Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Free Market in China

    I must say at the beginning that I am not an expert on China. I have just observed Chinese people for three weeks, and I have made short visits to China before.

    The question “how free?” is very important to me and to many people. In many countries, such as Syria and Egypt, citizens dissatisfied with their level of freedom have come into the streets and risked their lives to demand more. Our own politics revolves around questions of how free the market should be. So how free is the market in China?

    For many people in the US, the fact that China is ruled by the Communist Party provides a ready-made answer – communism is the opposite of freedom. Like most simple responses to complex questions, that answer is of little use. Freedom is not yes or no, black or white, but a broad spectrum of rights and limitations. Communism, like democracy, comes in many forms. I offer these observations about market freedoms in China.

    Chinese are free to buy the same variety of goods and services that we are. I saw all the familiar global brands here: KFC, Rolex, Levis and Toyota. There appear to be few rules about selling. People sell from stores, from carts on bicycles, from blankets on sidewalks. As I walked around Beijing looking un-Chinese, many men tried to sell me rides in pedicabs or tours of the Great Wall. I don’t think it was a sign of my attractiveness that young women tried to sell me their company, following me until I had said “no” a dozen times.

    State-supported capitalism is everywhere. On the long train ride from Beijing to Kaifeng, uniformed railroad employees insistently hawked various products to a captive audience, including a “traditional Chinese medicine”, a crude vacuum device to put on the skin to “cure various diseases”.

    Making and spending money may be freer in China than in the US. We have a much more highly developed set of legal regulations about how products must be manufactured and sold, especially where consumer safety is concerned. A persistent problem in China is adulteration of food products. Recent scandals about unhealthy ingredients in powdered milk have caused better-off people to order foreign baby formula over the internet.

    Manufacturers and consumers are also more free to pollute than in the US. Factories pour poisons into rivers, and cars spew so much particulate matter into the air that Chinese cities are blanketed in a permanent haze.

    The greatest freedom appears to be enjoyed by drivers, unhindered by stoplights, pedestrians, or what we would consider common courtesy. While most drivers of cars usually obeyed internationally accepted rules of the road, apparently anything goes for motorcycles and scooters. For my own safety, I quickly learned always to give way, wherever I was, whoever had the green.

    Information is not as free. In my hotel rooms, I could only get Chinese TV channels, all controlled by the government, although CNN was broadcast on big screens in one hotel restaurant.

    Politics is less free. All political decisions are tightly controlled by the Communist Party. Protesting political authority is not impossible, as many news reports have demonstrated, but it takes courage and might be dangerous.

    In the center of Beijing, police are everywhere, especially around Tiananmen Square, site of the largest modern mass protests in China in 1989, which were repressed with violence. More generally, this is a highly policed society, with uniformed men, parking attendants, and others whose jobs I could only guess at on every street. These people provide security, for the citizen against crime and for the government against opposition. They can be both comforting and threatening.

    A free market and free politics don’t necessarily go together. Freer political systems, where citizens can exercise some control over the economy, usually lead to restrictions on the market in the public interest. Complete freedom of big business, whether owned privately, as in the US, or controlled by the government, as in China, means less freedom for average citizens to enjoy safe working conditions, a clean environment, and healthy products. The free economic market in China is exciting, as is their traffic, but I’ll take our regulated system any time.

Steve Hochstadt
Springbrook, WI
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 24, 2012

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Open Versus Closed Education

    When I visited the campus of Henan University in Kaifeng, China, it was final exam time. As I walked toward the library, I could see many students studying on the steps. But when I got closer, I could hear the increasing buzz of many voices. On the sidewalks, in the hallways, and even on the athletic fields, hundreds of Chinese students were talking to themselves. I had to ask what was going on.

    They were preparing for their exams by reciting lessons from the books they were holding. Chinese education has traditionally emphasized memorization. Students listen to lectures and read texts in order to absorb information, which will be repeated at exam time. European universities have also relied primarily on lecturing and listening.

    At small colleges across the US, like Illinois College, a different type of learning happens. From their first day on campus, students are encouraged to think for themselves, to ask questions, to wonder why. The ideal educational setting is not the lecture hall, but the seminar room, where students must take responsibility for their own education. The readings they have done and the lectures they have heard represent only the first step.

    While knowing some facts is necessary in every field, learning how to evaluate evidence, solve new problems, and ask original questions are the crucial skills we try to impart. The goal of a liberal arts education is not mainly the accumulation of knowledge, but an understanding of how knowledge is created and the ability to create new knowledge by oneself. It emphasizes problem-solving over repetition of information. Only if students learn how to think will they be prepared to succeed in a world where knowledge is changing every day.

    Different educational philosophies have different political implications. Professors lecturing to hundreds of students dutifully and quietly taking notes reinforce a hierarchical system of authority and obedience, where the right people have the right answers. Lively discussion around a seminar table encourages equality and the value of individual opinions. This form of pedagogy is messy and can seem less efficient than memorizing the right answers. The lack of one right answer to every question can be confusing to those who seek simplicity in a complex world.

    The liberal arts pedagogical tradition developed alongside American democracy, and contributes to its continuing strength. It is now being copied in many European countries as a reaction against hierarchical educational systems, in which the professor is a mini-monarch in an authoritarian classroom.

    The liberal arts emphasis on skills does not go unchallenged in its American home. There are also people in the US who believe that education is about memorizing facts. Some people accept science only if it affirms answers they already know, and censor history if it does not tell the stories they favor. The conservative critique of American higher education is actually a complaint about the openness of the liberal arts tradition.

    Others emphasize facts because they insist on short-answer testing as the only way to maintain high standards in public schools. President Bush’s No Child Left Behind was based on continual testing and tended to transform curricula into teaching for particular tests. President Obama’s Race to the Top also relies heavily on tests to rate school systems. Because testing skills is much more difficult than testing knowledge, the more public schools are rated by tests, the more that teaching will focus on facts.

    Surrounding Henan University is a high fence with a few gates guarded by uniformed security personnel. You need an ID card just to enter the library. The university is a closed world, protected from wider society.

    The American liberal arts college is open. There are no fences to keep the public out. There are no obstacles to challenging professorial authority. There are no questions which may not be asked.

Steve Hochstadt
Springbrook, WI
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 17, 2012