- The Washington Times - Monday, May 13, 2002

BEIJING Sure, China has invented gunpowder, paper and the printing press, but what has it done since then?
Not enough, the communist leadership fears.
China has one of the world's largest and fastest-growing economies, but Beijing's aging leaders know their nation won't become a world superpower by forever churning out cheap T-shirts or even cars and cell phones. To thrive in the new economy, they say, they must be at the forefront of science and technology.
Yet China has produced no Nobel Prize winners and has made few scientific breakthroughs in the past century. It boasts the construction of an atomic bomb in the 1960s, but still is striving put a man in space.
To boost its international stature, Beijing has made scientific innovation one of its top priorities. To achieve that, analysts have turned their attention to what they believe is the root of the problem: a rigid educational system that robs children of their creativity.
"The science circles are paying attention to creativity, especially after we joined [the World Trade Organization]," said Zhai Liyuan, a physicist who heads the educational division at the China Association for Science and Technology. "China has very few patents registered in foreign countries and its overall innovative ability is low. If we continue to ignore the nurturing of creativity in later generations, it will be difficult for China to become strong."
The creativity gap has attracted attention at the highest levels. The Communist Youth League, the China Association for Science and Technology and the Ministry of Education formed a joint committee in 1998 to study the problem and later revised textbooks, retrained teachers and initiated some experimental "Western-style" science classes.
At the No. 2 Experimental Elementary School in western Beijing, a visitor can detect the first sign of something unusual even before entering the classroom: It's loud.
On a recent morning, fourth-graders were working in groups of four to study pendulum motion. Everyone was talking.
Started last fall, the American-inspired "hands-on" program encourages scientific exploration by having students conduct their own simple experiments and draw their own conclusions.
"There is no textbook," said Feng Hong, an administrator at the school. "The class emphasizes the process. Before, we only focused on the result."
Fostering creativity is the goal, but China's ultimate objective is the bottom line.
China has sent several delegations to India to try to understand the secret to the success of its software industry. It is the one area where India's economy far outpaces China's. India's nearly $8 billion in software exports last year dwarfed China's $600 million.
Writing good computer code requires a fair amount of creativity, and the Chinese have found that India gets its advantage partly from its school system. For now, the best-selling type of software in China is the pirated kind.
In fact, from car parts to handbags to computers, Chinese industries thrive by copying or using imported technology. The China Economic Times has quoted a drug-industry executive as saying 97 percent of chemical medicines produced by Chinese firms are copied products. They spend only 2 percent of their revenue on research and development. The report says China's pharmaceutical industry will not survive if it does not innovate.
That notion that overly formalized education has a negative effect on student creativity is accepted widely. Yet China's educational system, geared almost exclusively toward taking and passing tests a vestige of its imperial examination system is more strict than those of most other countries.
"The Chinese system cultivates obedient people," said Mr. Zhai of the science and technology association. "When I take students abroad for [science] competitions, I find a big difference between our students and foreign students."


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