Can vocational education help China navigate out of the middle-income trap?

Society & Culture

At the heart of vocational education reform is also a grand experiment in social engineering.

Illustration for SupChina by Alex Santafe

Every April, the government of Jiangsu, a coastal province just north of Shanghai, holds a treacly ceremony for the region’s “Model Workers,” those who have made substantial contributions to the Chinese Communist Party’s modernization efforts. Since the 1960s, the Party has found meaning in the perfectly ordinary — individuals whose lives seem, on the surface, utterly unremarkable but for the winds of ideology and circumstance. In the Mao years, the model was a soldier: Comrade Léi Fēng 雷锋, the great icon of socialist dedication. Even after Dèng Xiǎopíng’s 邓小平 market reforms, models tended to hail from jobs of the “iron rice bowl,” the erstwhile socialist safety net that provided for civil servants, military personnel, and employees of state-owned enterprises. This year, in the Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 era, there were some changes to the roster: One awardee was an electrical engineer at an American manufacturer.

Zhèng Lěi 郑磊 is a senior electrical engineer at Black & Decker Suzhou Precision Manufacturing, a Maryland-based electronic tool maker of everything from power drills to coffee grinders. A father of two in his thirties, he eschewed college, which is de rigeur for China’s ruling elite, for a technical degree. (All seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest-ranking government body, have graduate degrees from top universities. The top two — President Xi Jinping and Premier Lǐ Kèqiáng 李克强 — even boast Ph.D.s.) Despite the fact that Zheng’s bosses report to a company in America, what clinched him the accolade was his educational pedigree: Zheng studied at Suzhou Industrial Park Institute of Vocational Technology, or IVT, one of just 21 vocational colleges in the country, according to the Ministry of Education. At IVT, Zheng’s teachers were not professors; they were part-time engineers. “Some of them even participated in national research projects,” he told the magazine Sanlian LifeWeek. “They didn’t just talk about theoretical things; they could come up with practical examples, too.”

In 2020, China’s vocational education system educated 16 million kids, or 40% of the high-school-age population. But only a tiny percentage, less than 10%, moved on to vocational colleges like IVT, which prepare graduates for high-tech manufacturing. As “strategic” industries like semiconductors and batteries take on geopolitical import, Beijing has come to the belief that its education sector needs more Zheng Leis. For decades, the expansion of higher education alongside the manufacturing economy left Chinese as cheap laborers or scholarly hopefuls. Now it needs something in the middle.

At Black & Decker, state media reports, Zheng applies machine learning to industrial processes using a cocktail of technological ingenuity that neither the academic wunderkind nor the average assemblyman could replicate. Most importantly, the media wrote, Zheng was happy. He “exceeded the average white-collar worker in standards of living, income, career fulfillment, and personal growth.” But if that’s the case, why aren’t there more Zheng Leis?

Universities are not producing the workers China needs

In the era of “Common Prosperity,” a certain upper-middle-class way of life has fallen into disrepute: the white-collar socialite of China’s coastal cities. Let’s call her Wáng Tíng 王婷, Zheng Lei’s inverse. In the fairytale dreams of most Chinese parents, Wang vaults out of the Chinese education system with impeccable scores on the gaokao (高考 gāokǎo), the national college entrance exams. She graduates from a top university, a so-called “985” school, and heads to the West for an advanced degree. Next, one of two things happen: Wang may never return to China, in which case she will have squandered all the resources the Party perceived it had invested in her. Or, if she does, she embarks on a path that seems destined to send China down the road of stagnation or decay: a job as a software engineer at a big tech company, as a high-flying, speculative banker, or as a jobless humanities grad who complains about “involution,” or social and professional stagnation. Finally, Wang has a kid — and the cycle repeats.

According to one theory, the flurry of crackdowns this year amounts to a moral indictment of the Wang lifestyle. Beijing has gone after Tencent, Alibaba, and other internet giants, curbed lending and speculative investments like cryptocurrencies, and proscribed displays of opulence among those of “excessively high incomes.” But the Party has also gone after the very reproductive organ of Chinese upward mobility: education. In June, a multibillion-dollar private tutoring industry was disappeared in an effort to reduce the homework burden on children and level the educational playing field. The result was that tutors who once taught precocious little Wangs English and other test subjects lost their jobs.

Private schools, another Wang incubator, were frozen in place after the State Council banned foreign investments and restricted income streams, with some local governments even placing caps on enrollment. In August, the most prestigious public schools lost their best teachers to a rotational program meant to promote more fairness. Through all of this year’s educational diktats, the only sector left unscathed was vocational schools.

This June, the Party’s top brass proposed the first major revision to the country’s vocational education law in 25 years, announcing their intention to elevate vocational training to equal status with general schooling. In the following months, the State Council, China’s highest administrative body, issued guidelines resolving to build a world-class vocational education sector by 2035. The result has been a torrent of investments: In Shenzhen, China’s crucible of high-tech innovation, the government has allocated over 26 billion yuan ($4 billion) to build 18,000 new vocational schools. Other provinces, including Shandong, Gansu, and Jiangxi, have announced similar investment plans. Some say China is embarking on the “German model,” where students are not all funneled into academia, but enter “dual training” apprenticeships that allow them to split their time between on-the-job training and schoolwork.

On the one hand, the revival of vocational education is the outcome of simple math. Since the rapid expansion of higher education in 1998 — an outcome of policies under then education czar Lǐ Lánqīng 李岚清 and the economic reformist Zhū Róngjī 朱镕基 — the number of Chinese college students ballooned, creating a structural imbalance in China’s job market: too many college grads and not enough skilled workers. By 2025, according to a recent state study, China’s manufacturing sector needs 30 million people to fill critical talent gaps, jobs that can’t easily be done by iPhone assemblymen. “What you had to do if you wanted to move up the economic ladder was to transition from cheap labor to skilled labor, going from people who work in factories to electricians, mechanics, technicians, and engineers,” said Jiāng Xuéqín 江学勤, an education consultant based in Chengdu. “China didn’t do that; instead, it tried to leapfrog.” Last year, only 1 million students graduated from a higher vocational training college like IVT. When there’s not enough Zheng Leis to go around, the result is a labor force made up of ill-equipped college graduates.

The asymmetry in labor is one of the central forces stymying China’s continued rise, a phenomenon that has come to be called China’s “middle-income trap.” For decades, as the Stanford scholar Scott Rozelle writes in his book Invisible China: How the Urban-Rural Divide Threatens China’s Rise, the newly modernized country was ferried along to “middle income” prosperity by a fateful alignment between Chinese labor supply and global demand: The world needed lots of cheap workers and China had lots of rural villagers. Now that supply has dried up. By 2016, “it was rare to see an able-bodied young man (or woman) in a rural village,” Rozelle writes. “There was simply no one left.” Wages are rising and factories are moving on to Southeast Asia. The challenge now is to upskill former migrant workers from villagers into engineers. Drop the Nike shoes, it’s time to make semiconductors.

Can Chinese parents imagine a world without elite universities?

On the other hand, vocational education reform can also be understood as a different kind of restructuring — social, not economic. Since 1999, a Chinese child’s most important barometer of success was his or her score on the gaokao, the ruthless testing system that determined the fate of every college-bound young adult. Over the years, the societal fixation on university placements birthed an education economy — of elite high schools, primary schools, after-school tutoring, and even kindergartens — that monetized test anxiety.

“It’s been a disaster for this country,” said Jiang, the education consultant. Test scores had become a shibboleth of Chinese life, forcing Chinese of all economic classes into a rat race with very few rewards. The competition is so fierce that it is no longer uncommon for “top” kindergartens in Shanghai today to hold wait lists for kids who have yet to be born.

A revamped vocational system, proponents say, is as much a moral victory as an economic one, a world that can better accommodate the inherent plurality of human passions. “If you have a system where most kids are being funneled into vocational colleges, then it’s really about making sure that a child discovers what he or she likes, as opposed to how she’s doing on one test,” Jiang said.

Frustration over the existing economic ladder is not unique to China. As globalization loses its luster, many advanced economies are experiencing a similar reckoning over the dignity of work and the value of tertiary education. In the U.S., where only 42% of Americans graduate from college, there are also calls to restructure the social ladder in favor of workers. “We have to destigmatize trade jobs…[because] college is not for everyone,” said Andrew Yang, one U.S. presidential candidate in 2020. “We have to dramatically invest in vocational, technical training, and apprenticeship programs.” He pointed to the disparity between Germany, which holds 59% of its high school students in technical training, and the United States, which holds 6%. “Think about that gulf,” Yang said. For the Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel, the problem is a moral one. In order for younger Americans to value other kinds of work, he argues in The Tyranny of Merit, elites must disavow the old meritocracy that treated four-year universities as prerequisites to success.

The cult of prestige attached to China’s established meritocracy — the gaokao system — explains why Zheng Leis are so rare in China, and why calls for an alternative feel so illusory. Contrary to Zheng’s hagiography, vocational students are marked by a social stigma; they are either failures in the education race who languish on the edge of society, with dim career prospects apart from manual labor. In first-tier cities, wrote Minhua Ling, an anthropologist at Chinese University of Hong Kong who has done extensive research on vocational schools, migrant workers get channeled into vocational schools, then factory or manual work. But about half of her informants in vocational schools, Ling told me, were taking classes outside their jobs and schools to prepare and retake the gaokao. “They are not really seeing vocational education as the endpoint, in order to become skilled laborers, they’re thinking, ‘Okay, I’ll stay put here for now, but then I’ll move onto a junior college degree.’”

In the essay outlining his Common Prosperity agenda, released in October, Xi Jinping spoke directly to the social obstacles rather than frame his program purely in economic terms. He vowed to tackle the problem of “involution” 内卷 and its reactionary correlate “lying flat” 躺平. Both terms have come to capture the meaninglessness of hard work in a system where societal outcomes (e.g., university places) were fixed. Within the latest policy documents, vocational education proponents find the seeds of Xi’s social reckoning, a rebuke of a corrupt meritocracy, a return to the dignity of work, a resolve to evolve, not involve.

But some see the latest commitments as mere continuations of earlier initiatives: more bluster with no teeth. In absolute terms, vocational education has in fact expanded since the early 2000s, when vocational initiatives began in earnest. They picked up steam in 2012 with assistance from the World Bank, and efforts have redoubled in the past couple of years. But throughout that same period, the tertiary education system swelled even faster, rendering secondary vocational degrees less and less valuable in relative terms. “Even if you put more and more money into [vocational education], the degree itself rewards less and less to those graduates because higher education is getting bigger,” said Ling. If vocational reforms are to be meaningful, the “985” system of elite universities may need to be reformed. But can Xi disrupt an institution that has sent so many alums into the highest echelons of Chinese power, including himself?

Standing athwart the wind

In the 1980s, before the expansion of universities, vocational schools witnessed a golden age, under the normal high school program 中等师范学校 created by Deng Xiaoping. Back then, China’s best and brightest were channeled into vocational schools to become educators. But that era, it turns out, was an anomaly. Throughout China’s long history, scholars have always outshone tradesmen. As the philosopher Mencius once wrote, “Those who work with their brains become rulers, those who work with their brawn are ruled.” Revolutions, in modern China, began as bookish affairs: The founders of the Communist Party of China, Chén Dúxiù 陈独秀 and Lǐ Dàzhāo 李大钊, were scholars. The tradition of reading was deeply impressed onto Li’s assistant librarian, Máo Zédōng 毛泽东. To upend the hierarchy that prizes the scholar over the worker would be a major feat of social engineering. The last time the country embarked on a similar experiment — the Cultural Revolution — it ended in disaster.

The Common Prosperity agenda began in real estate and technology, but its success will ultimately be determined by what happens in education: what children choose to learn and do with their lives. The Party knows this, which is why the choices available to children have changed so drastically in the last couple of years. In classrooms, children are now exposed to more sports and physical education instead of English. On television, C-pop idols and social media influencers have been replaced by more masculine, worker-type role models. On Douyin, China’s TikTok, algorithms now feed kids science and engineering experiments instead of game streamers.

Then there’s old-fashioned propaganda. In the article celebrating Zhang Lei, the “model worker” of Jiangsu, state-affiliated media made a plea to all the country’s involuted kids. “Students of vocational schools aren’t necessarily academic failures, forever doomed to a low position in society,” the paper read. “They can ‘go against the wind,’ learn a trade, and live an ordinary, happy life.” The analogy to nature, immutable and unforgiving, was a peculiar one. But it also seemed fitting. This July, in an effort to rid the air of pollution ahead of its centenary celebration, the Chinese Communist Party laced the clouds above a Beijing suburb with chemicals to manufacture a rainfall. It was a snapshot of the Party in the era of Xi Jinping: bold, powerful, and so unyielding that nothing could stand in its way — not even Mother Nature.