Learning Cities in China

China writes a new chapter in the history of learning cities

China is the global leader in terms of number of learning cities, but China's policy in relation to learning cities also show that a learning city is not only about competitiveness, but also about social cohesion.

Professor Dr. SoongHee Han, Seoul National University, Korea
Professor Makino Atsushi, The University of Tokyo, Japan

China has written a new chapter in the history of the learning city in a global sense. Not only the speed of adaptation but also the enormous scale of the programme is incommensurate with those of other countries.
Most of the learning cities in China were launched in the 2000s. As a pioneer, Shanghai launched in 1999, and Beijing followed in 2001. Now, more than 60 cities have set up their goals for constructing a learning city and the development of learning cities has become a burgeoning phenomenon in the whole country.
In a short period of time, the programme has expanded very quickly and significantly. More than 100 national pilot programmes with 4,000 provincial initiatives are now changing the picture of city life. According to a survey by the Department of Vocational and Adult Education of the MoE, 114 national experimental or pilot learning communities have been organised in 30 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities. The number of pilot learning communities organised by provincial authorities exceeds 4,000.
In China the learning city programme and policy were implemented as a governmental instrument to meet the global challenges which increased local uncertainties in each country, by means of adapting the people’s self-governing participation towards the emergence of civil society. Under these circumstances, cities in China have been carrying out bold experiments for two decades in implementing the idea of learning cities, learning communities and learning towns, embedded in municipal ordinances and city planning committees.

Learning cities shifting purposes
To understand what these experiments and the recent change of policies are all about you need a historical perspective. Going back in time, China has since 1978 adopted the open door policy. Foreign capital flew into domestic markets, which propelled a market economy in coastal cities. These changes resulted in some key social issues: one concerns the regional discrepancies and social inequality between rural and urban areas, and between coastal cities and inland areas. The other is the changing nature of the large cities which are managed by the traditional top-down socialist administrative system.
Education, and, later, more specific the Chinese learning cities, was a key to win the labour market competition that followed with these changes. It once was a faithful social tool that led China to the gates of an industrial society; it now became a sensitive tool for social mobility. The dramatic economic development of China over the last twenty years was accompanied by the expansion of basic education and the people’s desire to access higher education. While the expansion of education provided a better-trained workforce for economic development, it now turned into academic credentialism that profoundly changed the rules of the game. The school certificate was a passport to prestige job markets, to which individual schools adapted themselves to attain advantages in the competition. As a result, increasing numbers of colleges and universities produced many overqualified college graduates with less job security.
Following the above, cities in China were gradually experiencing new problems that had never existed before, for which new kinds of solutions had to be found in relation to education. The inflow of domestic immigrants not only made the cities vast in terms of population, but also too heterogeneous to cohere into a unified entity of a community and made it necessary for these cities to find solutions to handle increasing discontent, in a balanced mode of socialism and a market economy.

Respect for “Shequ education”
To meet these increasing social problems, the Government of China developed two policy responses. One was the “propaganda policy”, which shifts the causes of the problems to the major “external factors”, threatening the government to remedy the gap and unequal opportunities. The other was the adaptation of the “new community management policy” since the year 2000.
The previous community management system had been based upon direct supervision by the government agencies located in local communities to manage community activities (which are called “unit activities”). But now the units were replaced by shequ, or sub-district-sized communities, as a residential service agency, permitting more autonomy and service functions for the residents, who were encouraged to participate more in community activities.
Community education (shequ education), associated with the policy of a learning city, was a key service programme that applied individual market orientation at community level. “Shequ education” is a two-sided coin. On the one hand, it is the government’s community management tool for increasing social integration by mobilising people who have prestige and community ownership. It helps increase the collectivity of local government. On the other hand, people use the available learning opportunities to develop a sense of ownership in the community and use it as a chance to raise the quality of life in the community. In this development stream, local governments changed their identity from being controlling bodies to being service units which mainly listen to the needs and voices of the residents who actually manage and evaluate the efficiency and effectiveness of the leadership of towns and cities.
The concept of “community” in this respect vividly demonstrates the “reversed” relations between the governing bodies and the people who have more autonomy. The degree of people’s satisfaction with community services comes as an ultimate indicator to measure the city’s success in administration and management; consequently the community administration depends upon the voices of residents. Cultural activities and community education, in this respect, gain more attention in representing the opinions of residents. It is what the “shequ education centres” were established for. 

Local governments becomes service centres
In sum, community education has two different aspects in Chinese society. First, it consolidates the status of local government by increasing the community’s role to ensure social integrity and also strengthens the residents’ sense of ownership in community activities. Second, it raises residents’ self-esteem and gives them an incentive for improving their quality of life by participating in various cultural activities and educational programmes.
The merging of these two different aspects – local government and the residents – under a new concept of community represents a clear transformation of the status and role of local government into a form of “service centre” that caters to the customers’ livelihood and desires. By consequence, the situation turns in the residents’ favour so that local governments seek to avoid failing to satisfy the desires of residents. This reversed relationship between local government and residents empowers the community to achieve more autonomy from higher-level bodies in the system of government. As residents strengthen their pivotal role in community decision making, the community administration provides services more geared to the desires of residents. Certainly it is interesting to see that cultural activities and community education are the key aspect which mobilises the people’s participation and eventually strengthens the administrative autonomy of communities despite their inferior position in the hierarchy of local administrative structure: city, borough or district, community. 

The need for local self-direction
By introducing “shequ education”, Chinese communities have started to move in the direction of securing local self-direction. Considering that the mismatch between the top organisations and the bottom ones cannot be avoided in the mixed situation of socialist politics and the market system, the self-determining capability of the bottom organisations is crucial in coping with consequent uncertainties. Indeed China is such a vast country that it is hardly possible for all communities to act in a common way, and local problems are met with local countermeasures. It is for this reason that community activities and education assume importance in providing fundamentals for establishing a strong basis of self-reliance in communities.
Communities leverage their fiscal self-reliance in strengthening their autonomy by attracting donations from local companies. This policy is also welcomed by the superior borough governments, since it reduces their obligations. Another change in the mode of administration is that some NGOs and NPOs now also participate in the consigned management of the community centres or other institutions, which has a considerable influence on the way in which the community is managed and governed. Although the government still directs communities in principle, the main characteristics are gradually changed to a sort of social welfare institution combined with resident organisations like NPOs and NGOs in strengthening communities as independent organisations for people.
Non-formal community educational provision absorbs the young unemployed and unskilled as well as the retired who need a decent life and leisure. In these activities, residents share their personal competencies and cultural collective intelligence to produce a new value system that can lead the community to create a new vision. In effect, this framework provides a good model for the learning city in China. The rapid adaptation of learning city policies in contemporary China also shows new possibilities of developing the learning city as a cultural tool in managing urban administration and recovering social stability.


Read more: 

Han, SoongHee; Makino, Atsushi (2013). Learning cities in East Asia: Japan, the Republic of Korea and China. International Review of Education.  59(4), 443-468. 

Carlsen, A., & Yang, J. (2013). Lifelong learning for all in China: Progress, lessons learned and the way forward. Unpublished paper. Hamburg: UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning.


Professor Dr. SoongHee Han, Seoul National University, Korea

Han SoongHee is Professor of Lifelong Education at the Department of Education, Seoul National University, Korea. His academic interests include comparative studies in lifelong learning, popular adult education and learning ecology. He is the co-coordinator of network 5 on Core Competences within the ASEM Education and Research Hub for Lifelong Learning.typo3/alt_doc.php?edit[tt_content][9118]=edit&columnsOnly=bodytext, rte_enabled&noView=0&returnUrl=/researchnetworks/corecompetences/rn5members/

Professor Makino Atsushi, The University of Tokyo, Japan

Makino Atsushi is a professor of lifelong learning in Graduate School of Education, The University of Tokyo, Japan. He is also a visiting professor of East China Normal University, Liaoning Normal University and Minzu University of China and so on. He is one of executive directors of Japan Education Research Association and The Japan Society for Studies in Adult and Community Education. He has been involved in the reform of administrative system and educational system, especially lifelong learning system of Japan’s national and local level government. He is strongly interested in the development of lifelong learning in the context of Japan’s social change and the emergence of the concept of key-competences or core-competences in the context of Japan’s society as de-centralizing and diversifying society.typo3/alt_doc.php?edit[tt_content][10387]=edit&columnsOnly=bodytext, rte_enabled&noView=0&returnUrl=/researchnetworks/nationalstrategies/rn4members/