Innovating ahead of the Chinese

After writing my previous posting this morning, by coincidence I immediately came across another reference in this week’s Economist to what is obviously Chinese government encouragement to join modern street.

This is the enormous number of Chinese students, ranging from young children to post-grads, who are now being educated and trained in America — 400,000! And, I would guess, there are at least 100,000 more in Europe, mainly in England. In our case, all the top private schools have a contingent of Chinese pupils.

And this is immeasurably more important than the previous case of persuading Chinese banking managers to become good bosses — this would look after itself in due course. Not so, the Chinese educational system. The body of teachers in Chinese schools is now so large and self-reinforcing that, rather like the teachers’ unions in this country and America with respect to state schools, they would hold back educational reforms forever if they could.

For many years now, even though it meant a loss of face to say so, Chinese government officials have admitted that the traditional teacher-pupils relationship in China is so repressive that any possibility of creativity is squeezed out of students long before they go to college or university, never mind afterwards when they’re expected to be innovative — or at least, hoped to be, for the sake of the economy.

What started as a privilege to only a few of the richest billionaire-parents in China a few years ago is now becoming a flood and, considering the population of China, is probably only a modest one so far. If there’s going to be a bottleneck it’s likely to be at this end rather than Chinese. Also, with thousands of Chinese returning home every year, some of whom will be trained as teachers, then the number of Chinese private schools will be growing swiftly.

Western politicians, who normally think only a year or two ahead for the sake of their own careers, had better start thinking 20, 30 or 40 years’ ahead if the advanced countries are going to retain the leading edge in almost all sectors of scientific research.

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