Whenever talking about governments in China, it's quite easy for friends from western leading democracies to think of words like "undemocratic" or "totalitarian." Indeed, I cannot argue these tags are absolutely wrong. However, as a Chinese student having worked in local governance innovation, especially in the education arena, I witnessed the vibrant reforms happening in many local governments in China. These reforms, as illustrated below by a case about a city in eastern China, have the potential to make a huge difference, slowly yet remarkably.
Like many other government services, education in China is highly public and tightly managed by governments. Usually it is local governments that directly regulate local schools, often in every detail of school affairs. This is partly because of the need for ensuring equity in education and partly because of China's political tradition, that we should guarantee our education system is in the politically "right direction." But, in recent years, many local governments have begun to give more authority and freedom to school principals and to loosen government intervention into school management.
During my work in a nonprofit education think tank in China, I was lucky to manage the Local Education Governance Innovation Award, and saw firsthand many such reforms. Among the local governments with innovative governance reform I visited, Zhangjiagang is one of the most representative.
Zhangjiagang City's Education Governance Reform
Zhangjiagang is a county-level city in Jiangsu Province, a coastal industrial city only one and a half hours from Shanghai. Not too long ago, education governance in Zhangjiagang was much like many of its peers in the country. As a local middle school principal told me, "In the past, I had to take a very large portion of my time every week in attending report meetings in the education bureau, preparing for those high frequency inspections and assessments from the bureau. I didn't have enough time to be with my students." Yet principals could not afford to disregard those assessments, as their performance evaluation and promotion were highly correlated with the results.
"Those so-called 'assessments' from government greatly distract our schools from their regular school management and teaching activities," agrees Jianhua Shao, the newly appointed chief director of the Zhangjiagang Education Bureau, who is also very dissatisfied with the inefficient governance system. He is determined to make a difference.
From early 2013, the Shao administration launched a series of reforms to decentralize school regulation, and give more independence and freedom to schools. Some of the reforms include:
Cut Assessments from Government
In two years, the Zhangjiagang education system has cut 90 percent of the assessment programs. Only two core assessments related to education performance and principal work quality are mandatory. All the other few that remain uncut, like the so-called Spirit Assessment that is still prevailing in other parts of China, are optional.
Cut meetings and documentations
The Education Bureau forbids nonemergency meetings with principals in the bureau from Monday to Thursday every week, and cut 80 percent of all regulation documentations in the two years.
The newly established Principal Cabinet system allows principals to form and recruit their own leadership team, rather than having government appoint them as it previously did.
These reforms are having real impacts. "Now I no longer have to bother too much about those irrelevant governments assessments. I have much more time with my teachers and students, and I can focus on those issues that matter most for our students' academic and personal development," reports the middle school principal.
How can cities like Zhangjiagang be the pioneers for such big reforms? Economically, the free trade zone in Zhangjiagang's harbor has allowed the city to enjoy rapid economic development and urbanization in the past decade. Its GDP per capita had already reached 23,000 US dollars in 2011, far more than the national average of 5,423 US dollars in the same year. The emerging middle class in the city has increasingly demanded higher quality and more individualized public education for their kids. This pushes the government to reduce intervention into school affairs and lets principals have more time and freedom to develop schools' education quality. In addition, Zhangjiagang is in a region where economic opening up happened earlier than inner provinces, and this nurtures a culture that is more open to new ideas.
What might be even more important for many such Chinese government innovation reforms is the government leadership's role. Despite the decentralization reform initiated by the bureau director, institutionally, he holds much centralized power. It's lucky of Zhangjiagang's education system to have such a progressive government leader, but not every city has a Mr. Shao.
It's hard to tell whether Zhangjiagang's decentralization reforms will last long, but indeed more and more such government innovations are happening in this country of 1.4 billion. These efforts will help the society become more open, and ultimately may in turn lead to bigger institutional change.