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Creativity vs control: tensions in Chinese educational policy

4. Sep 2023

By Naja Morell Hjortshøj, PhD fellow, Aarhus University, Institute of Culture and Society

For the past decade, the Chinese state has promoted the development of “mass entrepreneurship” by requiring all higher education institutions offer courses in innovation and entrepreneurship. But innovation and entrepreneurship requires creativity, critical thinking, and independence, characteristics seemingly at odds with government efforts to promote loyalty to the party-state.

How is this tension resolved in practice? How does the party-state reconcile these competing goals? What are the consequences for students who want to pursue careers as entrepreneurs? I conducted one year of ethnographic fieldwork in Chinese universities to explore these questions.

Former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang launched the government’s “mass entrepreneurship and mass innovation” (dazhong chuangye wanzhong chuangxin大众创业 万众创新) campaign with a speech at the World Economic Forum in September 2014. Li Keqiang called for the liberation of creativity in society and said everyone should be able to engage in entrepreneurship. The campaign was soon promoted widely, and in 2016, it became mandatory for all Chinese higher education institutions to offer courses in innovation and entrepreneurship. Central government documents state that the purpose of these courses is to develop students’ ability to think creatively, critically, and independently.

At the same time, Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed a desire to establish a “modern world-class education system with Chinese characteristics”. This vision entailed that all Chinese university students must develop the “correct” moral and political values, meaning they must learn the value of serving their country, while becoming sincere, hard-working, and diligent.

In the Chinese university where I conducted my research, entrepreneurship and innovation courses were often taught as guest lectures from “successful” individuals. The guest speakers were entrepreneurs, investors, and businesspeople, presented as role models of how to practice innovation and entrepreneurship in the real world. Usually, they were charismatic and self-confident people who urged the students to discover what they were genuinely passionate about in life. They also encouraged students to look inwards and to go through a process of self-exploration, for example by writing a diary or taking a gap year abroad.

In general, these “successful” individuals advised students not to listen to what their parents and peers thought they should do, but focus on their own interests. While the guest speakers encouraged students to pursue their inner passions, however, they also made it clear that they must comply with the “correct” values in life, including responsibility, diligence, and persistence.

For example, one guest speaker claimed that he had acquired the skills to become a successful investor by reading the same book 10 times in two weeks, and solving over a thousand business cases on his own. “When a person is able to study, they can overcome anything,” he said.  

The Chinese state used these guest speakers to show that there is no tension between acting as autonomous, self-driven, and entrepreneurial citizens on the one hand, and behaving morally “correctly” and serving the nation on the other.

If this is how the government attempts to overcome its seemingly contradictory goals, how is this tension perceived by students?

Even though the government aims to cultivate “mass entrepreneurship”, only 3.71% of Chinese students in higher education actually choose this career path. During my fieldwork, I interviewed nine students who came from all over China and had widely different family backgrounds. All wanted to pursue careers as entrepreneurs.

These students did not see any tension between showing loyalty to the party-state and being creative. In fact, similar to the guest speakers, they spoke about entrepreneurship as a way to pursue their own passions and engage in something they found truly meaningful. To this end, they were keen on exercising pressure on themselves to achieve success. Some of the students were fascinated by the guest speakers, whom they praised for their ability to practice self-discipline and contribute to societal development.

One of these students was Wang Yong, whose entrepreneurial dream was to establish a resort in a beautiful natural setting, where Chinese young people could spend time and receive psychological counselling. He developed this idea after one of his friends committed suicide due to depression and he wanted to help people in similar situations. Wang Yong explained that if he pursued a ‘normal’ career and worked for a regular company after finishing university, he would end up spending all his time stuck in an office, being forced to work from 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week – often also called ‘996’. This kind of work schedule, he said, would constrain his freedom and flexibility to explore his own entrepreneurial ideas.

In recent years, the ‘996’ work culture has been widely criticized on Chinese social media. In an environment where competition for positions is fierce, many young people feel that they are forced to deal with unfair work conditions to avoid being replaced by their peers. Generally, the students I met described entrepreneurship as an alternative to pursuing a ‘996’ work life. Even though they were not afraid of engaging in a competitive environment, they believed that working ‘996’ would make them subject to the control of their bosses. By contrast, they imagined that entrepreneurship would enable them to take control of their own time, providing a path to well-being and happiness.

The students often stated that their aim was to contribute productively to the nation, and some of them had won official entrepreneurship competitions for their products. They were therefore able to reconcile the competing goals of showing loyalty to the party-state and being innovative. At the same time, their motivations for choosing an entrepreneurial career path also differed from the state-propagated notion of entrepreneurship, since it reflected a critique of the job market and the consequences of there being too many graduates compared with number of jobs available.