Wed afternoon I heard a Taiwanese friend describe development in Shenzhen as “slow”!? Not slowing, but slow. My friend referred to the cultivation of talented people (人才). She pointed to how poorly Shenzhen students do on the college entrance exam to prove her point. 30 years into reform and a real city would have produced top scholars. She added that people who migrate to Shenzhen are go-getters (loose translation of 勤奋), but not cultured.
Bracketing a discussion of the way the gaokao quota system works and Guandong students’ limited options, my friend’s impression of education in Shenzhen is interesting because many of the students I work with will study abroad at top universities. This semester, for example, one of my students has been accepted to Cornell early decision and another accepted to Cambridge. I also know that top American universities now include Shenzhen schools on their Asian campus visits. Indeed, rumor has it that many of the best Shenzhen students use their high school senior year to prepare to study abroad, rather than cramming for the college entrance exam.
In other words, as soon as possible, Shenzhen students opt out of the Chinese system and their parents fund a major flow of talented young people abroad. All this to say, Shenzhen’s middle class and nouveau riche may be merely hardworking, but clearly they have elite aspirations for their children. I don’t know how relatively fast or slow this reorientation of the educational system has been, but I do know that the numbers of Shenzhen students studying abroad has grown steadily and will continue to grow in the foreseeable future. Moreover, I know many to be bright, creative, and capable of enriching wherever it is they ultimately decide to contribute their talents. Seen in this light, Shenzhen may be raising global, rather than national intellectuals. Lucky world.