Preparatory Programs and Preferential Education Policies in Northwest China


A review of Education as Tautology: Disparities, Preferential Policy Measures and Preparatory Programs in Northwest China, by Naomi C.F. Yamada.

In recent years, escalating ethnic tensions have given China added challenges regarding the provision of education to its ethnic minority members. Education as Tautology: Disparities, Preferential Policy Measures and Preparatory Programs in Northwest China timely and informatively demonstrates the rationale and reality of China’s preferential policies through the lens of preparatory programs directed towards ethnic minorities in its Northwest. The author discusses the contradictions inherent in such preferential policies, as well as suzhi 素质 (quality) education, bilingual education, educational disparities, education inequality, Gaokao 高考 (College Entrance Examination) migrants and changing ethnicity for educational advantage, all with the support of empirical data from a multiplicity of methods, including individual interviews, focus groups, observation and field notes.

At the level of rhetoric, the author argues, the rationale of preparatory programs is to incorporate minority students from rural and autonomous areas into Chinese higher education (p. vi). In her explication, the state’s rationale goes like this: education, as stipulated in policy, as delineated by school administrators, as practiced by teachers and as understood by students, is a composite set of skills of cultural value (p. 24). Education is a path to becoming civilized and to becoming a socialized person. People who are less educated are therefore less civilized.

However, at the level of reality, she contests: this “education as tautology” rationale fails to acknowledge structural discrimination which is experienced by many ethnic minority students along their educational trajectories (p. 4, p. 21).  The structural discrimination in education is largely attributed to the fact that the Chinese system promotes a standardized education experience for diverse linguistic and cultural minority groups which favors mostly the dominant Han culture. In this sense, to be educated means to be civilized under Han Chinese cultural influence. As a result, the ethnic minorities are pushed into a disadvantageous position, as they lack relevant linguistic and cultural capital to achieve in Chinese schooling (Yang Miaoyan, Learning to be Ethnic: The Case of Tibetans in Minzu University of China. Hong Kong: The University of Hong Kong, 2014). The blindness of Han people to their systematic advantages of being part of the majority group has become a main source of their prejudice, discrimination and resentment toward ethnic minorities: believing that these lesser-qualified individuals from minority groups have deprived them of their chances of getting into tertiary education (p. 3). It also accounts for the institutional arrangement of preparatory classes as a transition period for ethnic minority students, during which the course contents are usually repetitions of what they have learned in high schools (p. 177).

Hence, contradictions exist between the levels of rhetoric and reality of preferential policies. Preferential policies have functioned to address contradictions that are concealed at the level of rhetoric (p. 8).  Although preferential policies are deemed to provide educational opportunities for ethnic minorities, these policies are resented by the Han majority. In order to gain a competitive edge, structural, ethnic and societal positions are individually maneuvered (p. 104).  For example, some Han students have changed their ethnicity intentionally for educational advantage; and some students, regardless of ethnicity, have migrated to provinces with comparatively lower Gaokao admittance requirements. One of the most paradoxical contradictions is that, although education has been identified by scholars as a “civilizing project” to socialize and integrate the ethnic minorities (Stevan Harrell, Cultural Encounters on China’s Ethnic Frontiers. University of Washington Press, 1996), in reality, “minority” is delineated as a different type of education (p. 105). As a result, for some ethnic minorities, state schooling has not cultivated a strong sense of national identity, but has promoted their sense of ethnic identity as a member of minority groups (Zhu Zhiyong, State Schooling and Ethnic Identity: The Politics of a Tibetan Neidi Secondary School in China. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007). Minority identity is closely related to language, rurality and bilingualism/trilingualism (p. 104). Although minority students from rural and pastoral areas are expected to be the main receivers of preferential policies, many of those who have benefited are in fact from urban families. Since ethnicity is the determining factor of enjoying preferential treatments, many Han people from the same minority regions with lower social status are deprived of such benefits. Hence, although preferential policies aim to minimize difference and assuage contradictions, their existence to some extent has created and consolidated contradictions (p. 24, p. 178).

To conclude, by critically examining the logic and practice of “education as tautology” in Northwest China, the author has acutely pinpointed the majority-centered way of educating the ethnic minorities while negating their own cultural values and strategically employing “development” as a solution to nearly everything related to “minority.” This contributes further to the Han blindness of the struggles and exclusion along the educational trajectories of minority students (Lin Yi, Cultural Exclusion in China: State Education, Social Mobility and Cultural Difference. London; New York: Routledge, 2008), within which contradictions between the majority and minority are manifested. This study, though situated in the context of China, has significant implications for reconceptualizing the role of the educational institution in the maintenance of inequality (p. 8). Education as Tautology: Disparities, Preferential Policy Measures and Preparatory Programs in Northwest China constitutes a significant reference point not only for researchers on China’s ethnic minority studies, but also for government officials who are designing and implementing preferential policies towards ethnic minorities. Moreover, the fact that this dissertation includes a large number of anecdotes makes it readable to non-specialists as well, especially those who lack basic understanding of China’s minority policies. Its publication as a book will be a crucial contribution to the field of Sociology of Education and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies.

Miaoyan Yang
Assistant Professor
Department of Sociology and Social Work
Xiamen University

Primary Sources
Interviews and focus groups with 52 people, including 19 teachers, 30 students and 3 administrators
Observation of the largest college preparatory program site in Xining, classes in two rural elementary schools on the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, one high school and one vocational school in Yushu Tibetan autonomous prefecture, one high school and one university in Xining, flag-raising ceremonies, recess and other items of quotidian interest at the school
Field notes

Dissertation Information
University of Hawaii at Manoa. 2012. 289 pp. Primary Advisor: Andrew R. Arno.

Image: National Day at a Chinese school with mostly Tibetan students. The yellow characters read “I love you,” and on either side, in depicted lanterns, are the words “Homeland” and “Mother.” Photograph by author.

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