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【China Daily】At the vanguard, the class of 1977,78,79

Friday,Aug 11, 2017

Generation that took renewed university entrance exams has helped to push China’s great changes

One of the earliest signs of China’s reforms after the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) was the decision to reopen universities and to select students through a national exam, called the gaokao.

Statue of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in Shenzhen, Guangdong province. Deng was in charge of science and education, the areas that he saw as the key to the future of the country. Sun Yuchen / Xinhua

In 1977, Deng Xiaoping was not yet paramount leader of China, but was in charge, at his own request, of science and education, because he saw these areas as key to the future of the country.

The re-establishment of the gaokao preceded the historic 3rd Plenary Session of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, in December 1978, which formally endorsed "reform and opening up".

In only 40 years, China has advanced from being one of the poorest countries in the world to upper middle-income status. In terms of the human development index, which the United Nations uses to measure population health and education in addition to GDP, the nation has moved from far below the world average to significantly above. Life expectancy has reached 77 years, only a few years below that of the most-developed countries. Plus, near-universal literacy and primary education have been achieved. The number of Chinese enrolled in universities has gone up tenfold since the late 1990s.

Students in Baokang, Hubei province, prepare for gaokao on June 4, only a few days before the exam. Photos Provided to China Daily

Candidates for gaokao in Beijing say hello to their parents after the examination in Beijing this June. Zhu Xingxin / China Daily

The people who started university in 1977-79 are known as the "xinsanjie", the new three classes of students. Only about 4 percent of the test-takers were admitted to university (compared with 75 percent today, according to Xinhua), so they were a highly skilled and motivated group.

They were also more diverse than current college students - many were older, some had very difficult experiences during the "cultural revolution", and a high percentage were children of farmers. Many of the group reached prominent positions in all walks of life and are now approaching retirement age. They lived through, and contributed to, the astonishing growth of the last 40 years. The most prominent of the xinsanjie is Premier Li Keqiang, who took the gaokao in 1977 and studied law at Peking University from 1977 to 1982.

The Center for China and Globalization(CCG)’s session on the 40th anniversary of the gaokao resumption on June

In June, the Center for China and Globalization(CCG) in Beijing organized a conference at which many xinsanjie talked about their life experiences and about the future of China.

Four major themes were prominent in the statements at the CCG conference and in interviews with China Daily.

First, no one predicted at the start of the reform process just how hugely fundamental the changes would be. They all praised the model of economic reform that achieved this.

But, second, speakers agreed that it is now time to enact more reforms to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship.

Third, many speakers emphasized the "opening up" part of the reform - they believe that trade and interaction with other countries are crucial.

Finally, many speakers stressed the need for educational reform designed to encourage the innovation needed for the new economy and to achieve fairness, especially for students from outside the major cities.

The opportunity to take the gaokao was life-changing. Wang Huiyao, who was sent to work in the countryside during the "cultural revolution" and is now chairman of the CCG and counselor of the State Council, China’s Cabinet, says: "Initially we were told to root ourselves in the countryside. We thought it was for our whole life." He said that life was very hard, "but the smart ones learned something in the countryside".

He adds: "The merit system started with the gaokao. Credentialing systems and professional rating systems impacted the whole society. Everyone knew ’I have to work hard’." He also stressed the importance of international contacts: "(About) 600,000 students now go out each year. This keeps China open. You see lots of company founders and venture capitalists who returned."

Peng Kaiping, chairman of the department of psychology at Tsinghua University, took the gaokao in 1979 and attended Peking University. He says: "The young generation was exposed to new ideas and new information. This was the beginning of Chinese reform. This was a great period in Chinese history."

Chen Yongjun, professor of management at Renmin University of China and an expert on the Belt and Road Initiative, graduated from high school in 1972 and worked at a power station for six years before the gaokao gave him the chance to go to Xiamen University. He says that academics who remained in China were once jealous of others with jobs in the West, but now those who remained in China are better off. He stressed that the past 40 years have changed the lives of individual people and admitted to being surprised that China has become the second-biggest economy in the world.

Education reforms

Changing the education system to encourage innovative thought and to equalize opportunities throughout the nation is a key goal of many xinsanjie.

Tang Min, counselor of the State Council, says "educational reform should not be limited to the gaokao; the whole system needs reform. We need innovative students, and lifelong learning is very important."

Shao Hong, a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, says he is "proud of how the gaokao can facilitate mobility in society, but a disadvantage is that it forces students to memorize from a textbook."

He argues that "it is hard to make the system fair. Every student wants to go to a famous university. They don’t want vocational education because it is not prestigious".

Similarly, Tong Shijun, a philosophy professor at East China Normal University, says: "Working as a worker before going to university taught me to work hard and love science. It is important to emphasize the spirit of the craftsman. We should not stigmatize labor work."

And Zhu Yongxin, also a member of the Standing Committee of the CPPCC, contrasts the situation in 1978 with now: "Teachers then were under pressure for the 11 years of the ’cultural revolution’, so they had a strong desire to learn new things. Young professors now are so burdened and the atmosphere is not as good. Now it is like primary school the teacher talks and the students listen."

Lu Mai, secretary-general of the China Development Research Foundation, says: "The true meaning of reform and opening-up is to give people the freedom to make individual choices. When people quit education to be businesspeople, it proves they have choices."

Zhao Shengchuan, dean of the School of Transportation and Logistics at the Dalian University of Technology, who took the gaokao in 1979, was from a small village in Hebei. He worries that people from the countryside now have fewer opportunities. "Of my 30 or 31 classmates at Beijing Jiaotong University, more than half were from the countryside. Now, most university students are from rich, urban families."

He also argues that China needs to adapt its educational system to the new economy: "We need to restructure the educational system using case studies and interactive learning. The whole education system needs reform - universities can do only so much. We need to teach students to capture knowledge, work in teams and deal with others - real skills that will be used after graduation."

Similarly, Ning Bin, president of Beijing Jiaotong University, questions whether his generation really did fulfill its obligations to the country. "The gaokao for the most part is good, but we have a burden of figuring out how to shape students to be more innovative," he says.

Foreigners, too

There were also some foreigners who went to university in China during those years and chose to build their lives in China. China Daily interviewed Jaime FlorCruz of the Philippines, who attended Peking University from 1977 to 1981 and later was CNN’s longtime chief correspondent in China. Ashok Pandey, from Nepal, attended Tsinghua University in the same years and is now vice-president for Nvidia APAC Operations. Roberta Lipson, from the United States, did not attend university in China, but has been an entrepreneur in Beijing since 1979 and is the founder and president of United Family Hospitals.

FlorCruz was an anti-Marcos activist in Manila who traveled to China in 1971 with a group of other Filipinos for an educational political tour. While FlorCruz was in China, Marcos declared martial law in the Philippines. Since they could not return home, the group of Filipinos volunteered to work on a farm in the countryside of Hubei province.

He says that the serious debates about the future of China were a highlight of his life: "My time at Peking University was one of the best times of my 40-plus years in China. China was already beginning to change, so I saw the before and I saw the after. It was a very vibrant period - not just on campus, but outside the campus.

"The best part was that I got to meet and study with this cohort from the classes of 1977, ’78, and ’79 - a very special group of people. Many of them had shared the same kind of social experiences of going down to the countryside for a few years or working in factories or serving in the army. They were very mature, very driven, very serious in their studies.

"Also, they had a historic mission to change China. The best part was the debates about how to change. We were discussing not just our textbooks but, especially outside the classrooms, we were discussing the big-picture questions."

Describing his experiences in China, Ashok Pandey says: "I came to China when I was very young. China is the country where I really grew up and started to learn about the world. At that time, there were not a lot of foreigners living in China. Wherever I went, people were very nice and sincere, and they were willing to offer their help. I love this country, and I love people here. Chinese culture has become my nature.

"I appreciate what I’ve learned, what I’ve experienced, and the people I’ve got to know here. I feel like one of them. It is also about the opportunity in a place I think I can realize my full potential."

As a senior executive in the tech industry, he sees the country’s huge progress in innovation. "China is already a leader in innovation, especially in the artificial intelligence area. It is now the world’s leading country in terms of papers published on AI and just behind US in respect to registering patents. This know-how and eagerness to embrace AI will propel China to the forefront of business and technology. They are also leading in super-computing. Combining AI with supercomputing will take them far ahead."

Roberta Lipson says that after she first arrived in Beijing in 1979, she was required to live for years in a hotel for foreigners and saw few choices for goods or food in Beijing. "If you could go back in a time machine to 1979 and tell people what Beijing is like today, both from a material perspective and in terms of cultural richness, as well as the cosmopolitan nature of the city, nobody would believe you.

"I could not have envisioned what Beijing would be like," she says. "I’m tremendously optimistic going forward. I’m very proud of the development that has happened in China. I’m so fortunate to have been a firsthand witness to it, and I’m proud to have had my small part to play on the healthcare side. Recently, I’ve been granted a green card (permanent residence status). I consider Beijing my home and an integral part of my identity, and I’m proud that has been recognized."

Chen Aimin, an economist who is now president of Xi’an International University, took the gaokao in 1978 and attended Sichuan University. Describing the growth of the past 40 years, she says: "It was an unprecedented miracle. I had no imagination about what things would be like 10 to 20 years later. Not in my wildest dreams did I think Chinese people would be so rich. China’s stable economic achievement over a long time is unprecedented. We have a stable society, low crime and a low unemployment rate."

She poetically sums up the achievement and the challenges of the Chinese economy: "After spending 22 years studying and as an economics professor in the US, I came back to work in China because I saw a forest of vitality. Inside the forest, I saw that some trees were really ill, but we are working on those trees. I feel this forest is still quite healthy, and I’m confident the ill trees will be cured." (By David Blair)

From China Daily,2017-08-11
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