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China’s (Unfinished) Education Explosion

The number of colleges has effectively doubled, and college graduates have increased from approximately one million in 1998 to 7.5 million in 2012.1 China's spending on research and development has outpaced that of many other developed nations. Given the growth of the middle class and the fact that most families have only one child, spending on education can be expected to continue growing into the future.

However, more spending on education, research and development does not necessarily translate into more innovation. Nor does education necessarily guarantee gainful employment, as witnessed by the flourishing of the "ant tribe," a community of job-seeking college graduates living in shared flats in northern Beijing's Tiantongyuan suburb.

China's centuries-old test-taking culture promotes educational attainment as an accomplishment in and of itself. Unfortunately, unlike in Imperial China or even during the time of China' opening under Deng Xiaoping, there is today no automatic connection between getting a degree and finding one's place in society, not to mention making a meaningful economic or social contribution. Meanwhile, competition for places at the best schoolsfrom kindergarten on upbecomes stiffer as more middle class families enter the ranks of those who can afford educational choice for their one child.

Disgruntled with what many see as a dead-end educational street, more and more families are seeking alternatives outside the state-endorsed educational sector. These alternatives include homeschooling (including starting homeschool co-ops), semi-legal private schools, programmed learning such as the ACE (Accelerated Christian Education) curriculum, or sending children abroad for high school or even earlier. Not a few Christians are involved in such efforts. Some Christian intellectuals would go so far as to say that education is the most important field for Christians in China to pursue; providing an alternative to the state-sponsored atheistic curriculum is essential to equipping a new generation of Christian leaders who are firmly rooted in a biblical worldview and who can thus impact their culture.

Real education reform does not appear to be on the horizon currently. However, given the growing dissatisfaction both with the current system and with the results it is producing, it is likely that during the next decade China's leaders will need to address a system that most everyone agrees needs fixing. If and when that should occur, the church will have an opportunity to play a role. Fledgling schools being pioneered today by Christian intellectuals could potentially become models for tomorrow.


1 Jeffrey Towson and Jonathan Woetzel, The 1 Hour China Book: Two Peking University Professors Explain All of China Business in Six Short Stories, Cayman Islands: Towson Group LLC, 2013, chapter 5.

For more on China and education, watch for the summer issue of the ChinaSource Quarterly due this week"Partnering with Chinese Families to Educate Students in Christian U.S. High Schools."

Image credit: Joann Pittman

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource.  Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio

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