Friday, September 26, 2014

Yong Zhao's "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?"

Yong Zhao holds the first presidential chair at the University of Oregon, where he also serves as associate dean for global education and professor in the Department of Educational Measurement, Policy, and Leadership. Zhao is a popular keynote presenter and has been featured in media ranging from the New York Times and USA Today to NPR and ABC. The winner of numerous awards in research, leadership, and innovation, Zhao is the author of more than 100 articles and 20 books.

Zhao applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World, and reported the following:
Schizophrenia best characterizes Western (American) understanding of China today. On the one hand, Western observers marvel at the country’s miraculous economic growth; admire its skyrocketing patent applications and scientific research output; envy its rapidly expanding international profile; and praise its efficient and wise government. On the other hand, they question the sustainability of its economy; doubt its capacity for innovation and creativity; fear its growing profile; and condemn its authoritarian government. The Schizophrenic understanding of China is a result of the lack of understanding of the most fundamental driving force in Chinese culture and society: the authoritarian spirit.

This book discusses how the authoritarian spirit affects all aspects of China, particularly education. Chinese education has been praised by many as world’s best as evidenced by the stunning performance in international tests such as the Programme for International Student Assessment, better known as PISA. It has been suggested as the model for Western countries. The stereotypical Chinese-style parenting has also been recommended for parents in the West. At the same time, some point out that Chinese education is the worst in the world because it stifles creativity, causes excessive anxiety in children, and imposes unbearable academic burdens on students.

Both views are right. Chinese education is both the best and worst, depending on the purpose. It is the best in instilling in children pre-determined knowledge and skills, fostering discipline and obedience, and homogenizing talents. It is the worst for supporting individual passion and interest, cultivating creativity, and nurturing entrepreneurial thinking. What makes it the best is also what makes it the worst: the deeply entrenched authoritarian spirit.

Page 99 very well reflects the entire book. It is about how the authoritarian spirit affects the production of scientific papers in China. It is responsible for producing millions of research publications and patent applications a year, making China the fastest growing place for scientific research and innovations. It is also responsible for the widespread fraudulent and corruptive practices among researchers.

From page 99:
Publish or Perish

The billion-dollar industry of fraudulent publication points to one of the major reasons for China’s achievement: competition. The central government—the modern equivalent of the emperor—dictates career pathways for virtually all professionals, from college professors to professional researchers. There is a national career ladder that puts professionals into different ranks of positions, with corresponding salaries, social status, and other benefits. Traditionally these ranks are aligned with the ranks of government officials. For example, an associate professor is the equivalent of a deputy director in a government department, or fu chu ji. A full professor is about the same rank as a department director. Although in the U.S., professionals have different ranks and fall into some sort of a salary schedule, what a particular rank signifies varies with the institution. The Chinese system, on the other hand, is highly centralized, and the same criteria apply to everyone. The central government also controls the distribution of such positions in each institution, allocating a certain number of slots for each level. In other words, one institution may have many qualified candidates for promotion to the next level, but the number of positions at the next level is limited. As a result, only a certain number can advance, creating an intense mechanism for competition.

Moreover, the Chinese government dictates the criteria for career advancement. And one of its primary criteria is publication. In a fiercely competitive situation in which publication has become a professional necessity—both to keep your job and to move ahead—the motivation to publish is naturally high. China has more than 17 million K-12 teachers, one million college teachers, over five million engineers and scientists in state enterprises, 300,000 professional researchers, 700,000 scientists, engineers, and technicians in agriculture, and 3.6 million medical professionals, all of whom need to show publications in order to keep their jobs or seek promotion. Most of these individuals are not engaged in research or are trained to be researchers. Publication is not their passion, and it does not lie at the core of what they do. Yet if they want to survive professionally, they have to publish.
What do you do when you don’t care about something but have to deal with it? Spending a few hundred dollars to buy a publication strikes many Chinese professionals as a reasonable, albeit unethical choice.
Visit Yong Zhao's website.

--Marshal Zeringue