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What Drives China’s Success?

On September 19, 2014, Alibaba of China created the largest U.S. IPO in the modern history. Thirty years ago, no one in the world imagined this could happen. Nobody believed that China would be able to grow its GPD at an average of 10% per year, becoming the second largest economy in the world in 2010 and expected to surpass the American economy by 2025. Nobody would believe that China has not only become the “World’s Factory,” but also sent their astronauts into space.  Since 1978, China has lifted more than 500 million people out of poverty, creating one of the largest economic miracles in the later 20th century.

What drives China’s success?  One major explanation is through the introduction of market mechanisms, modern technology and management from the West. Since Deng Xiaoping implemented the open and reform policy, China has experienced rapid productivity improvement. Obviously, learning from the West is an essential contributor to China’s economic growth. However, it alone fails to explain why many other nations in Africa, South America and South Asia were unable to duplicate China’s success, though lots of them have implemented democracy and have little restriction of trade and information.

Alternatively, some scholars attribute China’s success to better governance of the Chinese government. Dambisa Moyo, economist and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom regards China as “new idol for emerging economies.”  Thomas Friedman also gave significant credit to the Chinese government for its ability to get things done quickly by stating “what if we could just be China for one day?”

It is true that the Chinese government has done an extraordinary job in managing a difficult transition from an isolated communist nation, to a largely open, economic driven nation without falling into turmoil. The Chinese government has also successfully implemented many pro-development policies such as Special Economic Zones and industrial development guidelines.  However, the opposite views could argue that the Chinese government has also created many problems, such as serious corruptions, pollution and inefficiency in allocating economic resources, all of which hinder growth.  As a matter of fact, the Chinese leaders have recognized many weaknesses in their governance and President Xi Jinping has called for modernizing China’s governing systems.  Even with the right governmental policies, China cannot achieve success without a highly motivated and competitive workforce—human capital.

I would argue, among the major drivers for China’s success are the Chinese people, the true creator of China’s economic success and the great culture that shapes their characteristics: ambitious, hardworking, thrifty, caring for their families and relentlessly pursuing good education and success.

We all knew the American Dream, a symbol of American ambition. However, people are largely unaware that there are more than 40 Chinese phrases ( Chengyu), to encourage children and adults to have big dream for their future. These motivate Chinese people to study diligently and work hard. Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, authored by New Yorker reporter Evan Osnos, echoes this untold secret of China’s success: Ambition, which is called Zhixiang in Chinese.

The next secret of China’s success is an emphasis on education. Shanghai, China has consecutively ranked the #1 in 2009 and 2012 PISA international student assessment. Each year, China educates about 6-7 million college graduates, 40% with engineering and science degrees. In January 20013, a New York Times article claimed: “Next made-in-China boom: college graduates.”  Chinese educated scientists and engineers are rapidly driving China’s technological advancements and economic growth.  In fact, educated Chinese immigrants have become a major driving force in America’s high tech and engineering industries as well.

Thrift is another secret of China’s success.  With a 25% personal saving rate, Chinese people rarely suffer from personal bankruptcies or foreclosures.  The huge saving by Chinese people have created financial security for many Chinese families, reduced government spending on social welfares, and helped fund many grand infrastructure projects in China, such as the world’s #1 high speed railway system.

The above are just a few examples of how the Chinese culture, predominately Confucian values shapes Chinese people’s characteristics and drive China’s success.  In 1979, Herman Kahn, the world-famous futurist, predicted, “the Confucian ethic—the creation of dedicated, motivated, responsible, and educated individuals and the enhanced sense of commitment, organizational identity, and loyalty to various institutions—will result in all the neo-Confucian societies having at least potentially higher growth rates than other cultures.”   In 1980, Roderick MacFarquhar, the world-renowned China expert and Harvard Professor declared: “That ideology [Confucianism] is as important to the rise of the east Asian hyper-growth economies as the conjunction of Protestantism and the rise of capitalism in the West.”

In my opinion, China’s success is built upon an inseparable three-legged stool: Pro-development government policies, learning from the West, and great cultural values that help create highly motivated and competitive human capital.  Today, the global economic rivalry is not only a competition on governance of a nation, but also a competition on its human capital and cultural values. Any nation who wants to advance their economies needs address both.

This Oped was first published on October 2nd, 2014 by Forbes

Elevate academics, top students will be as revered as athletes

Over the past two weeks, more than 400,000 students in Central Florida started their 2014-15 school year. They are expected to make meaningful progress, with support of many diligent teachers and caring parents. To facilitate our educational progress, our society needs to foster a pro-education culture, by elevating academic education and honoring top students.

I have written that in American society, pop culture and distractions from various video games and TV shows have created a powerful counterforce against educational progress. When sports stars are widely viewed as role models and entertainment celebrities are worshipped, academic education is often put in the back seat in our society and subsequently by many students.

However, in the communities where academic education is elevated and top students are honored, such as in Chinese- and Asian-American communities, we see excellent academic performance, Just take note: Chinese-American students comprised more than 20 percent of 2014 Presidential Scholars, while making up only 1.2 percent of the U.S. population.

Influenced by Confucian values, most Chinese-American parents view education as the primary way for their children to have a great future. They are willing to challenge their children to study diligently and to achieve top academic performances. Winning various science, technology and other academic competitions is highly encouraged, in particular at the regional, state and even national levels.

The success of Chinese/Asian-Americans in education clearly disproves the “Self-esteem Movement” doctrine — that accommodating students’ self-esteem, not challenging them academically, is the best way to encourage them to learn. The truth is outstanding academic achievements give students true pride and confidence to continue studying and excel academically. In Chinese/Asian-American communities, expectations for academic excellence have created a strong pro-education climate. Children make efforts in learning, feel cool in learning and are proud of being top students.

It is important to point out that many schools overlook the importance of academic clubs. These schools would rather fund sports than support academic competitions. By ignoring academic competitions, they lose the opportunity to instill a pro-education school culture, because winners of various academic competitions are great role models for other students.

Honoring top students is also essential in creating a pro-education culture. In America, although schools honor their top students, our society has done too little to applaud academic excellence. In 2012, I took my kids to the National Junior Beta Convention in Greensboro, N.C., where my son Hubert won the national championship in science competition. To my surprise, no local English news medium covered the award ceremony. In contrast, as soon as World Journal, the largest Chinese newspaper in the U.S. learned about this, it reported my son’s story and published his picture.

In Chinese culture, academic-competition winners are heroes and get the media attention they deserve. Similarly, students who were admitted by Ivy League and other top universities are regarded as role models for younger students. In large Chinese communities, such as New York and San Francisco, they are frequently invited to give speeches and share successful experiences.

Even with a small Asian-American community in Orlando, each year the Asian Heritage Foundation selects and rewards top students of each grade level for the best academic performance, leadership and volunteering activities. Honoring top students will inspire more students to pursue academic excellence. In this regard, it takes more than schools, but the whole society to support education.

On June 18, WFTV-Channel 9 broadcast a great program, “OCPS Super Scholars,” featuring Orange County Public Schools’ graduating high-school students who have been admitted into our nation’s top universities. We surely need more programs like this. If our local TV and newspapers had more coverage on exceptional students; the winners of our regional, state and national competitions; and especially those who achieved academic excellence from our disadvantaged communities, I am sure we would be able to build a culture supportive to learning.

When most of our students are inspired to learn, America will have the chance to become an educational leader again.


Note: This Oped was first published by Orlando Sentinel on August 24, 2014

Revamp education: more Confucians, fewer Kardashians

In the newly released 2012 PISA International Student Assessment results, out of 65 nations and jurisdictions that participated, American students have slid in the global rankings for math (No. 30), science (No. 23) and reading (No. 20), further dropping from our already mediocre positions in 2009.

Faced with a worsening situation, politicians and educators are calling for further education reform and investment. However, none of them touch an important, but unpleasant truth: Our dumbing-down pop culture is driving down our nation’s education quality.

In America, movie and music celebrities and sports stars are regarded as heroes and role models. Their lifestyles and overnight-rich stories are lauded by the media, resulting in a misleading influence on schoolchildren and parents. Too many children worship celebrities and don’t want to learn.

“They’re sitting on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV” and “fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper,” first lady Michelle Obama said last May in her commencement speech at Bowie State University.

In our schools, the most popular students are football stars, or those who are “cool.” Top academic performers are frequently ridiculed as “nerds.” Likewise, many parents admire that Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps spent many hours per day in athletic training, but they are unwilling to ask their children to study a couple more hours per day, even though it is essential for their future.

In American society, pop culture and distractions from various video games and TV shows have created a powerful counterforce against educational progress. It seems no matter how much effort the teacher or school makes, if students believe that learning is not cool, and they do not have to study, the chance for their education success is minimal.

Consequently, we fail to educate enough home-grown scientists and engineers to support our rapidly growing high-tech industries and take these highly paid jobs. While this pop-culture influence has created a small number of super-rich sports stars and a few overnight-rich Kim Kardashians, too many have failed to achieve upward mobility because most highly paid mainstream jobs are education-based.

In contrast, pro-education cultures make a difference. The top seven performers in the 2012 PISA assessment — Shanghai-China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Macao and Japan — are all Confucianism-influenced societies. Most people in these societies respect teachers and do not worship celebrities. Most parents view education as the primary way for their children to have a great future. They devote unparalleled efforts to motivating and supporting their children’s education. In East Asia, children feel cool in learning. Top students are regarded as heroes, not nerds.

East Asia’s education success also facilitates its economic growth. Over the past five decades, the world has witnessed the economic recovery of Japan, rapid industrialization of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Korea, and the rise of China. In 1979, Herman Kahn, the world-famous futurist, and in 1980 Roderick MacFarquhar, the world-renowned China expert and Harvard professor, attributed East Asia’s rapid economic growth to Confucian values.

With a similar influence, Asian-American students also succeed in education. They have a disproportionately high enrollment in our nation’s top universities. In America’s most prestigious high-school science competitions, Intel Science Talent Search and Siemens Science Competition, over the past five years, more than 20 percent of the national prizewinners had an East Asian heritage, while they make up only about 2 percent of the U.S. population.

Asian-Americans’ experiences have demonstrated that Confucian values help foster a family’s passion for education, hard-working ethic and perseverance for success. It has helped Asian-Americans deflect the undesirable influences of pop culture, and affirms that a commitment to education will be rewarded with highly paid mainstream careers.

It is worth pointing out: East Asian countries have started learning the strengths of American education — emphasis on creativity and social-skills development, which will make their education even stronger. To revamp American education and maintain our global economic and technological leadership, we need to embrace the education strengths of East Asia, especially a pro-education culture, which means: We need fewer Kardashians and more Confucians.

This Oped was first published on January 5th, 2014  by Orlando Sentinel .

The Bigger Secret Behind Shanghai Education Success

In his column “The Shanghai Secret” of October 22, 2013, Thomas Friedman attributes Shanghai educational success to “its ability to execute more of these fundamentals in more of its schools more of the time.” Usually, Friedman challenges us to open our mind to see the big picture of the changing world, but this time he fails to go one step further, emphasizing that the bigger secret behind the educational success of Shanghai and other East Asian countries (all score among highest in 2009 PISA international education assessment) is their Confucian heritage. It is the Confucian values on education that makes Shanghai’s education progress possible and fast.

First, most people in Confucian influenced societies emphasize education, and do not worship celebrities. Most parents view education as the primary way for their children to achieve upward mobility, and to have a great future.   In these societies, people respect knowledge, teachers, scientists, and experts, instead of following Kardashians or Honey Boo Boos. Shanghai’s schools and teachers are blessed with a pro-education culture, which makes their work much easier than that of their American counterpart’s.

The second, according to Confucianism, parents have an inescapable responsibility to educate their children. As a result, Chinese parents devote unparalleled efforts in motivating and supporting their children’s education throughout their school years. One of Shanghai’s key education successes was the improvement of education quality for schools with students predominantly from poorly-educated migration worker’s families. Similar to less educated families in the US, their children have poor academic performances. After the Shanghai education department started teacher’s training and tailored programs towards such students, it immediately generated results, because, every migration worker, like every other Chinese parent, wants their child to have a great education. Parental support is an essential part of Shanghai success. Unfortunately, in the US, a significant number of parents either do not have the similar level of passion on education or do not know the proper parenting methods to support their children’s education.  I recently attended an education gathering for disadvantaged neighborhoods in Orlando. The low parent participation disappointed both the organizer and me. It clearly underscores the importance to create a pro-education culture for these parents.

The third, in Confucianism influenced societies children are rewarded and respected in learning. In China, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, academic performance, not sports, is the most important performance indicator for students.  They feel cool in learning. Students with excellent academic performances are regarded as heros, not ridiculed as “nerds” like they are in the US. When a student wins a major academic competition, his/her name will be in the newspaper the second day. Last year, I took my kids to participate in the National Junior Beta Convention in which my son won the Championship in the Science Competition.  To my surprise, no English media, neither local nor national, covered winners of this convention. When we only glorify sports stars, singers and movie celebrities, our children are likely follow suit, pursuing these non-education based careers.  However, in these non-education based areas, career opportunities are quite limited.

The fourth, Confucianism has provided many lasting wisdoms in education. When children are young, Chinese parents encourage them to Lizhi, to have big dreams for their future. This motivates them to learn. 2000 years ago, Book of Rites, a Confucianism classic, already documented many education principles, from which most Chinese educators and parents still benefit. Here, I’d like to clarify that, the wisdom behind Chinese parenting is much broader than the strict Tiger Mom parenting, as portrayed by Amy Chua in 2011.

Clearly Shanghai also benefited from learning from the West: They reduced schoolwork from their overloaded students and encouraged creativity in classrooms. Nevertheless, they do not go too far to lower the education standard as we did in the US. As one Chinese newspaper commentary pointed out, winning PISA assessments proves the importance of building a solid academic foundation for students.

It is worthwhile to point out that, with the same cultural heritage, Asian American students with East Asian origin perform among the best in our schools. They dominate our nation’s top science and engineering colleges. In the nation’s most prestigious high school science competitions, including the Intel Science Talent Search and Siemens Science Competition, over the last five years, more than 20% of the national prizewinners have Chinese or East Asian heritage, while they make up only about 2% of the U.S. population. This is great testimonial of the positive influence of Confucianism on education.

I am glad that American educators have taken first step to Shanghai, to learn from their schools. To improve American education, we also need address the parenting and cultural side of the equation. The good news is, they do not have to travel far. Many Asian American families are great examples of parenting success!

Close US Education Quality Gap with World’s Leading Nations

About two years ago, the National Bureau of Economic Research proclaimed the recession officially over in the summer of 2009.  But today, the US unemployment rate is still at 8.2%.  This high unemployment rate again illustrates our fragile economic recovery.  It also underscores the importance of closing our educational quality gap with high-performing economies.  Our economic troubles are rooted much deeper than just in the housing bubble before 2008. They are also largely attributed to rising global competition and declining US competitiveness, in particular educational quality.

In the middle 20th century, the US used to be the manufacturing center of the world, which created a robust and affluent middle class.  Starting in the 1970s, the US started to face global competition from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Mexico, Indonesia, Vietnam, and other emerging economies.  Over the last three decades, the US has lost 40%, about 8 million of its manufacturing jobs, partly due to global competition and partly due to productivity gain.  Moreover, in the last decade the advancement of telecommunication and information industries has created a borderless service platform. It leads to significant service job outsourcing: call centers, computer troubleshooting, etc., that exacerbate the loss of middle class jobs in the US.

We need to recognize that it is not viable for the US to regain most of these job back in particular those labor intensive ones. The right structural change for the US is to design and produce more products and services with high knowledge contents, such as iPhones, IT systems and engineering services. That is the only way for Americans to sustain and improve our living standard because these types of jobs create more value and are highly paid.

However, our educational problems are holding us back. Our public schools fail to produce students who are ready to compete in this global economy.  According to 2011 ACT test results, only one out of four participants (high school graduates) met four key benchmarks and is ready for college.  Internationally, U.S. students rank at the bottom of the pack in math when compared to their global peer and towards the middle of the pack in reading and science, far behind education leading countries including Shanghai China, Finland, South Korea and Singapore.

In order to restore the American education leadership, it is essential for our policymakers, teachers and parents to understand and learn from the world’s leading nations in education.

Like many other first generation immigrants who have cross-culture educational experiences, I clearly appreciate strengths of the American education system but also see the urgency with which we need to make improvements in many critical areas.  It is imperative to close our educational quality gap with world’s leading nations in order to avoid economic decline.

First posted on June 2, 2012  at studentfirst.org