In Beijing there is a secret market. The place is small, well-hidden and for foreigners only. I was lucky enough to find out about it through a friend of mine, who is a shopaholic. This is a place where you can buy high quality fakes of branded clothes for a fraction of what you would pay in official stores. The marketplace is located not far from the Temple of Heaven, on the third underground floor of a shopping mall behind two fake walls. To be exact, the first fake wall conceals a room where you find a wardrobe that you have to walk through to access the place you are looking for. Gucci bags, Hermes belts and Rolex watches are what you go there for.
What makes the place unique is the quality of the products you find. These are not cheap fakes, of the sorts you won’t struggle to find, but high-quality copies of luxury items. In a regular shop a pair of low quality Nike shoes could be purchased for 70 yuan (10 euros) after an intense haggling session, a replica of the same model will cost you 150 in the secret market, haggling is not allowed, and the quality will be comparable to the original product.
A couple of weeks after having discovered the place, having concluded one of my shopping sprees, I left the place feeling extremely satisfied. I had purchased Prada glasses for 300 yuan, a pair of which would have costed me 300 euros in an official store. To celebrate, I entered a 7/11 to buy a beer. To stay true to my philosophy of the day, I roamed around the aisles looking to the cheapest bottle they had. Having made my choice, and having settled for a Harbin brew, I went onto the counter to pay for it and that’s when I had a sudden realization. I looked at the receipt they had given me, the cost of the beer was 2 yuan, but I didn’t buy it from a 7/11, I was in an 8/12 shop.
I felt almost as if I was in a parallel reality. I had just purchased fake – but very good – Prada glasses from a hidden store and bought an original beer in what I considered to be a 7/11, which turned out to be a fake 7/11. I remained bewildered for the whole day, I had had two very different “fake” experiences. I consciously looked for the first one while I just happened to find myself in the second one.
Months later, having happily forgotten about the events of that day, they unexpectedly came back to me and I had a sudden epiphany. The copy culture was, at least in part, a product of China’s educational system.
I reached such a conclusion while I was babysitting two kids in Beijing, the daughters of Chinese friends. Their parents would relentlessly fill their days with extracurricular activities, that ranged from violin to advanced mathematics to English, all on top of their regular homework. Specifically, I would visit their house on the weekends to speak with the girls in English. However, I wasn’t free to talk to them about what I considered interesting or what they wanted to, I was required to strictly stick to specific lists of words. These were very strange words, of the sorts nobody would use in everyday life, but which could be very useful for a “fill in the blanks” section on any given exam. The parents’ priority was for them to mechanically memorize, rather than put words in context to create more organic links between hypothetical situations and words needed in those circumstances.
Something that struck me even more during those weekends was the weird way the two girls used to refer to each other: “four” and “six”. I could not understand why would anybody nickname their sister with a number, and at first I thought it was just a childish game. Things got even murkier when for three weekends in a row their nicknames kept changing, always to different numbers, and eventually settled on “five”, for both of them. I could not resist, I had to ask what was going on. It turned out that those numbers were their rankings in their respective classes, a measure used in their school to foster learning by contrasting everyone’s grades with those of their peers.
The idea, I’ve been told later by the parents, is to encourage those who are not doing so well by giving them clearly identifiable examples to follow, and publicly laude those who are performing better than the others. In practice, however, I noticed that this nurtured a climate of desperate competition, rather than learning. The girls, when talking about the “ones” and “twos” did not have particularly kind words for them.
To implement such a ranking system, and keep it up to date, pupils were kept under constant pressure both at school and at home. They had to perform on never ending strings of tests. Surprisingly I found that the parents of the two girls liked the system, or at least though that it was necessary, as it gave them an easy way to monitor their kids’ progresses.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a system in which children are subject to inhumane pressure and stress negatively reflects on one of the most needed skills in our globalized world, creative curiosity. In effect, the educational system in cahoots with parents does its best to supress it. In fact, even though most parents understand that it would be more beneficial to their kids’ overall happiness, and on occasion their mental stability, to give them more time to be simply kids, they see no whay out. The logic goes as follows: all parents around us are part of this vicious cycle and if we don’t take part in it our children’s future career will be in danger.
Two aspects need to be immediately underlined to tackle this situation. Not only research has shown that standardized testing stifles creativity and has the potential to hurt self-esteem, but even those who succeed – the Zhuanyangs, students that obtain the highest scores on their GaoKao exams (something akin to the SAT or the A-Levels) – rarely become successful scholars or business people, seldomly leading to breakthroughs in their respective fields. The reason behind it is that a test-culture is designed to examine a very narrow set of specific skills, that have to be clearly identified in advance and tested in “lab conditions”, requirements that are rarely satisfied in real life.
By the time Chinese boys and girls make it to university their mental schemes have already been shaped, and I clashed with this reality. As a matter of fact, throughout my year at Peking University, China’s best university, the most frustrating thing I had to face was the invisible wall between us, the foreigners, and them, the Chinese students. Something I refer to as the double bubble effect.
Over the months I’ve tried countless times to talk to PKU students educated in the Middle Kingdom. I’ve approached them in all sorts of occasions ranging from class breaks to cultural festivals to meal times, but the results were always the same, they seemed afraid to have a chat.
An easy explanation could be that I’m simply a boring person and I’ve got nothing to contribute, so let’s go with that.
To test this assumption, I talked to 15 westerners on PKU’s campus that had been there for a year, but had no previous experience of living in China. The results were staggering. All 15 told me that they did not manage to make friends with anyone from the Chinese student population.
I needed to dig deeper. I approached a Chinese girl who went to a Chinese school in Shanghai but later spent 4 years in the UK for her bachelor’s degree. I laid out the situation to her and she was not surprised in the slightest, in fact she had an answer ready for me as people had asked her the same question before. She told me that Chinese people have one fundamental reason why they don’t like interacting with foreigners, which leads to this double bubble effect.
We, the westerners, are simply too disagreeable. If there is something we don’t like about a situation we will point it out, we are ready to say “no”, and we will push ourselves and others out of their comfort zones to find a way out. She argued that Chinese youngsters see this trait as pervading our world view, and they will much more happily settle for a 没办法 (there is nothing to be done about it) approach. This becomes increasingly displeasing for Chinese people when a confrontational situation pushes multiple people out of their comfort zones, inevitably leading to the necessity of finding solution that deviate from the norm.
In my very view this is, at least partially, the result of China’s educational system. Since a very early age Chinese boys and girls have their life programmed for them to the minute. There is no time for exploration or hobbies, which in turn leads to diminished willingness to examine new possibilities with unforeseeable outcomes.
Given that before starting an educational activity, be it study for a test or practice to play Beethoven’s 9th symphony, the outcome you want to obtain is known precisely, your creativity is not engaged much. This is, I believe, where the copy culture stems from. It comes as a lot more natural to learn and reproduce even extremely complicated procedures, rather than explore alternative, out of the box approaches.
In conclusion, while China has been able to sustain its tremendous growth over the past decades by adapting foreign experiences to Chinese realities, which is in an of itself a form of innovation, in the coming decades fundamental chances need to be made to push the boundaries of innovation forward, not only by Chinese, but global standards. Arguably tackling the education system is one of the key priorities. In some exceptional cases, families that have enough financial resources have already tackled this problem. There is a growing trend to send kids to school abroad or to international schools within China. More interestingly, however, some Chinese schools have programs for kids that plan to go university abroad and they are not wired around the GaoKao system. For parents to pick such an extreme option requires a lot of determination, as their kids will not be able to access Chinese universities because they lack the necessary requirements.
Lastly, if China wants to become a fully developed nation by 2049, as the Chinese Communist party has promised, it has to maintain what’s positive about its educational system, strong work ethics and filial piety developed through parents’ involvement in the education process, while addressing the main downsides, an obsessively test-centric approach and the subsequent suppression of creative curiosity.