Xiaobin LI

Formal education has shaped Chinese tradition for some 2,000 years since civil service examinations tested the knowledge of candidates applying for bureaucratic positions. Laws governing how education was administered for a growing general public, however, did not come in effect until the 1980s. Broad in scope at first, these laws are being amended as China works to improve its education system on all levels and to collaborate with private and international institutions.

The People’s Republic of China 中华人民共和国 has the largest education system in the world, with 260 million students receiving kindergarten, elementary, secondary, and higher education as of 2010 (MOE 2011). Understanding the tradition and long history that shaped this vast system, as well as the set of laws that governs its provision in the twenty-first century, is essential to understanding China itself.

The teachings and writings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius 孔子 (551–479 bce) have profoundly affected government, education, and culture in China for over two millennia. During the Han 汉 dynasty (206 bce–220 ce), the imperial government instituted the first civil service examinations (kējǔ kǎoshì 科举考试) to test candidates for bureaucratic positions based on their knowledge and ability instead of on their family connections; the Han Emperor Wu (140–87 bce) established a university to train officials in Confucian principles of government. Subsequent dynasties adopted the Han examination system with minimal variation: the Sui 隋 (581–618 ce) made the recruitment procedure more systematic, and the Tang 唐 (618–907 ce) administered rigorous tests on the Confucian classics to those interested in obtaining the highest-ranking posts. Although civil service examinations were not abolished until 1905 during the last imperial dynasty (the Qing 清, 1644–1911), no laws specifically governed Chinese education for centuries, and education remained the privilege of a minority of Chinese. Even after the Chinese nationalists and other uprising forces joined to overthrow the Qing court and then established the Republic of China 中华民国 in 1912, the new legal system made no provision for laws to administer education. With the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the number of people receiving education increased, but the development of education proceeded slowly. No specific law covering the provision of education would come into effect until the 1980s, soon after China’s opening to economic reform under Deng Xiaoping 邓小平.

Chinese Education Laws

From 1949 to 1978, almost all Chinese schools were public schools funded and administered by the government at various levels. In the early twenty-first century the vast majority of Chinese educational institutions remain public, but international schools operated by Chinese citizens in partnership with foreigners, private schools owned and operated by individuals and organizations, and cooperative schools operated by individuals and organizations in partnership with government also exist.

One of the main goals set in place during China’s opening was to transition from a resource- and labor-intensive economic growth model to one that is knowledge-intensive—one that depends on the brain power of its huge population (1.34 billion as of 2011, according to a United Nations report). In order to accomplish this, China recognized the need to expand preschool education, improve elementary education, universalize secondary education, and develop higher education.

In 2010 elementary education was universal in China, the vast majority of twelve- to eighteen-year-olds received secondary education, and the higher-education participation rate was about 26.5 percent. Altogether, there were 260 million Chinese in school, with an additional 3 million people receiving continuing education and other training. Over 263 million Chinese receive various kinds of education and training each year (MOE 2011). Laws passed in the early 1980s began to govern the vast number of institutions involved in China’s educational system. These laws stipulate how and to whom education is provided, how it is funded, and how it is administered.

General Legal Structure

Chinese education is regulated at the national level. The National People’s Congress 全国人民代表大会, the highest legislative body, has passed laws that govern the provision of education. At the next level down, the State Council 国务院 (with authorization from the National People’s Congress), has used the principles established in these laws to further direct institutions that provide education to various groups in society. The Ministry of Education has also mandated regulations and policies for educational institutions and provincial and county governments. Generally speaking, Chinese education laws are briefer and less detailed than those in North America.

The Constitution 宪法, passed in 1954 and amended several times since, is the highest law governing the People’s Republic of China. The latest amendment, Section 19, passed in the National People’s Congress on 14 March 2004, stipulates, “The state shall build and administer schools, make elementary education universal, develop secondary education, vocational education, higher education, and preschool education.” The amendment also directs the state to encourage collective enterprises, state-owned enterprises and institutions, and other social groups to build and develop educational institutions according to the law.

The following overview of education laws in China does not cover Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao.

Specific Laws

The Education Act 教育法, which came into force in September 1995, is the overall law governing education in China. Following principles set forth in the Constitution, the Education Act was proposed to foster education, raise the educational level of all citizens, and create a society with material and spiritual ideals based on socialist values. The Act stipulates that it shall apply to all educational institutions at all levels in the country. It states that education is the basis on which to realize and serve socialist modernization; it also holds that education should include productive labor activities and help students become morally, intellectually, and physically developed builders and successors of the socialist cause. It guarantees that the state will consider education a priority, and expects that society as a whole should value education, support its development, and respect teachers.

The Degree Ordinance 学位条例 was passed in 1980 and amended in 2004. It lays out the requirements for receiving bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees.

The Compulsory Education Act 义务教育法, passed in 1986 and last amended in 2006, requires the state to implement a nine-year compulsory education policy for all children from grades one through nine. It holds that all children are entitled to this education, regardless of their race, ethnicity, family wealth, or religion. It charges the state with guaranteeing the funding to implement this policy, forbids the charging of tuition and incidental fees for compulsory education, and requires parents and guardians of school-age children to ensure that children attend and complete school.

The Teachers’ Act 教师法was passed in 1993 and has been in force since 1 January 1994. It stipulates that governments at all levels shall adopt measures to strengthen teachers’ ideological and political education and their professional development, improve their working and living conditions, safeguard their legal rights, and raise their social status. It stipulates that average teacher salaries shall be equal to, or higher than, average salaries of public servants. It also specifies that teachers are to abide by the Constitution and other laws, follow professional ethics standards, and act as role models.

The Vocational Education Act 职业教育法 became effective on 1 September 1996 and was enacted under the provisions laid out in the Education Act and the Labour Act 劳动法. It states that vocational education is an essential component of education, and an important means of promoting economic and social development and increasing employment. It requires the state to develop and improve the quality of vocational education, promote reform in vocational education, and make efforts to establish and perfect a vocational education system that meets the needs of a socialist market economy and promotes social progress.

The Higher Education Act 高等教育法, effective since 1999, states that the task of higher education is to promote socialist modernization through the cultivation of creativity and advanced specialized skills that support the development of science, technology, and culture. It requires the state to support economic and social development by expanding higher education, building institutions of higher learning, and adopting a variety of approaches to promote higher education. It also requires the state to take measures that help ethnic minority students and students with financial obstacles receive higher education.

The Private Education Promotion Act 民办教育促进法 was passed in 2002 and took effect on 1 September 2003. Its purpose is to promote the development of private education as provided for by the Constitution and the Education Act, and it applies to all educational institutions that do not receive state funding but instead rely on organizations and individuals for financial support. It states that private educational institutions contribute toward the public good and are part of the socialist education sector.

Regulation on Chinese-Foreign Collaborative Education

China is learning how to integrate its economy into the world economy from the experiences of developed countries around the world, and establishing international schools that adopt curricula from developed countries is one way to do this. Chinese citizens and foreigners operate some of these international schools jointly, and these entities accept the children of foreigners working in China as well as Chinese children whose parents enroll them. There are also universities operated through partnerships between a Chinese university and a foreign university. In 2004 the Ministry of Education promulgated the Regulation on Chinese-Foreign Collaborative Education 中外合作办学条例实施办法 to cover these international schools and universities; it states that the government encourages select foreign educational institutions to form partnerships with Chinese institutions.

Future Outlook

As of 2011 the Ministry of Education is working with the People’s Congress to amend the Education Act, the Degree Ordinance, the Compulsory Education Act, the Teachers’ Act, and the Higher Education Act. It is also in the process of establishing four new statutes that will provide additional guidelines on how education is to be provided: the School Act 学校法, the National Education Examination Act 考试法, the Lifelong Learning Act 终身学习法, and the Educational Investment Act 教育投入法. In general, the trend is toward a greater number of laws that provide more specific coverage and application.

Further Reading

Dahlman,Carl; Zeng Zhihua; & Wang Shuilin. (2007). Enhancing China’s competitiveness through lifelong learning. Retrieved January 26, 2012, from http://info.worldbank.org/etools/docs/library/242762/ChinaLLL2007.pdf

Hayhoe, Ruth, & Zha Qiang. (2006). China. In Philip G. Altbach & James J. F. Forest (Eds.), International handbook of higher education. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

Ma Wanhua. (2009). The prospects and dilemmas of Americanizing Chinese higher education. Asia Pacific Education Review 10(1), 117–124.

Ministry of Education (MOE). (2004). Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo zhongwai hezuo banxue tiaoli shishi banfa [The Regulation on Chinese-Foreign Collaborative Education in the People’s Republic of China]. Retrieved January 21, 2012 from http://www.moe.edu.cn/publicfiles/business/htmlfiles/moe/moe_621/201005/88508.html

Ministry of Education (MOE). (2011). Zhongguo jiaoyu gaikuang – 2010 nian quanguo jiaoyu shiye fazhan qingkuang [Chinese education—2010 national education development statistics]. Retrieved January 22, 2012, from http://www.moe.gov.cn/publicfiles/business/htmlfiles/moe/s5990/201111/126550.html

National Bureau of Statistics of China. (2002). 89.5% de renqingxin waiguo gaodeng jiaoyu [89.5% respondents interested in foreign higher education]. Retrieved January 26, 2012, from http://www.stats.gov.cn/tjfx/rddc/t20020531_21041.htm

National People’s Congress. (1993). Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo jiaoshifa [The People’s Republic of China Teachers’ Act]. Retrieved January 26, 2012, from http://www.moe.gov.cn/publicfiles/business/htmlfiles/moe/moe_619/200407/1314.html [in Chinese] and http://www.moe.gov.cn/publicfiles/business/htmlfiles/moe/moe_2803/200907/49852.html [in English]

National People’s Congress. (1995). Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo jiaoyufa [The People’s Republic of China Education Act]. Retrieved January 26, 2012, from http://www.moe.gov.cn/publicfiles/business/htmlfiles/moe/moe_619/200407/1316.html [in Chinese] and http://www.moe.gov.cn/publicfiles/business/htmlfiles/moe/moe_2803/200905/48457.html [in English]

National People’s Congress. (1996). Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo zhiye jiaoyufa [The People’s Republic of China Vocational Education Act]. Retrieved January 26, 2012, from http://www.moe.gov.cn/publicfiles/business/htmlfiles/moe/moe_619/200407/1312.html [in Chinese] and http://www.moe.gov.cn/publicfiles/business/htmlfiles/moe/moe_2803/200907/49983.html [in English]

National People’s Congress. (1998). Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo gaodeng jiayufa [The People’s Republic of China Higher Education Act]. Retrieved January 26, 2012, from http://www.moe.gov.cn/publicfiles/business/htmlfiles/moe/moe_619/200407/1311.html [in Chinese] and http://www.moe.gov.cn/publicfiles/business/htmlfiles/moe/moe_2803/200905/48454.html [in English]

National People’s Congress. (2002). Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo minban jiaoyu cujinfa [The People’s Republic of China Private Education Promotion Act]. Retrieved January 26, 2012, from http://www.moe.gov.cn/publicfiles/business/htmlfiles/moe/moe_619/200407/1317.html [in Chinese] and http://www.moe.gov.cn/publicfiles/business/htmlfiles/moe/moe_2803/200907/48442.html [in English]

National People’s Congress. (2004). Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo Xianfa [The People’s Republic of China Constitution]. Retrieved January 26, 2012, from http://www.moe.gov.cn/publicfiles/business/htmlfiles/moe/moe_905/200506/8607.html [in Chinese] and http://www.npc.gov.cn/englishnpc/Constitution/node_2825.htm [in English]

National People’s Congress. (2004). Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo xuewei tiaoli [The People’s Republic of China Degree Ordinance]. Retrieved January 26, 2012, from http://www.moe.gov.cn/publicfiles/business/htmlfiles/moe/moe_619/200407/1315.html [in Chinese] and http://www.moe.gov.cn/publicfiles/business/htmlfiles/moe/moe_2803/200907/49967.html [in English]

National People’s Congress. (2006). Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo yiwu jiaoyufa [The People’s Republic of China Compulsory Education Act]. Retrieved January 26, 2012, from http://www.moe.gov.cn/publicfiles/business/htmlfiles/moe/moe_619/200606/15687.html [in Chinese] and http://www.moe.gov.cn/publicfiles/business/htmlfiles/moe/moe_2803/200907/49979.html [in English]

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (2011). Education at a glance 2011: OECD indicators. Retrieved January 26, 2012, from http://www.oecd.org/document/2/0,3746,en_2649_39263238_48634114_1_1_1_1,00.html

Sheng Lianxi. (2008). Xiandai yuancheng jiaoyu de fazhihua wenti tanjiu [Exploring the establishment of a legal system to regulate contemporary distance education]. Modern Distance Education Research 6, 5–8.

Shin, Jung Cheol, & Harman, Grant. (2009). New challenges for higher education: global and Asia-Pacific perspectives. Asia Pacific Education Review 10(1), 1–13.

Tan Xiaoyu. (2007). Guanyu dangqian woguo jiaoyu falu zhiding yu xiuding de fali lixiang [Jurisprudential considerations on enacting and amending Chinese education laws]. Chinese Educational Law Review 5, 186–200.

United Nations Development Programme. (2011). Human development report 2011 Sustainability and equity: A better future for all. Retrieved January 26, 2012, from http://hdr.undp.org/en/media/HDR_2011_EN_Complete.pdf

Source: Li Xiaobin. (2012). Name of Article (sentence case). In Zha Qiang (Ed.), Education in China: Educational history, models, and initiatives. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.