overty is valuable.” That startling moral insight was the title of an essay submitted by a student from a School for Migrant Workers’ Children to the Laws of Life competition run by Junior Achievement China. Gao Yang, director of the JA China project, recounts how this positive outlook engaged her. “He’s from a disadvantaged environment, but what he had learned from the poverty taught him a lot of good character,” she explains, and so this student came to the conclusion that “being poor should not be a reason for him not to work hard.”
JA China has expanded significantly in its four years’ existence. In school year 2004/2005, just 5,900 students participated. The following year that figure increased to 30,160. Today it has reached its target figure of 160,000 students. Originally restricted to Beijing and Shanghai, it now has a presence in a third major city, Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, thanks to a strong partnership with the city’s Bureau of Education.
Government support has been crucial and generous. In 2006, President Hu Jintao stressed the importance of character and ethics programs for Chinese students and encouraged all schools to participate in such projects. This gave an impetus to the program, which has received warm endorsement from the authorities. In the words of Gao Hong, director of the Basic Education Department of the Ministry of Education, “Based on the abstract, as well as real experience and inspiration, the laws of life will become deeply rooted in the soul of the students, integrated into their blood, becoming a way of living.”
Inculcation of character is especially important at this juncture in China’s history, partly because of the changed nature of family life, partly because of the impact of massive economic development. A consequence of the one-child policy has been a tendency among parents to spoil their offspring. “The current generation is all one-child families,” says Gao Yang, “they’re very different from previous generations in China. They basically get everything they want. The challenge for us is educating the future generation with the one child.” She laughs, “We call them ‘little emperor’.”
JA is creating the infrastructure for this character-building mission. More than 2,500 teachers have already been trained to implement the Laws of Life Essay Contest in the three cities so far involved, working in 400 schools. The students do not simply pick up a pen and start writing; the preparation is painstaking. “Actually it’s a semester-long program,” explains Gao Yang, “a ten-week program. They would start, with the help of the teachers, going through the questions, engaging in self-reflection. They would exchange views with their classmates, with the volunteers, and then the teachers and parents.”
The volunteers to whom she is referring come from the business community. They share with the students their core values and their corporate and personal philosophy. Gao Yang sees their contribution as “really a great attribute, a value we can add to this program although the numbers of volunteers are not significant.” She also attaches great importance to the success JA has had in drawing not only the Chinese public schools, but also the much more disadvantaged Migrant Workers’ Children Schools and the Hope Schools in the rural areas into participation in the Laws of Life competition. It was from this underprivileged social echelon that the student emerged who wrote the thought-provoking essay “Poverty is valuable.”
But Gao Yang is anxious to keep the social benefits of the project, at least so far, in realistic perspective. “We don’t have a kid from a Migrant Workers’ School who’s become an entrepreneur, or anything like that,” she says. “But we do see some of them successfully enter college.” At the same time, she is hugely optimistic about the future prospects for JA, especially now that it has such strong support from the government.
“I think in the next three years we can reach a million,” she says. As for the longer-term prospects, over the next five to ten years, “If we are fully committed to this program, I would say the number could be five million, seven million—that we can impact not only three cities, we can impact ten cities potentially, partnering directly with the national level of the Education Ministry.”
slugOutreach and dissemination are rapidly expanding. A compilation book of the best essays is published annually and Sohu.com, China’s most popular internet outlet, is publishing them online. Television channels such as China International TV and Dragon TV have given extensive coverage to the project.
Gao Yang believes the most important question JA’s students are addressing is “How to be a contributor to the future of society with character, creativity, and leadership so that they can be the future?” The conclusion she draws from the experience of Junior Achievement China is, “The big question that Sir John Templeton asked—Is free enterprise a teacher of ethics and character?—is really the right question here for China.”