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China Keeps Both a Nobel Laureate and Some High School Students Behind Bars

May 17, 2015

On May 15, 2015, I wrote a post about China’s testing obsession going so far as Chinese high school students’ using amino acid IVs to support their beyond-humane studying for Chinese exams.

In that post, I observed that China has very few Nobel laureates– only nine.

Only two were residing in China at the time of their awards.

One of these two was in prison.

China’s testing obsession kills creativity and confidence. However, China also has a single-party, highly-controlling, oppressive Communist government that does nothing for the free flow of ideas.

In 2008, Chinese university professor Liu Xiaobo and others drafted a document entitled Charter 08, which called for the end of the authoritarian Chinese government and the beginning of a democratic government for China.

The document linked above is a translation from the original Chinese. It is a cached copy originally posted by the group, Human Rights in China, and later removed. A full translation can also be found here: 

In 2009, Liu Xiaobo was imprisoned for his involvement in producing Charter 08. He is serving 11 years. His wife was put under house arrest.

In 2010, Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in absentia.

In October 2014, the international community remembered Xiaobo and his uncollected award. As noted in the Telegraph:

“We cannot forget that another Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo remains imprisoned four years on since being awarded his Prize,” Kate Allen, the UK director of Amnesty International told The Telegraph, “Amnesty continues to campaign tirelessly for Liu Xiaobo’s release.”

Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch added: “While it is marvellous to see the efforts around education and freeing children from slavery being honoured, that is tempered by some extent knowing that Liu Xiaobo still has five years to go in prison for doing nothing more than speaking his mind.”

Liu was a veteran of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations that left several hundred dead after China’s ruling Communist Party sent in tanks to crush the protests. He was represented by an empty chair at the awards ceremony in Oslo in 2010.

The empty chair with a diploma and medal that should have been awarded to this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo (portrait l) stands in  Oslo City Hall on December 10, 2010. The head of the Nobel committee placed this year's peace prize on an empty chair  as Beijing raged against the award to dissident Liu Xiaobo, who is languishing in a Chinese prison cell. AFP Photo : Heiko Junge / SCANPIX NORWAY (Photo credit should read Junge, Heiko/AFP/Getty Images)

The empty chair with a diploma and medal that should have been awarded to this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo (portrait l) stands in Oslo City Hall on December 10, 2010. The head of the Nobel committee placed this year’s peace prize on an empty chair as Beijing raged against the award to dissident Liu Xiaobo, who is languishing in a Chinese prison cell. AFP Photo : Heiko Junge / SCANPIX NORWAY (Photo credit should read Junge, Heiko/AFP/Getty Images) Photo and caption from the October 2014 Telegraph

Here are some excerpts from Charter 08. Keep in mind that what is scandalous in Communist China is taken for granted in democratic United States:

I. Preamble

This year marks 100 years since China’s [first] Constitution, the 60th anniversary of the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 30th anniversary of the birth of the Democracy Wall, and the 10th year since the Chinese government signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Having experienced a prolonged period of human rights disasters and challenging and tortuous struggles, the awakening Chinese citizens are becoming increasingly aware that freedom, equality, and human rights are universal values shared by all humankind, and that democracy, republicanism, and constitutional government make up the basic institutional framework of modern politics. A “modernization” bereft of these universal values and this basic political framework is a disastrous process that deprives people of their rights, rots away their humanity, and destroys their dignity. Where is China headed in the 21st century? Will it continue with this “modernization” under authoritarian rule, or will it endorse universal values, join the mainstream civilization, and build a democratic form of government? This is an unavoidable decision. …

II. Our Fundamental Concepts

At this historical juncture that will decide the future destiny of China, it is necessary to reflect on the modernization process of the past hundred and some years and reaffirm the following concepts:

Freedom: Freedom is at the core of universal values. The rights of speech, publication, belief, assembly, association, movement, to strike, and to march and demonstrate are all the concrete expressions of freedom. Where freedom does not flourish, there is no modern civilization to speak of.

Human Rights: Human rights are not bestowed by a state; they are inherent rights enjoyed by every person. Guaranteeing human rights is both the most important objective of a government and the foundation of the legitimacy of its public authority; it is also the intrinsic requirement of the policy of “putting people first.” China’s successive political disasters have all been closely related to the disregard for human rights by the ruling establishment. People are the mainstay of a nation; a nation serves its people; government exists for the people.

Equality: The integrity, dignity, and freedom of every individual, regardless of social status, occupation, gender, economic circumstances, ethnicity, skin color, religion, or political belief, are equal. The principles of equality before the law for each and every person and equality in social, economic, cultural, and political rights of all citizens must be implemented.

Republicanism: Republicanism is “joint governing by all, peaceful coexistence,” that is, the separation of powers for checks and balances and the balance of interests; that is, a community comprising many diverse interests, different social groups, and a plurality of cultures and faiths, seeking to peacefully handle public affairs on the basis of equal participation, fair competition, and joint discussion.

Democracy: The most fundamental meaning is that sovereignty resides in the people and the government elected by the people. Democracy has the following basic characteristics:(1) The legitimacy of political power comes from the people; the source of political power is the people. (2) Political control is exercised through choices made by the people. (3) Citizens enjoy the genuine right to vote; officials in key positions at all levels of government must be the product of elections at regular intervals. (4) Respect the decisions of the majority while protecting the basic human rights of the minority. In a word, democracy is the modern public instrument for creating a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Constitutionalism: Constitutionalism is the principle of guaranteeing basic freedoms and rights of citizens as defined by the constitution through legal provisions and the rule of law, restricting and defining the boundaries of government power and conduct, and providing appropriate institutional capability to carry this out. In China, the era of imperial power is long gone, never to return; in the world at large, the authoritarian system is on the wane; citizens ought to become the true masters of their states. The fundamental way out for China lies only in dispelling the subservient notion of reliance on “enlightened rulers” and “upright officials,” promoting public consciousness of rights as fundamental and participation as a duty, and putting into practice freedom, engaging in democracy, and respecting the law.

III. Our Basic Positions

Thus, in the spirit of responsible and constructive citizens, we put forth the following specific positions regarding various aspects of state administration, citizens’ rights and interests, and social development: …

13. Civic Education: Abolish political education and political examinations that are heavy on ideology and serve the one-party rule. Popularize civic education based on universal values and civil rights, establish civic consciousness, and advocate civic virtues that serve society.

In February 2015, Harrison Jacobs of the Business Insider observed the following regarding Charter 08:

Charter 08 was unique because regular people signed it — not just dissidents and activists.

This is the first time that anyone other than the Communist Party has put in written form in a public document a political vision for China. It’s dangerous to be associated with dissidents, so in the past, other, ordinary people have not signed such documents. But this time it is different. It has become a citizens’ movement,” Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, told The Washington Post in 2009. …

The document is so subversive because it outlines a reasonable alternate political future for China, one in which the Communist Party is unnecessary.

Xiaobo’s position is that for super-test-scorer China to “compete globally” in the 21st century, so to speak, it must adopt a government more in keeping with that of international-testing-flunkie, America.

This man risked his freedom for such a belief.

How any American official could gaze longingly at China and view it as a model for American functioning is beyond me. Yet US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan includes China and its Gaokao exam among international examples of what he tries to play as not assessment-consuming destruction but as a “higher-learning” system that the US schools should emulate. As Duncan notes in his 2013 remarks in response to the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results:

Now, contrary to the myth one sometimes hears, the 2012 PISA also highlights that the vast majority of high-performing countries have both demanding and high-stakes assessments. Most high-performing countries have gateway exams for entrance into postsecondary education—and sometimes even for secondary education.

Whether it is Singapore’s PSLE and GCE assessments, China’s Gaokao, South Korea’s CSAT, Germany’s Abitur, or Poland’s Matura college entrance exam, assessments linked to high standards propel good instruction and higher-order learning around the world.

gaokao China’s gaokao exam

Duncan offers China as a model for American education.

Hold that thought.

Consider the following “safety” measures taken by one Chinese high school, as reported by Emma Graham-Harrison of the Guardian:

An elite Chinese school has been criticised for turning classrooms into virtual jails by fitting windows and balconies with metal bars in an apparent attempt to stop students leaping to their deaths.

The Heshui No2 school is well known for its impressive results, but recently made headlines for tragic reasons. One student died in October and another in March; both apparently jumped from school buildings. …

China’s education system is fiercely competitive, with millions of students vying for slots at a handful of top universities, seen as a golden ticket to success and wealth. Entrance places are handed out based entirely on results in a nationwide entrance exam, and the pressure to succeed is intense.

Students at the Heshui No2 High School work from 5.30am until 10pm, with even toilet breaks regulated in pursuit of top marks, the state-owned Global Times reported. …

One online commentator, Peng, said: “School should be a place where people can learn freely rather than being locked up and forced to study. Would students commit suicide were the school regulations not being so strict? It’s shameless for them to say it’s all for students’ safety.”

Chinese students are jumping to their deaths to escape the pressures of their test-consumed educations.

How profoundly sad for China’s children.

Regarding China’s high PISA scores, University of Oregon professor Yong Zhao offers the following candid observation in his April 2015 speech at the Network for Public Education (NPE) conference:

And how did the Chinese react to this (high PISA scores)? Nothing. Nothing. The Chinese say, “We hate our system, and we don’t want the PISA,” and so, China never did have a big party to celebrate. 

They did not say, “This is something that’s worth celebrating.” … And the Chinese know very well that their education system is not very good because they look at a different set of indicators. The former Chinese premier at the time, Wen Jiabao, said, “We want our Steve Jobs.” …

But the idea is that we need entrepreneurial, creative people.

If China is going to have entrepreneurial, creative people, it is going to have to forsake its one-party, oppressive government. China will have to end a high-pressure, test-score-driven education system that has its youth hooked to IVs and its school admin fastening bars on windows to keep kids from leaping to their deaths.

And it will have to release human rights activist Xiaobo from prison.

Let’s hear Arne Duncan speak to these issues in his next starry-eyed-for-oppressive-regime-test-scores address.


Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of the ed reform whistle blower, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education.

She also has her second book available on pre-order, Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?, due for publication June 12, 2015.

CC book cover



  1. Laura chapman permalink

    Arne is a circular reasoner and a conflator. The defines a high performing country as one with high test scores on. PISA TIMMS, then longs for US students to score high so we can be a hig performing country. This is the pathetic thinking that the promoters of the CCSS pushed into the so-called international benching marking of the standards. As I said recently on another blog, the greatest marketing tool for snake oil in education is a test score.

  2. While I think the obsession in countries like China, South Korea, Singapore and Japan that students compete to get into high school and college via high stakes tests and/or cram schools is excessive to the extreme, it helps to know the history of this region.

    An informative book on this subject is “The China Mirage” by James Bradley. Before condemning China’s authorization one party system, I suggest that this book be required reading. China is not the only country in Asia that goes to the extreme when it comes to educating its children.

    “In each of his books, James Bradley has exposed the hidden truths behind America’s engagement in Asia. Now comes his most engrossing work yet. Beginning in the 1850s, Bradley introduces us to the prominent Americans who made their fortunes in the China opium trade. As they—good Christians all—profitably addicted millions, American missionaries arrived, promising salvation for those who adopted Western ways.

    “And that was just the beginning.

    “From drug dealer Warren Delano to his grandson Franklin Delano Roosevelt, from the port of Hong Kong to the towers of Princeton University, from the era of Appomattox to the age of the A-Bomb, THE CHINA MIRAGE explores a difficult century that defines U.S.-Chinese relations to this day.”

    Back to the obsessive, excessive testing in China. China is not alone. There are other countries labeled democracies in East Asia that also are obsessive and excessive when it comes to educating their children. For instance, Japan, South Korea and Singapore. In fact, if you look closely at India, what is it about being a democracy that makes it better than China? India has extreme poverty where several thousand children die daily from starvation or malnutrition, a class system that refuses to go away, and a dysfunctional democracy that is a malignant cancer. India is estimated to have one-third of the world’s poor. According to the World Health Organization, it is estimated that 98,000 people in India die from diarrhea each year. The lack of adequate sanitation, nutrition and safe water has significant negative health impacts. India has the highest rate of child marriage in the world, where one in three girls become child brides. Many girls are married off at an early age, become servants or even prostitutes just to survive. A third of the world’s malnourished children live in India according to UNICEF, where “46 percent of all children below the age of three are too small for their age, 47 percent are underweight and at least 16 percent are wasted.”

    Two million slum children die every year as India booms

    How about China’s poverty problem? “By working toward a better understanding of poverty and by tailoring efforts based on a rigorous system of monitoring and evaluation, China lifted more than 600 million people out of poverty between 1981 and 2004. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) has a long history of working with China on an evolving approach to poverty reduction, with an emphasis on rural and minority populations.”

    Now, let’s look at another democracy, Japan.

    “Japanese universities generally require their own exams. And it turns out that many Japanese students also have to take entrance exams just to get into high school.

    “It’s a lot of pressure,” says Akihiko Takahashi, an associate professor of math education at DePaul University who knows the Japanese testing system well. “If you do not pass exam, you cannot go anywhere, even high school.”

    Then there are South Korea’s Cram Schools. South Korea is also a democracy.

    And even the U.S. is not safe. Private sector, for-profit cram schools in the United States.

    I’m not going to argue that China’s one party system isn’t an authoritarian govenrment—of course it is. To be clear, China is not a democracy, but would a democracy have achieved what has been achieved in China when the world’s largest democracy next door, India, has achieved little to alleviate poverty, suffering and illiteracy when compared to what China has accomplished for its people.

    Another way to look at this is what China was before 1949 and where it is today. In 1949, the poverty rate in China was about 95% and the average life expectancy was age 35.

    Today, according to the World Bank, poverty in China was 6.3% in 2011.

    In addition, average life expectancy in China in 2012 was 75.2.

    Before 1949, the literacy rate in China was 15 to 25%. Today it is 92.1%

    In fact, for an oppressive government—and I’m not arguing that China doesn’t have an oppressive govenrment because it does—one would think the CCP would prefer China’s people to be ignorant and not travel outside of China.

    “With the rise of personal incomes and living standards, the outbound tourism market grows by leaps and bounds. Chinese people are eager to go sightseeing overseas which creates an immense market for foreign countries. The popular outbound destinations include USA, Russia, France, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Maldives. In 2014, the number of outbound tourists reached 107 million, up 19.49% compared with 2013. Currently, China has increased the number of permitted overseas destinations for her citizens to 151 countries and regions. A further and sustained growth of outbound tourism is expected.”

    Then there is the fact that if China wants to control what their people think and say, why are they allowing so many of the younger generation to live in the United States to go to college.

    Chinese students Lead Foreign Surge at U.S. Colleges.

    In 2013-14, colleges in the United States enrolled a record 886,052 foreign students, an increase of 8 percent over the previous year, according to the latest “Open Doors” report from the Institute of International Education.

    In conclusion, there is more to China than its one-party, authoritarian government and brutal excessive high stakes tests used to weed out students who don’t go on to high school or college.

    And what happens to the children who don’t make the grade on one of these high stakes tests?

    Most of them are sent to vocational schools to learn a trade or if they come from rural China, they just go home back to the village where there is no rent or property tax.

    The 800 million Chinese who live in rural China not only vote for their village leaders through democratic elections but the plot they farm and the house they live in can’t be repossess—there is no mortgage payment. There is no rent, There is no property tax. That only exists in urban China for the 600 million who live there.

    You even might be surprised to learn what is happening in China regarding the evolution of democracy and the former U.S. President who is involved in the process.

    The fact is that democracy doesn’t come with the flip of a light switch. How long did it take for the U.S. to get rid of slavery? How long did it take women to win the vote and the right to own property and have a job? How long did it take the U.S. to end chlid labor?

  3. After more thought, I want to add this.

    There is no way to tell if the CCP will ever allow democratic elections for the entire country like they are doing at the village level in rural China, but I think it is arguable that before becoming a democracy, China needs to educate as many people as possible so they have the ability to read, reason, think and participate in the democratic process.

    What would have happened to Chins if in 1949, it became a democracy simliar to the United States when less than 25% of the population was literate, more than 90% lived in extreme poverty, and life expectancy was 35 years?

    While this is a good question, the facts of that time are that China had no chance to become a democracy even if Chiang Kai-Shek had won the Civil War and the Nationalists ruled China today instead of the Chinese Communist Party. Chiang was a brutal dictator, probably as brutal or more brutal than Mao, and he ruled over Taiwan with military marshal law and as a dictator until his death in 1976. Taiwan didn’t have its first democratic election until 1996, twenty years after Chang Kai Shek’s died. What is mostly unknown in the United States is that Chiang modeled his government after the Nazis and he even had his own youth movement modeled after the Hitler Youth.

    There’s also another consideration—the number of college seats available in China’s 2,000 universities. How does a child get into college when there is limited room? Even though China has increased the proportion of its college-age population to over 20% from the 1.4% in 1978, that still means there isn’t a seat for 80% of college age children.

    Before the Communist party took power in 1949, about 80% of China’s population was illiterate. Enrollment rate was below 20% for elementary school and about 6% of junior secondary school.
    [ “60 Years of Educational Reform and Development” Sept. 14, 2009 ]

    By 2008, adult illiteracy rate in China dropped to only 3.58%. Elementary school and junior secondary school enrollment jumped to 99.5% and 98.5% respectively.
    [ “60 Years of Educational Reform and Development” Sept. 14, 2009 ]

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