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Two non-Chinese views on Chinese education, management, etc

May 11, 2009

James Fallows
The Atlantic
May 10, 2009

Following this Chinese view a little while ago,
and this kickoff to the discussion.

First, from reader Terry Foecke. After the jump,
from a non-Chinese person currently teaching in a
Chinese school who doesn't want his (or her) name
to be used. I'm not planning to run every letter
that comes in -- lots have -- but these are very
representative of views from non-Chinese people
working inside Chinese schools or companies and
valuable in that way. They also resonate with
Randy Pollock's LA Times op-ed about his business students.

Foecke writes:

My connection with these effects is through
working with second- and third-tier Chinese
suppliers to US-based companies.  My job was to
improve the production process (mostly
electroplating, with some heat treating and
stamping/machining) enough to assure consistent results.

After a personal run-in period, I finally got it
through my head that even my own (Chinese)
engineers were extremely reluctant to deliver bad
news.  Furthermore, their definition of "bad
news" was far broader than I could have
imagined.  This leads to a lively chase when Step 1 is "Identify Problem(s).

We did our best work when we had a late night and
stopped for their kind of Chinese meal.

Over beers and stinky tofu [name of a dish, not a
perjorative anecdote] and too much of everything
we would finally bond and they would let loose
some details.  But next day all was
non-lubricated and reluctant.  I was told by
factory rats more grizzled than I that this was
due to their education, or the culture, or that
they had been working in an SOE [State Owned
Enterprise] where only quantity not quality mattered.

I don't think I ever heard a convincing train of
logic, though.  The closest I came was when my
business partner (resident in China for 18 years)
suggested that expecting linear reasoning and
what he called "single" answers was not going to
work very well.  Every answer has a context, he
explained, and sometimes if the context changes,
the answer changes.  Everything is fine when you
are measuring thickness-0.001 mm is always just
that.  But terms like "withdraw quickly" or "bend
until snaps" or "high gloss"-to say nothing of
shades of colors-were not going to be very
useful.  And asking if a worker is
"well-informed" or "a hard worker" - even in the
interest of process investigation-was pretty much hopeless.

I think I get it, but I don't, not really.  Some
is just working in another language.  I've done
process optimization aimed at sustainable
manufacturing all over the world, so I know how
poorly I actually can communicate.  But China is
different, and might be different in some ways that education can't reach.

A foreigner teaching English in China writes:

Man oh man! We are up to our lips in this, this, mmmmmm, stuff!

Left to ourselves with the customers, because we
are at a third tier school glad to have us
(basically a money pump for 'economically
motivated' local leaders) and because our
students understand us for the well intentioned,
take no prisoners, YOU WILL LEARN TO DO THIS,
jerks that we are, we are having a wonderful time
initiating many projects, some based on Mr. Liu's
ideas. [An educational reformer profiled in this
China Daily article.] This is not a common
Chinese experience for expat teachers of English.

I come firmly down on the 'China's education
system sucks and must be completely remodeled for
the country to have a future' side of the
discussion. China (including Tibet and Taiwan)
has been awarded six Nobel Prizes. The United
States, with less than one fourth the population,
has been awarded 309. Canada has 17! [List by country here.]

The Nobel is just one indicator of course, but it
is awarded for creativity. Chinese college
students have had creativity leached out of their
systems by the stupefying experience of their
first 12 years of school. I have been, as I trust
you have as well, in Chinese rural schools from
Baotou to Lhasa. They are a disaster. I have come
to believe that such horrific conditions cannot
be an accident. Ignorant people are easier to
control than are those who have a glimmer of
understanding, and ideas of their own.

I think it is a well thought through, deliberate
policy. Perhaps these news articles [the one on
Mr. Liu, plus this] are signs of high level change?

I am extremely chary of using Nobel prize lists
as a proxy for anything. The literature prize is
notoriously "political," to say nothing of the
peace prize. The economics prize -- technically
not a Nobel prize but the Sveriges Riksbank Prize
in Memory of Alfred Nobel -- is often political
in its own way. And the hard-sciences prizes are
in part a proxy for the wealth and sophistication
of the research establishments in various
nations. Ie, working in an advanced nation may be
a necessary though obviously not a sufficient
condition for front-line research. Someone with
the most inventive and creative mind imaginable
might have a hard time doing prize-worthy work if
she spent her life in, say, Equatorial Guinea.

Still, the huge disproportions on the list do
show something -- especially given (a) that
Chinese emigrees and ethnically Chinese
scientists are very successful in labs in North
America, Europe, etc, and (b) that China, while
on average still a very poor country, does have
the resources to pour into high-end research and
could afford to equip labs as fancy as anyone's
-- much as it has created the sports-training
establishment on display at last year's Olympics.
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