoble   Strategy  Blog  Global Ed   Graduate Business School    Mark Thomas  China  Mao 


Filed under Business Schools, China, Higher Education, Intercultural, Management

19 responses to “Children of the (Cultural) revolution: Chinese Higher Education 35 years after Mao’s death

  1. Jeff

    Great insight! The author’s familiarity to the contemporary history of China is impressive. One movement seems worthy of mention when we talk about the development of Chinese high education, ie. the renaissance of social/humanities/management sectors. Chinese education system was founded in Mao’s time following the Russian system, accentuating nature science and engineering and overlooking humanities. The humanitiy related departments in many university schools such as Tsinghua, SH Jiaotong, Tongji, were forced to move into a small number of universities like Beijing U, Fudan U, etc in the systematic regrouping in 1952. This created a big number of pure engineering universities. In the 90’s these universities begin to realize the importance of humanities science and rebuilt the departments including management/ business schools. Before that, there was even no one management/business school in China. The flourish economy created big demand to business managers and pushed the development of business schools, which become the cash cow for many universities feeding the nature and other social science departments.

    • Mark Thomas

      Dear Jeff,

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. I wasn’t aware of this movement of the humanities departments. China is a fascinating country and I’ve obviously still got lots to learn! You illustrate very well just how quickly the management schools have grown in China in the past twenty years.



  2. It’s wonderful that the face of Chinese higher education is changing. I think that it’s an incredibly wise move on China’s part to incorporate more programmes other than simply Maths and Sciences into their universities, and that they now have 22 universities in the top 500 in the world; an amazing accomplishment for them!

    Fantastic article, Mark! You did a great job at shining the light on the higher education industry in China and all of the positive changes that the industry has undergone. Thanks so much for sharing your insight.

    • Mark Thomas

      Thank you for your kinds remarks, Christie. China is chnaging very quickly indeed. Before going there I was told that it takes a very long time to get things done; this insnt the case at all. Quite the contrary. In London, it took longer to have a public inquiry to decide if they could build terminal 5 at Heathrow than it took to build Beijing International Airport from scratch!

  3. The insight in the blog and the comments teach me a lot, thanks to the professors above! I really have no idea of what changes have happened to Chinese high educational history.

    In respect to the education in the business school, China is working hard to learn from the world and contribute to the local business. I‘m from Sun Yat-sen Business School, and as far as I know, our school is really the cash cow for my university.

    As a double degree program exchange student, through the one week’s study, I appreciate that the professors here are more willing to hear from the students, and the students are more willing to share their ideas. Studying here values a million to me, and also it is a chance for me to see the difference between the education styles.

    • Mark Thomas

      Many thanks for these kinds remarks. Sun Yat Sen is an excellent business school and I am sure that you have already learned a lot there. I have been lucky enough to visit the school several times and everyone I have met is extremely professional. Their warmth and hospitality is also an example to us all.
      As for the listening, well, keep making your comments! It is always interesting to hear different point of view. I hope you enjoy your studies during the year.
      Thanks again for taking the time to read and comment on the articles.

      • Really glad to receive your reply. And thanks to your appreciation to SYSBS, where I have been learning and growing for 5 years. Very grateful and lucky to enjoy the international corporation between the two schools!

      • Mark Thomas

        I hope we do too. It is great to have you as an ambassador for the two institutions! Best of luck for the start of the academic year.

  4. Michel Sarah

    Congratulations on this paper, I found it really interesting. However I would point out another very specific aspect of Chinese universities and their evolution throughout the last decades, which are teaching and learning methods.

    According to my experience as a foreign student at Beijing University, I noticed that Chinese students are really enthusiastic workers, but they are blind to reality. They only look forward. From my point of view the teachers were unaccustomed to suggest doubt to their students: a plane flies without discussion. Teachers would rather focus their lessons on theoretical skills i.e. pure knowledge, its comprehension and application, neglecting thinking and creativity development. Indeed Chinese Teachers believe that creativity and analysis capabilities stem from the mastery of knowledge. Consequently the Chinese students are really good for pure knowledge and they develop some theoretical abilities. In fact, lessons are often much more “difficult” in China than in Western Universities as they require lot of theoretical knowledges. But when it comes to cope with a new problem, to synthesize or to be critical a Chinese student as good as he is tends to be disoriented. That can explain for example why Chinese people win many medals on Olympic games but never get any Nobel price.

    Nevertheless the fast-growing development of China and of the global market needs more and more competent workers that is to say graduates must accumulate theoretical skills but also creativity, innovative thinking and reactivity to a problem in order to face the new trends of sciences and new technologies. The best universities in China have understood this matter of fact and they start changes in their teaching methods. China’s education system is going through a turning point: teachers and students are changing their way to teach and study. Students not only are asked to learn but also to give their opinions, to react, to interact, to innovate, aso… That is, for the undergraduates or newly graduated students that we are, really worrying: because when Chinese universities will have reached the level of our famous Western universities and the students will have reached all those capabilities, the latter will flood the job global market with well-prepared and over-motivated graduates. At that moment we will have to compete with thousand of new graduates each year with no more particular asset to put forward, exactly as China did with its unchallengeable cheap products.

    • Mark Thomas

      Many thanks Sarah these very interesting comments. You experience of studying in Europe and China gives you good position to compare the two.
      As you say, traditional Chinese teaching was considered to by based on a rote learning method. This is said to be linked to many things. Firstly, the Chinese langauge which requires the memorisation of pictures (about 16 000 before you are an adult, I’m told) and Confuscious teaching which was based a master/pupil relationship. Lots of studies have been done on this. What I have noticed in the past few years,is that this seems to be changing with a younger generation that has been influenced by the outsite world, the growth of China as a world economic power and their own willingness to do things differently.
      Thank you once more for your very interesting comments.Enjoy your short break in Beijing over the October 1st weekend.

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  12. Thanks for this interesting post Mark!

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