Getting to know China via education


WHILE it is tempting to think this book, Education for 1.3 Billion, is intended as a guide for teachers and those who have something to do with education, there are hidden implications in this book for those in the business community as well. 

Without doubt, author Li LanQing was trying to show how China has apparently made some interesting progress in the past decade from 1993 to 2003 in reforming its educational systems.  

For example, China has succeeded in providing a nine-year compulsory basic education for virtually all children of eligible age, rapidly developing its colleges and universities, and speedily getting research results from the higher educational and research institutions out into the market.  

The Chinese government has also made headway in reforming its vocational education to develop the technical skills of its citizens. 

But there are undertones to this interesting book for business people as well.  

Li LanQing

As the book was written by a former vice-premier who played a key role in the Chinese government as head of education, it not only ranks as an authoritative guide but also provides those seeking to do business in the still growing Chinese market with some insights as to how the Chinese government does things through the revelation of policies, albeit in the field of education.  

Needless to say, it is only with a good grasp of a specific system and policies that one could navigate one’s way with ease in a chosen market, especially when one has to deal with the government concerned. 

In addition, in joining Li’s quest from the time he was handed the task of reforming the Chinese education system, readers can see that Li’s endeavour was no different from that of a business executive charged with turning around an ailing corporation. 

Take the two problems which Li recalled facing when he first took on the responsibility: “I had heard there were many thorny issues, and that insiders often described their difficult, under-funded task as ‘wanting the horse to gallop without giving it fodder.” 

“Then add to this the fact that every man in the street considers himself an educational expert, and so is very critical of whatever we do.” 

I am sure many managers could relate to Li when facing the same problems of lack of resources, especially in terms of dollars and cents, and having to face the masses who think they could do a better job. 

And like most managers who had successfully turned around their respective corporations, Li also went through crucial stages such as to study and investigate the problems first before coming up with remedies. Many managers could also learn from him as he went personally to the field, including remote God-forsaken places, to see things firsthand for himself. 

As a believer in having competent people, he adopted the human resource approach, like tackling teachers’ pay which was generally not only lower than other civil servants but also not getting paid on time, and working to improve housing for teachers.  

After the basic problems had been sorted out, like most managers today who regard technology as a basic necessity, Li also sought to rejuvenate the nation through science and education. Even then, he still supported the disciplines of philosophy, other humanities and social science, saying: “Philosophy and other social sciences are no less important than natural sciences, and at times they are even more so.” 

Li showed he was very much like a middle manager as he worked consistently to persuade those above to spend more on education and at the same time, urge those below to embrace change that comes with reform. As he has put it: “... it is not enough to look to the higher authorities for help. The right attitude is to reform boldly and explore new paths.” 

But old habits die hard. Much as my interest was aroused by the detailed descriptions of how major policy decisions were taken, and Li’s personal narration of how he himself grappled with the problems that come with reform and change, and his views on important issues in Chinese education, he sounded at times like the official State propaganda machinery – for example, his now-and-then reference to “the correct leadership of the Communist Party of China” for the success of the educational reforms or any other undertakings. 

Despite these occasional lapses in propagandising the virtues of communism, the book, arranged in the interview format of question and answer, is quite readable and, of course, throws some light on the way the Chinese government – at various levels – gets things done. 

Readers may also find the last part of the book, “Editors’ Observations” to be objectively revealing since several interviews conducted by the editors saw Li offering readers some insights into his concept of education, his personal experiences and passions, and his personality which could be summed up as a man of passion for education. 

  • Khoo Kheng-Hor welcomes feedback and can be reached at or

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