China’s Lesson for India

What role has China’s education system played in the country’s recent economic success?

April 9, 2007

What role has China's education system played in the country's recent economic success?

I still remember vividly how speechless I was when my Indian colleague told me that in some public schools in India, teachers never or seldom show up.

If the same thing were to happen in any village in China, the irresponsible teachers would be living in contempt of the villagers. And the villagers would keep pressuring the authorities until the teachers were removed or fired altogether.

This is partly because most Chinese parents — no matter whether they are living in Shanghai or in an inland village — are adamantly convinced that a solid education is the only way to guarantee success.

For many peasants, their children are their only hope. They are willing to toil hard — whether on rice paddies or in sweat shops — as long as their children get a better education.

On the other hand, the government goes to great lengths to ensure that a quality basic education of at least nine years is available to every child. The result is that — as far as the training of mathematics, science and Chinese literature is concerned — a junior high school graduate in a rural village gets as rigorous an education as his peers in Shanghai.

Along with solid basic infrastructure, a good basic education system is the cornerstone of China’s success in becoming a global manufacturing center.

Every year, millions of humble-looking country boys and girls take the trains from their hometowns and travel to coastal areas looking for jobs. Usually, they quickly end up in the manufacturing plants. They fit in comfortably in their new places and work diligently.

After a couple of years, many of them convert themselves into technicians, supervisors, sales people, businessmen and women — and even entrepreneurs. All this would not have been possible without the quality basic education they received from the schools in their villages.

Often, from media I hear people dismiss manufacturing as a sheer low-tech economic activity. Many people believe if they can build a plant, all it takes to get production up and running is to gather a couple of peasants from the countryside.

While this is possible in a theoretical sense, from a practical standpoint the company would incur enormous losses due to poor quality products. Just check out what companies ask when they are hiring production workers in China. High school diploma? Good! Junior high? We will think about it. Elementary school only? No way!

Usually, a manufacturing job requires basic scientific knowledge, logical thinking and some verbal and written communication skills. The fact of the matter is that a worker with a solid basic education simply works better.

Many people, myself included, are amazed at how fast China has moved up the value-added chain. The products churned out by the Chinese companies are much more sophisticated and of better quality than they were ten years ago.

One of the major explanations for this is that total quality management (TQM) has since become a prevalent practice in China. Everyone who has ever worked with TQM knows it takes great attention and input from the floor workers to make TQM work.

Sure, manufacturing sounds very "unsexy" in the context of a knowledge-based economy. It may be shrinking in relative size, but it remains the base of any economy. After all, it provides the products for society to consume. In addition, the workers earn income — which fosters domestic consumption and stimulates the services industry.

In fact, many service industries are directly linked to the manufacturing industry. As evidence of that, consider that manufacturing clusters all around the world are supported by technical service centers, consulting centers, commerce centers and financial centers.

Furthermore, production also spurs innovation. Let us not forget that the United States became a world center of innovation only long after it had become a world center of manufacturing by the turn of the 19th century.

As China's recent success as a worldwide manufacturing juggernaut has demonstrated, a rigorous universal education system is necessary for economic development.

This is a lesson India should take to heart. While many commentators bemoan India's lack of infrastructure as the main factor preventing it from becoming an economic powerhouse, it is not the only one.

A poor basic education system is a less obvious but even more imperative problem that demands a solution. Without a quality schooling system, the industrialization of India will continue to lag behind that of its giant neighbor to the East.