Let’s accept for a moment that Amy Chua is right. Let’s accept that Chinese children are, indeed, brought up in a manner that produces “stereotypically successful” kids. Let’s accept that these kids are a source of pride for their parents — but let’s understand that they also pose one of the biggest challenges for China.
When executed properly, Chua’s methodology produces children who can be indispensible mid-level bureaucrats. Just as in great bureaucracies, her children obey her rules and live up to her expectations. In school, those expectations are grades; at work, it is performance; in society, it is money. I have no doubt that her children excel and will excel in all of their endeavors. Like Chua notes, this system churns out Ph.D.s, doctors, scientists, lawyers and the like; people who are great at following rules, meeting deadlines and receiving good performance evaluations.
But in a bureaucracy, the smart ones learn — sooner or later — that they can break rules as long as they don’t get caught and, more importantly, as long as they don’t challenge the authority. According to this framework, her children have a bit more learning to do. That’s right, Lulu. If you want to sleep over at your friend’s house, sneak out in the middle of the night and come home before Mom wakes up. Look angelic at breakfast and pray she never finds out. There’s no need to talk back.
Educated Chinese people as a whole are not necessarily an obedient or moral people — just look at the rampant Intellectual Property Rights infringement, or the levels of corruption in the government. Despite the highly touted Chinese education, the predominant drive for people is money. People will break any laws and rules if they can make money and get away with it. China might have a low crime rate, but petty and undocumented crime is ubiquitous. As long as you don’t challenge the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), there are good times to be had in the bureaucratic web of Chinese society. When mothers champion the individualistic pursuits of their children at the expense of team participation (think Chua’s no-playdate rule), at best children become boring bureaucrats and at worst, ladder-climbing megalomaniacs.
Approval from authority is more important than accountability to peers.
But where did Mom get her ideas about education anyhow? The Confucian framework that so strongly influenced China and other Asian nations is widely noted for its emphasis on education. It is no surprise that Confucian tradition was developed under — and for — one of the most bloated bureaucracies in the world.
Conversely, American culture, from its foundations in Protestantism to its ideas of individual liberty, is the antithesis of Chinese bureaucratic culture. The American Revolution is the shining debut of the quintessential American spirit. America originated and succeeded from its ability to critique, challenge and overthrow political, economic and religious bureaucracies. Over the short history of the country, that spirit manifested itself in innovation, diversity, and overwhelming economic success.
In writing for an audience that is inherently at odds with the concept of raising bureaucratic minions, Chua should not have expected anything less than 100 pages of skeptical comments on the Wall Street Journal website. What is perhaps more ironic is that she has become the Public Enemy No. 1 of misrepresented Chinese mothers across the world.
For the Chinese, bureaucracy has certainly served them well over thousands of years. And yet, the CCP realizes that changes must be made. Premier Wen Jiabao recently, bravely and honestly described China as “unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated, and unsustainable.”
True to form, China has not just prioritized, but has decreed and mandated “innovation.” It has become the world leader in Research and Development, and will lead in patent applications by 2015. But you cannot demand individuals to innovate. When an entire race of mothers raises their children to live up to Confucian expectations, and most importantly, to never challenge the status quo, how can you expect to turn A-students into Bill Gates’s and Mark Zuckerbergs?
Don’t get me wrong. China owes its economic miracle to entrepreneurial success, but the entrepreneurs of China are the exception that proves the rule. Because they tend to be less educated and lack college degrees, entrepreneurs undertake more industrial and manufacturing projects, with fewer forays into real innovation and technology.
Recently, Shanghai’s educational success made international headlines. But most of the jobs are in manufacturing and not for a knowledge-based job market, so China’s biggest unemployment problem is not that of blue collar workers (like the United States), but of recent graduates. The state can invest in Research and Development and make the patent application process as easy as it wants, but these top-down measures will not translate into real industrial change until the culture changes. Well-behaved, Confucian students need to translate their education into innovation, get into the high-tech and service industries, create jobs for their peers, and change “Made in China” to “Created in China.” It is not merely an educational challenge; it is also a challenge of historical values.
In the past, bureaucracy made China a great nation; in the future, it can only hold China back. Even more ironic is that the bureaucrats of the CCP might depend on the innovative minds of the unorthodox to keep their own jobs and salaries intact.
Whether or not China can successfully transition into “The Next China,” as Professor Stephen Roach likes to say, is dependent on its ability to shift from manufacturing to innovating. Even if we agree that Chua’s assumptions are right, she is still wrong. Her educational philosophy might be ideal for the last 5000 years of Chinese history, but its success has rendered it obsolete. It can foster successful mid-level bureaucrats, but not entrepreneurs or innovative and independent thinkers.
Chua herself may be a Chinese Mother and a Yale Law School professor, but at the end of the day she is the type to succeed only in “The Old China”: a mid-level bureaucrat.