What China Must Do To Cement Its Superpower Status

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by Shaun Rein  FORBES.com

It needs to overhaul its educational system.

I found it both encouraging and discouraging. I sat surrounded by a roomful of Chinese teenagers who were asking probing questions about my academic experiences and other countries. They represented China’s best, China’s future, and they represented it well. But there was one big problem. They were all there to be interviewed by admissions officers from America’s top prep schools, because none of them felt they’d be adequately challenged in China’s schools.

I was in Beijing, accompanying my niece to school interviews. Like those other kids, she was thinking about going to high school in America. Why? Even at China’s most elite schools, many complain that their curriculum is all about rote learning, with little creativity. They don’t get enough opportunity to study art and drama or to pursue their passions.

I talked to parents, too, including a billionaire couple and a pair of high government officials. The billionaire father confided, “I worry my child is not getting taught morality and the whole human person. Everything is about test scores, not how to handle challenges in real life.” Other parents nodded in agreement. These were some of the people who have benefited most from China’s reforms over the last 30 years, and they all supported the direction the government has been taking the country in, yet, they worried about their children’s futures if more changes weren’t made.

[On Dec. 7, 2010, the day after this article was published, The New York Times ran an article titled “Top Test Scores From Shanghai Stun Educators,” which told of how students in Shanghai had outscored their counterparts in dozens of other countries in standardized exams. What those scores represented, though, was not Chinese educational superiority but an unhealthy focus on standardized testing. –S.R.]

Since the Great Recession began there has been a palpable shift in power away from America and toward China. Its effect on everything from commodity markets to global supply chains and military plans is undeniable. Unfortunately, not all the reforms in China are keeping up with the great economic and human rights ones the government has implemented.

To cement its superpower status, China needs to improve its educational system so it doesn’t just produce great academic research and innovation but also attracts the world’s top students. All great powers draw in the world’s best and train the future leaders of their allies and vassal states. That is soft power at its finest. The British have had Eton and Oxford, the U.S. St. Paul’s and Harvard. China needs its own global centers of learning.

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