Chinese higher education wasn’t up to much during the Mao years. After 12 years of war – with Japan from 1937 to 1945, and a civil war thereafter – there wasn’t a great deal left when the war was over. Some universities relocated for the duration of hostilities, others closed and re-founded themselves in Taiwan after the Communists triumphed on the mainland. Though the Communists oversaw a huge increase in basic schooling and literacy, higher education remained hampered by purges, famines, and poverty. A few scientific areas (such as nuclear physics) thrived, but for the most part science could do nothing but suffer in an environment where any idea not founded on dialectical materialism was seen as suspect.
And all of that was before the Cultural Revolution began in 1966. For the first two years, campuses were the site of intense (occasionally armed) factional struggle; after that, universities were effectively shut down – partly so that effete urban students could work in the countryside and have their consciousness re-wired by working alongside the revolutionary peasant classes (erasing the distinction between mental and manual labour was a key Party goal at this stage). Enrolment plummeted from about 600,000 to about 50,000 or so – and these were chosen on the basis of class origins (workers, peasants, soldiers; i.e. *not* the remains of the middle-class) rather than academic excellence. By 1976, these policies had left Chinese higher education – and indeed scientific knowledge, generally – in a parlous state.
Even before Mao died, Deng Xiaoping had identified science and technology as being key to China’s economic development. This may sound like a no-brainer, but at the time “increased ideological zeal” (as defined by the Gang of Four) was the more orthodox solution to the productivity question. Among Deng’s earliest policy initiatives, after his first rehabilitation in 1973, was to initiate student exchange programs with the US so as to give some bright graduates exposure to advanced scientific practices; and on every subsequent foreign tour, he pressed whatever country he was visiting to allow for more student exchanges. Deng was responsible for re-opening Tsinghua University and ensuring that academics, not commissars, were placed in charge. In 1977, he led the fight to ban universities from selecting students based on class origins, and requiring them to accept students who had proved their merit through a new National Higher Education Entrance Examination (the famous “gaokao”).
Though it’s not often recognized, higher education management issues were where Deng chose to fight his key ideological battles with Maoist radicals in the period 1974-1978. In effect, as Joel Andreas says in his book, Rise of the Red Engineers, Deng replaced a Marxist view of science with a Saint-Simonian one, where the talented would lead. The long-term effects were two-fold. First, the raising of standards in Science & Technology has been an enormous force behind China’s 35-year spurt of economic growth, which has brought hundreds of millions of people out of poverty (restoring some property rights and allowing firms to earn profits didn’t hurt, either). And second, it has put scientists and engineers at the centre of the country’s power system (nearly all members of the Politburo are Engineers).
In most developing countries, higher education and science is a lagging indicator of economic growth. China was one of the very few countries where getting higher education policy right was an essential catalyst to economic growth. And Deng himself was the one who got it very, very right.
* Many thanks to Ryan Dunch for comments on an early version of this, and last Friday’s, “One Thought” *