Authorities in Shanghai have canceled primary school English exams in a bid to lighten the burden on children and parents, amid growing calls for English to be de-emphasized in China’s state schools.
The Shanghai municipal government education bureau announced last week that primary school students should only have to sit final exams in Chinese and math, while other subjects will be subject to teacher evaluation with no test score.
High school students in the city will sit fewer exams, focusing only on Chinese, math, and English, while science will be assessed in the laboratory, and history and geography tested using open-book examinations.
Schools are also banned from using textbooks published overseas that haven’t been reviewed and approved by the the city education bureau’s textbook review committee, the government said in a statement.
There are signs that the move may be part of a concerted shift in emphasis on the part of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) away from English amid a trade war with the United States and growing friction with liberal democracies over Beijing’s human rights record.
The changes in Shanghai come after Xu Jin, a leader of China’s parliamentary advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), said publicly that only around one in 10 students actually needed the English they learned.
Peking University professor Yao Yang has also called for English to be removed from the current college entrance exam, or gaokao, as its inclusion disadvantages students from rural areas with less access to teaching and resources.
A Shanghai-based parent who gave only the pseudonym Zhang said she didn’t think the ban was a good idea, given the extent of the city’s international connections.
“If English is still going to be taught, how do you assess a child’s attainment in English?” Zhang said. “There will be ways to do that.”
Zhang Qiaofeng, a veteran home educator and graduate of Peking University, said the changes in Shanghai could be rolled out nationwide, if deemed effective.
“Parents in China are keen to see quick results and instant benefits … so they will pay less attention to English,” Zhang said. “In an exam-oriented system, parents just care about test scores.”
He said parents in Shanghai who want their children to study abroad will likely still find ways to measure their kids’ attainment, including international tests like IELTS and TOEFL.
Meanwhile, the language app Duolingo has been removed from some app stores in China, the company said on Aug. 5.
Duolingo could not be downloaded on Android app stores operated by companies such as Huawei Technologies and Tencent Holdings following the announcement, although it was still available on Apple’s Chinese app store.
A political decision
Zhang Qiaofeng said the de-emphasizing of English-learning across China was likely political.
“It’s education with Chinese characteristics,” he said.
Recent figures from the ministry of education showed that Chinese parents spent nearly 164 billion yuan on helping their kids keep up with compulsory English classes in 2017.
But an incoming ban on out-of-school tutoring will likely have a huge impact on that figure for 2021, as around 68 percent of the tutoring industry in Shanghai was given over to English teaching, according to figures from March 2021.
The Shanghai education bureau also announced the launch of an official textbook, the Xi Jinping Thought Reader, in schools from the forthcoming fall semester.
Veteran political journalist Gao Yu said the new policies appeared aimed at raising a new generation of Red Guards, the youthful political activists of the Mao-era Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
“Chinese students have always been forced to memorize political theory in this way,” Gao told RFA. “Back in the day, we had to learn Mao Zedong Thought. Now it’s Xi Jinping Thought.”
“This mode of education is lifted straight from the Mao Zedong era … during which students were turned into Red Guards,” she said.
Gao said she believes the education policies are part of Xi Jinping’s plan to decouple the Chinese economy from that of the United States.
“Xi is getting ready to decouple from the U.S., so everything to do with the U.S. is the enemy now,” she said. “China is getting ready to shut itself off … leading to a full-on decline, including in education.”
“There’ll be no freedom of thought,” Gao said.
Gambling with China’s future
Sweden-based translator Wan Zhi agreed.
“He is gambling with China’s future,” Wan said. “If China closes its doors to the outside world, that will be catastrophic.”
“What Xi Jinping is contemplating right now is a return to the Cultural Revolution,” he said. “There are many within the CCP who oppose this, but none of them dare to speak out against him.”
Repeated calls to the Shanghai municipal bureau of education rang unanswered during office hours.
An employee who answered the public hotline to the ministry of education in Beijing referred all queries to the ministry’s official website.
A July 8 statement on the website said all schools will be required to use the “Xi Jinping New Era Student Reader on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics” starting in the fall semester.
“The reader is an important textbook for students to learn Xi Jinping’s thoughts on socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era, and an important carrier to promote an integrated foundation for ideological and political courses in primary, secondary, and tertiary education,” the statement said.
Students using the textbooks will “gradually form an identity and build the self-confidence and self-awareness to be able to support the leadership of the party,” it said.