The most important rule about finding out about a foreign country is to get as far away as possible from hotels, and business and government offices, and find out how people live. The ideal is to get into the homes of as many different types of ordinary people as possible, but that is normally difficult and takes some time, and more partial steps may have to be taken. Therefore, every possible opportunity has to be used to acquire such knowledge.
A three week trip to China, to speak on the development of Shanghai as an international financial centre and to be a guest at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, therefore yielded further useful opportunities. Most useful of all turned out to be a discussion with a 17 year old regarding his school timetable – not one in a super-elite institution but from a somewhat better than normal, but not in no way wholly untypical, school in Beijing. A cross check with a 14 year old in Xi'an revealed basically the same pattern.
It must be stressed for China that these are city schools, and a rural one would reveal a substantially different pattern. But China's cities already contain hundreds of millions of people and the number will rise over several decades towards one billion. The daily timetable was the following - the ten minute gaps between lessons are break periods.
7.00 - 8.00 Exercise and private study
8.00 - 8.45 Lesson 1
8.55 - 9.40 Lesson 2
9.40 - 10.00 Break and discussion with teacher
10.00 - 10.20 Exercise
10.20 - 11.05 Lesson 3
11.15 - 12.00 Lesson 4
12.00 - 1.30 Lunch and break
1.30 - 2.15 Lesson 5
2.25 - 3.10 Lesson 6
3.20 - 4.05 Lesson 7
4.05 - 4.30 Exercise
4.30 - 5.30 Private study
6.00 - 9.00 Homework
Multiply that timetable in the future by several hundred million children, compare it to the far less intense educational ethic and drive in the US and Europe, and you already see why European and US societies have no chance in their competition with Asia. Average educational levels are already well above US and European standards in South Korea and Singapore. The contemporary Asian work and educational ethic is so superior to the average in Europe and the US that the relative decline of the later compared to Asia is already inevitable - even if it will take several decades for its full consequences to work through. The strength of Asia's key economies lies not simply in the fact that China invests over 40 per cent of its GDP, compared to under 20 per cent for the US and UK, but in the educational standards that are being set to complement that investment.
Of course China is starting, as regards the mass of the population, from a hugely lower base than the US and Europe - even if the standard statement remains that the Chinese primary school is the best run institution in the country. To take several hundred million Chinese children up to the educational level now seen in Singapore or South Korea is a work of very many decades. But the dynamic is already clear. The trajectory set for Chinese education is at a far higher level than that for the US or Europe.
In that child's school timetable, and its comparison to the US or UK, is the future of the world.