Class Work
Vocational Schools and China's Urban Youth
T.E. Woronov



Numeric Capital

It’s early afternoon, the middle of the week, early spring 2008. Although I am perched on a low stool at the far back of a large classroom among a group of second-year (eleventh-grade) vocational secondary students, I have a clear view of the blackboard at the front of the room, because almost all the students in front of me are asleep. Faces planted on the long, narrow tables that serve as desks, arms dangling, the dozing students provide me with a clear view of the teacher, who—oblivious to the students’ lack of attention—lectures in an endless drone, her back to the room. Water trickles down a wall from a leak in the ceiling and puddles onto the concrete floor. The ceiling soars more than five meters above us; below it hang pipes, electrical wires, and suspended fluorescent light fixtures that flicker in the chilly, cavernous space. Earlier in the year some students hung Christmas tinsel from the ceiling pipes and taped construction-paper hearts to a bulletin board on the back wall to add some color to the drab room. Other than the teacher’s droning voice, the only other sound is the occasional click of a student tapping out a text message on a mobile phone or selecting a song on an MP3 player.

Scenes like this were depressingly common during the year I spent observing classes (2007–2008) in two secondary vocational education (VE, or voc ed) schools in Nanjing, a provincial capital in central China about 300 kilometers (185 miles) west of Shanghai. Although I spent time with the students hanging out after school, on weekends, and in their dorms and cafeterias, my overwhelming memory of a year in Nanjing was of watching the students sleep through class.

I originally went to China with several questions in mind. An earlier research project with children in elementary school (Woronov 2003) had left me interested in the educational fate of working-class youth as they moved into secondary school. When I left for China, I envisioned carrying out a study of what educators call the “school-to-work transition,” or how schools—particularly vocational schools—prepare students for jobs. I arrived in Nanjing with a dog-eared copy of Paul Willis’s (1977) classic Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs tucked under my arm. My initial goal had been to go to China to ask some of the same questions Willis had raised decades ago about youth and the (re)production of working-class culture. In order to study what might constitute an urban working class in China today and how it is produced, I first had to understand who the vocational students were, how these schools were structured, how the students got there, and where they would go once they graduated. But why were they sleeping all day?

I quickly discovered two things. One was that these deceptively simple questions were remarkably difficult to answer, for reasons I address in the following chapters. I then learned that few people I knew in China seemed to share my interest in either these students or these questions. Instead, there were only stereotypes—remarkably consistent ideas at the level of naturalized common sense in China about who and what vocational schools and students are and what the school-to-work transition consists of for working-class youth. These stereotypes were clear: according to popular attitudes in China, voc ed students are failures.

This was meant both literally and metaphorically. Literally, secondary VE students are failures because they enter the vocational system in tenth grade after failing a mandatory exam called the High School Entrance Exam (HSEE, or zhongkao) taken at the end of ninth grade. Simply put, students who do pass the HSEE move into “regular” (putong) high schools where they prepare for the notorious University Entrance Exams (UEE, or gaokao) at the end of twelfth grade. The general public understanding is that the secondary voc ed system exists to mop up students who fail the high school entrance exams in ninth grade.

Metaphorically, voc ed students are failures because commonsense logic in China tends to equate exam results with an individual’s moral and personal value. Because popular opinion holds that vocational students are by definition poor students, in an unquestioned leap of logic they are frequently also considered to be bad people. And their sleeping all day? This, too, was easily explained by the same stereotypes: since they were bad students, VE students must either be stupid, lazy, or both. So their sleeping all day in school was explained to me by many informants as merely a natural expression of this stupidity or laziness.

Sadly, in a year of ethnographic research on vocational education in China, I met almost no one who questioned the many assumptions at the heart of these stereotypes. Yet the bland Chinese phrase that summarizes a student’s failure to test from junior high school (chuzhong, grades 7–9) into an academic or “regular” senior high school in tenth grade—kaobushang, or “didn’t test up”—indexes a structural, ideological, and moral system that funnels an astonishingly large percentage (close to 50 percent) of the nation’s youth into vocational education. They are thus placed in very particular positions in China’s rapidly changing job market, urban class structures, and moral economies. After talking at greater length to the students, teachers, and administrators at the two vocational schools I studied, I found the situation was actually much more complex than the stereotypes would indicate. The exam system was much more convoluted, the students’ decisions to enter VE were much more complicated, and the schools and the entire vocational system were many times more intricate than simply serving as holding tanks for students who had failed entry into the more desirable, regular secondary education system.

I explore these complexities, using the VE system as a lens through which to understand broader aspects of contemporary Chinese society. I am specifically interested in exploring the changing regimes of value that are congealed in these schools and the bodies of these young people as they lay draped across their desks, sleeping their school days away (Ralph 2008). What constitutes value in the rapidly changing social and economic context of China today? How is it calculated? Specifically, how do commodity values and moral values intersect, overlap, and inform each other in what in China calls the “socialist market economy”?

These are students who failed one high-stakes exam, at the end of ninth grade, when they were about sixteen years old. This one failure will determine much of their future. How this happens is the subject of this book. I explore the ideologies behind the testing systems that establish these students as both academic and moral failures, as well as the administrative and bureaucratic structures of their schools, the social backgrounds of the students, the content of their daily lessons, and their job trajectories after graduation. These young people are largely invisible in daily discourse about adolescents in China, and they are rarely portrayed in studies of Chinese youth; they are neither participants in spectacularly rebellious punk subcultures (de Kloet 2010) nor the stressed and studious youth focused on exam scores and memorization (e.g., Fong 2004). Instead, they struggle to get through school and through their lives in a system that is a complex, messy combination of socialist and capitalist, old and new, within the gritty reality of working-class lives against the background of the rapid economic development of urban China.

High-Stakes Exams: Creating Vocational Students

China’s high-stakes exams are notorious. An enormous amount of research—as well as daily discourse in China—focuses on the UEE, which is administered to students at the end of year 12. This exam is a rite of passage that now drives curriculum and pedagogy throughout all twelve years of Chinese education; the concomitant pressure and stress of the UEE have attracted tremendous attention both within China and among foreign scholars (Kipnis 2010). There has been growing unease in China regarding the effects that round-the-clock studying for this test has had on young people’s emotional and physical health, and in the past decade there have been periodic—and so far largely unsuccessful—moves to modify the UEE to accommodate more critical and independent thinking skills (e.g., Woronov 2008). When most people think about Chinese testing regimes, the UEE is what they imagine.

Yet vocational secondary students neither prepare for nor take the UEE; in fact, for the most part they are not and will never be eligible to take this exam. Instead, students generally enroll in VE because of their poor scores on a much earlier bottleneck in the high-stakes testing system: the HSEE. All students in China who wish to continue their education past junior middle school take this exam at the end of ninth grade.

The standardized HSEE is a fairly recent invention, originating in the state’s wide-scale education reform policies of the mid-1980s. In 1986, the national Ministry of Education declared that all of the nation’s youth should have access to nine years of mandatory education (jiunian yiwu jiaoyu), and the government began to pour resources into elementary (grades 1–6) and junior middle (grades 7–9) schools to expand universal education through grade nine (Yan Hao 2010).1

After the 1986 reforms, more and more students completed nine years of schooling, and families pressured the state to open more secondary educational opportunities. At precisely the same time, Premier Deng Xiaoping’s reforms were radically transforming China’s economy and labor market, as he broadened the move to a socialist market economy. This led to a set of interconnected problems for educational policy makers: What should be done with students once they finished ninth grade? How should policy makers handle demands from families for more educational opportunities for their children? And how should the education system be structured to prepare workers for the new economy? The Ministry of Education was concerned to produce graduates for the new labor market who were neither overqualified nor undertrained. One solution was to implement a testing regime to sort the nation’s youth into different educational and occupational streams: the HSEE.

The HSEE determines which students can continue on to regular academic high schools after ninth grade.2 Regular high schools (grades 10–12) are designed to prepare students to take the university entrance exams at the end of year 12. These high schools are ranked according to their graduates’ scores on the UEE and their eventual admission rates into universities, with prestigious “key” (zhongdian) schools at the top and local neighborhood high schools on the bottom.

Since at least 1993 the State Council and Ministry of Education’s goal has been for an equivalent number of students to be enrolled in vocational secondary schools as in regular high schools (State Council 1993).3 The overall national passing rate for the HSEE is therefore set at around 50 percent, although the specific passing rate varies from place to place and year to year, depending on the number of seats available in each district’s regular high schools. Passing rates tend to be higher in large cites and lower in rural areas. In Nanjing in June 2007, the year I arrived to study vocational high schools, 52 percent of the graduating ninth-graders scored well enough on the HSEE exam to enter regular academic high schools and begin their pursuit of university admission, while 48 percent did not. Because specific passing percentages are determined by local school districts and vary annually, there are no national-level statistics available of overall passing rates on the HSEE.4 The best available data from the Ministry of Education indicate that in 2013, 55 percent of the nation’s secondary students were enrolled in regular high schools, a statistic that may serve as a proxy for national HSEE passing rates.5 These data indicate that the Ministry is therefore approaching its goal of a statistical (50/50) balance between vocational and regular secondary enrollments nationally.

Students who fail the HSEE have a few different options. Some drop out and enter the job market as unskilled laborers. Students from wealthy families can purchase admission into an increasing number of private academic prep schools, which focus on university admission (Donald and Zheng 2008). Students who wish to stay in school but cannot afford private prep schools choose some form of vocational education. The Ministry of Education estimates that 19.6 million students were enrolled in some form of secondary vocational school around the country in 2013.6 As I explain in Chapter 2, however, this statistic is somewhat misleading, for it excludes students in some key categories of vocational education.

Two things are important to note about this testing process. The first is that once a student fails the HSEE, his or her future is radically curtailed. Unless the student’s parents are wealthy enough to pay for private school, there is no pathway to enter a regular high school. This means there is no way to take the UEE in the future and very little hope of entering a university.7 Without a university degree, in the future these students will be locked out of white-collar occupations and therefore will be prevented from entering China’s growing urban middle classes.8 At the most basic level, their futures will always be limited as nonprofessional workers who have attained only a vocational school credential.

The second important point is that passing rates on the HSEE are set by the government. Passing rates vary by locality and are the result of complex decisions, based partly on local and national resource allocations and partly on macro-level calculations about the kinds of workers the nation needs to train to supply the changing economy. The outcome is that almost half of the students who take the HSEE must fail this exam, regardless of how hard they study, how well they prepare, or what their preferences are.9 While these tests are publicly understood to be an objective measure of student performance, and public discourse blames the students for their own failure, an average of 45 percent of graduating ninth-graders in China fail the HSEE because the state determines in advance that around half of the students taking the test must fail.

This is not a secret. The Ministry of Education (2015) publishes its policies online, and municipal newspapers around the country annually announce every city’s HSEE results, including the overall passing and failing rates. Although these are open policies and decisions, the government’s role in managing the passing rate on the HSEE is little known in the Chinese public imaginary. The stereotype of vocational students is still that they are stupid and lazy and deserve their limited occupational futures. In the process, the structural constraints on the students and their futures are rendered invisible. The question is how and why this occurs.

Culture, Culturalism, and Values

A close look at young people who are labeled as failures so early in life raises the issue of social worth, or how society values people (Narotzky and Besnier 2014). In many accounts of education in China, the question of who holds social worth is couched in terms of “cultural values” and is addressed through what anthropologists call a culturalist argument. As many people in China were quick to tell me, this is a question of Chinese (and, more broadly, East Asian) values, which derive from China’s long Confucian heritage. In this view, Chinese culture traditionally reveres education, and its people love learning (e.g., Huang 2014). Therefore, I was told, young people who reject education, study poorly, and test badly are naturally held in low social esteem, for this is simply an expression of Chinese cultural values. In the Chinese culturalist view, loving to study is normal, and desiring the best possible marks in school is culturally expected. Chinese culture, I was told, is exceptionally unified on this point: education is revered, and therefore bad students are reviled. Several people patiently explained to me when I first arrived in China that there was therefore really no need to study vocational education. Vocational students must be bad—otherwise, they wouldn’t be in vocational schools in the first place. To many people I spoke with, this already explained everything there was to know.

There is, of course, a great deal of merit in culturalist arguments. As Andrew Kipnis (2010) noted, China’s Confucian heritage does provide a good explanation for what he terms “educational desires,” or the almost universal desire the Chinese parents he knew expressed for their children to attain the highest possible educational success. Yet discussions of Chinese education couched in terms of Chinese culture have an important shortcoming: they cannot explain educational failure or underachievement, except to pathologize failure as deviant or repugnant. If “Chinese culture” reveres education, and it is therefore normal to study and love learning, then educational failures become simply abnormal (cf. Foucault 1977). From the culturalist perspective, vocational students do not provide insight into society, its regimes of value, or changing labor formations; they provide insight only into failure and pathology. As many of my friends in China asked me, Why bother studying them?

Beyond this, however, are other concerns with the culturalist explanation. First, I noticed that while many parents and teachers were more than happy to provide China’s Confucian heritage as an explanation for the widespread attitudes that disdain vocational students and schooling, I found this was often a class-based discourse, most frequently provided by white-collar and other middle-class informants.10 Working-class families I knew seldom produced these cultural explanations. While antivocational-school attitudes definitely existed across classes, the culturalist arguments did not; working-class families I knew did not resort to arguments about traditional Chinese culture to describe their understanding of the educational system, particularly if their own children had not performed well in school. Instead, these families included more economic and social factors. Thus, disdain for vocational education was widespread across classes, but explanations for this disdain were class specific, with the cultural explanation more pronounced among middle-class informants.

Second, the popular culturalist argument is dehistoricized. Confucianism is not a monolith; it has changed radically over the past centuries, and its status within China has changed significantly even within the past fifty years. At the same time, the Confucianist argument also erases the history of the vocational system and the social and institutional logics that govern it. Some aspects of the VE system date back to the beginning of the twentieth century. Other aspects, including the high-stakes testing system that sends students into vocational schools in the first place, are only a few decades old. This history has been rendered invisible, naturalized by state discourse and market processes. The fact that the recent history of the educational system has been rendered invisible, however, does not mean that the system is a natural product of ancient or traditional culture.

Third, the culturalist argument posits China (and Confucian-influenced East Asia) as a global exception, a contemporary product of ancient traditions. This tends to erase the ways that some aspects of education in China are quite similar to those of the rest of the world. This similarity is not accidental. In some cases, China is intentionally modeling its educational policies and practices on other nations’; in others, it is under the same kinds of pressures that other advanced industrial nations are facing. Changing pressures and ideologies about youth and education today are very similar in China to those in many other parts of the industrialized world. To understand education in China as simply a reflex of traditional Chinese culture is to neglect these larger global processes.

This book is therefore intended as a political economy of vocational education, one that brackets off China’s Confucian heritage in favor of exploring the social, economic, and historical setting of vocational schools. I do this not simply to look at VE from a different angle or to reject culturalist arguments as a form of Orientalism (see Kipnis 2010). Instead, I argue that vocational students and their schools provide privileged insight into the social transformations of China’s reform era, specifically the nascent formation of a new urban working class. Focusing on culture and tradition and on voc ed students as pathologized failures neglects the wider social and economic processes that produce social outcomes of failure. I address these concerns—historical transformations, class formations, and the status of Chinese youth compared with their age-mates elsewhere in the world—in order to place urban vocational education, and the value of vocational students, in context.

Regimes of Value: Development, Economism, and Human Capital

Anthropologists working in societies undergoing rapid, wide-scale transformations have noted that times of transition from one form of objectification to another—for example, from subsistence agriculture to wage labor (Taussig 1980), or from socialism to capitalism (Dunn 2004; Patico 2008)—are particularly interesting moments to study regimes of value. During these moments of transition, the question of who and what hold social worth is actively debated, as are the qualities that constitute a moral person. Conditions of rapid social change also generate explicit debate about the temporalities of the life course: What should be done today so that young people will become the right kinds of adults in the future (Narotzky and Besnier 2014; Weiss 2002)?

The same has been true in China, as the nation has undergone unprecedented development and a wide-scale yet incomplete transformation from socialist to capitalist modes of production. To understand how and why vocational students hold little social value in this context requires understanding how their structural and moral status is linked with the political, economic, and ideological transformations of China’s reform era.

The reform era dates from Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening” policies in the late 1970s, when China’s leaders began a shift in economic logic to what in China is called a socialist market economy (Meisner 1996; Schram 1984). Since then, China’s modernity has been understood to be based in economics and economic development rather than in revolution and progress toward an egalitarian, communist future (Meisner 1996). Starting in the early 1980s, the state began to transform China’s economy through development policies and projects, including forming special economic export zones, privatizing large segments of the state-owned industrial sector, undertaking large-scale urbanization, and increasing reliance on export-oriented manufacturing.

As these policies were implemented, “development” as both economic policy and guiding state ideology was presented to the Chinese people as a politically neutral way to move the nation away from the turmoil of the revolutionary past and to overturn a decade of radical, Cultural Revolution–era policies (see Baum 1994; Meisner 1996). Economics and economic development became commonly understood in China as based in rational, scientific principles, a change from the previous Cultural Revolution decade (ca. 1966–1976), which reform-era politicians framed as guided by irrational revolutionary political fervor. Development policies, the leadership argued, can and should be evaluated by objective, empirical data, such as statistics and rates of economic return, rather than through subjective demonstrations of political zeal. The ideology of economic development in China is thus linked to science and rationality, which carry a strongly positive moral valence (Greenhalgh and Winckler 2005; Hoffman 2010; Rofel 2007; Sigley 2009). This rationality was condensed in a new reform-era slogan, “economics in command,” which displaced the slogan “politics in command” that had dominated the political landscape during the Cultural Revolution (Schram 1984).

In 1992 Deng Xiaoping formally stated that class struggle in China had come to an end and then accelerated the reforms with the statement “to get rich is glorious” (Meisner 1996). Since then, as part of the focus on economic rationality and getting rich, money has become the rationale for China’s development policies, and wealth has become the measure of development for both the nation and individuals. Economics and finance have thus increasingly become a model for all levels of social life: the nation, the family, and the individual. The language and concepts of finance and economics have become the language of daily life (Hertz 1998; Shao 2006). Terms like “investment,” “yield,” “growth rates,” and “profit and loss” now dominate Chinese discourse across a range of social domains and increasingly form the ways people describe their daily lives and motivations. Social scientists call this trend “economism,” or the reduction of social process to economic dimensions.11

Economism, by definition, is not restricted to the economy writ large. It also reaches into the level of families and individuals, where it is effected through the concept and policies of “human capital,” a global theory that was imported to China from American economic theory in the 1980s and is now widely embraced there—as in many (or perhaps most) parts of the world—as common sense. Human capital theory transposes economics—the language and concepts of cost-benefit analyses, rational investment, speculation, and future yield on investment—from the level of the national economy to individual families and children via formal education.

The concept of human capital is fairly simple. It refers to “the set of skills that an individual can acquire thanks to investments in his or her education or training, and its primary purpose was to measure the rates of return that investments in education produce or, to put it simply, the impact on future incomes that can be expected from schooling and other forms of training” (Feher 2009, 25). In other words, theories of human capital were designed to measure the ways that investments in education, skills, and training will improve an individual’s ability to perform labor and thus generate income.

The theory was originally propounded by postwar economists and was most fully elaborated by University of Chicago economist Gary Becker in the book Human Capital (1964), and he was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1992 for his groundbreaking work on the topic. Originally, the concept was based on the argument that human capital was a form of the means of production, similar to other kinds of capital equipment (such as factory equipment) in which increased investment would produce increased rates of return. It was thus premised on a Fordist (and capitalist) model that understands the human life course as metonymic of factory production. Although it measures accumulated education and training, human capital theory at its heart is modeled on labor. Like that of factory workers, young people’s time is essential; they should continuously spend their time in productive activity, doing tasks that accumulate value. Their time is their accumulative investment, although the payoff for their investments will not be realized until an unknown future date.

Since midcentury, economists, developmental economists, educational experts, and specialists in a wide range of disciplines have extended and expanded the concepts and tools of human capital analysis, and the term has entered mainstream discourse around the world. Indeed, CEOs of major corporations today regularly refer to their employees as their company’s “human capital.” The United Nations Development Programme (2013) has enshrined a comparative human capital evaluation in its annual human development reports, which are statistical measurements that partly correlate national development with human capital accumulation. These statistics are based on the premise that “economic growth and social progress are historically strongly correlated with development of human capital” (Dahlman 2001, 69). Politicians across the globe speak of increasing investments in human capital domestically and internationally.

For most Western and Chinese readers, the notion of human capital accumulation seems very commonsensical, in several domains. One is at the level of national policy, where investment in education is a long-term strategy of national development around the globe. Most readers might naturally agree that education is a resource that needs to be budgeted in any nation’s economy. National policy makers consider questions such as these: What percentage of a nation’s resources should be allocated to education? Should more students be funneled into tertiary education or into vocational or skills training? Should more resources be directed toward elementary or secondary education? At another level, human capital is also understood as a resource accumulated and allocated at the familial level. How much of each family’s resources should be allocated to education? Should an individual borrow money to further education? If so, what kinds of degrees are worth going into debt for? It is assumed that these decisions are made rationally, according to cost-benefit analyses, and that the same kinds of questions about capital investments and potential returns should be raised at the level of the individual, the family, and the state.

Because national, familial, and individual levels of decision making about investments in human capital are metonymic of each other, Michel Foucault (2008) argued convincingly that the concept of human capital accumulation brought economism and the idea of economic modeling into our everyday lives. Human capital, in Foucault’s analysis, represented two processes: first, “the extension of economic analysis into a previously unexplored domain, and second, on the basis of this the possibility of giving a strictly economic interpretation of a whole domain previously thought to be non-economic” (2008, 219). Then, as a result of applying these cost-benefit analyses to decisions about education, people learn to think of their skills and abilities as something they own and to conceptualize the self and the future as sites of investment. This, too, seems natural in capitalist societies.

Time, Investment, and Human Capital Accumulation

China embraced the ideology of human capital accumulation wholeheartedly as part of the reform-era ethos of economism, scientific rationalism, and economic development. As a result, the language and concepts of economic modeling have slid from the financial world into the daily world of families, as children are increasingly understood as an essential site of investment for the future.

The temporalities associated with human capital accumulation—planning for an unknown future by investing in education today—have transformed the normative life course for youth, as well as the prescribed pace of human development. As China’s economic development has proceeded at an unprecedented rate, the race to the future has left little time for loitering, and the metonymic discourse of human development pressures young people to achieve academic and economic accomplishments as quickly as possible (Zhang Z. 2000). Just as national development is predicated on rational management, capital investment (particularly in high technology) and producing high-quality commodities for export, human development models increasingly call for parents to raise their children using methods proven by scientific experts, invest in capital equipment such as computers, and orient their children’s developmental goals to the foreign market. Students today are expected to experience much of childhood and youth as a massive project of delayed gratification, where they are promised that all work and no play in the present will eventually pay off in higher dividends (i.e., salary earned from a good job gained as an eventual result of high test scores) in an unspecified distant future. Parents experience the present as an increasingly anxiety-ridden gamble, where they are exhorted to invest a huge amount of their time, energy, and money into their child’s education, with only a vague sense of what kinds of opportunities the future may hold (Katz 2008, 2011). Like other investments in the futures market, families must nervously wait to see if their investment will pay off.12

These pressures on young people to spend their time studying and to accumulate human capital are thus not simply a reflex of traditional Chinese culture. Instead, they mirror China’s current savings economy, which is a legacy of both the recent socialist redistributive economy and of the Fordist logic of productive work as a form of investment for the future. The human capital model links the subjectivation of the nation’s youth with the macroeconomic condition of China as the world’s saver and producer (R. Martin 2002). The regime of value where children are a form of accumulation strategy cannot be divorced from China’s current multiple modes of production. At the same time, it is important to note that human capital accumulation—as both an ideology and set of policies based in Fordist labor models—is by no means confined to China. Many of the pressures on Chinese children to use every minute of their time productively and continually accumulate education are similar to those faced by youth in other advanced industrial societies. For example, geographer Cindi Katz (2008, 2011) has written extensively about how conceptualizing children and youth as accumulation strategies among families in the affluent West has led to “hothouse” and “helicopter” parenting and how this has produced hyper-vigilance around middle- and upper-class children.

Numeric Capital and Commodity Fetishism

In China, test scores play an essential role in the model of human capital accumulation. Because of the tremendous pressures on families and children to accumulate ever-higher amounts of human capital, test scores have become more than just a quantitative expression of educational achievement; they condense and represent social value. In another kind of metonymy, young people increasingly are their test scores.

In the Chinese popular imaginary, the primary activity of young people today—their only approved activity, really—is studying. Normative behavior for urban Chinese adolescents today is exceptionally narrow: they labor at their school work (Qvortrup 1995). The product of this labor is exam scores, which represent both children’s academic labor and congealed family investment. In the future, this activity (studying) and parental investments that support their child’s studying will ideally be repaid in the form of dividends generated in a new (moral) economy, where value accrues to high grades and good test scores, which then purportedly generate high-paying jobs, prestige, face, and connections (guanxi) for the ongoing reproduction of the family as the means of producing the future. It is therefore possible to conceptualize China’s youth both as laborers, who toil long and arduously to produce test scores, and in some ways as commodities, whose value is objectified and condensed in a test score that is eventually converted to income in the job market. Numbers—test scores—are where value is expressed and represented.13

While young people in China are not literally bought and sold as commodities, the human capital model as it has been implemented in daily life economizes human beings, reducing them to numbers that are then assumed to have a particular kind of value that is realized in the job market. More saliently, it erases the person, who is replaced with a number. Increasingly, social value adheres to the numbers themselves. I call this “numeric capital,” the regime of value that measures the accumulation of young people’s exam scores that embody and represent social value, an economism that is sedimented within the bodies of the nation’s youth.

In China today, this focus on numbers, value congealed in youth as exam scores, is a form of fetish, in Marx’s sense, whereby a number comes to stand in for a person, for what the person is worth as a human being, including his or her moral value. This refers to Marx’s famous discussion of the commodity fetish, where he introduces the commodity as “a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” (Marx [1867] 1978, 294). Marx explains that the commodity as a fetishized object hides the conditions of its own production; value accrues to products not at the moment of production but only when they are exchanged. At that time, value seems to be a quality of objects themselves, when in fact it is a congealed form of the labor required to produce the objects. In other words, commodities are fetishized as containing value in themselves rather than as physical objects that incorporate “material relations between persons and social relations between things” (ibid). According to anthropologist Michael Taussig, commodification “requires an abstraction: the essential qualities of human beings and their products are converted into commodities, into things for buying and selling on the market” (1980, 4). Commodity fetishism is thus a kind of conjuring, whereby the human labor and social relations required to produce commodities are erased, and value is magically assumed to adhere to products themselves.

The fetish of the number in China produces value in the dual sense of the word. First, it represents value in the mathematical sense: how many points are required to enter this school, or that course, or to get this job, this income, this ranking. And it produces value in the sense of what is meaningful, worthy, and socially deserving. The fetish of the number generates a regime of value whereby human beings (individual young people) are reduced to the value of their test scores. The fetishized value of these numbers conceals both the labor of the child (and his or her family) that was required to produce them and the entire social structure of the testing regimes.

Although the human capital model is derived from capitalist and Fordist modes of accumulation, in China this model is applied in conditions that are much more complex. Today, numeric capital as value and as fetish mediates between several modes of objectifying the human condition: late socialist, capitalist, industrial, and postindustrial. Although today’s reform era is understood in China as a rupture with the past, it is actually in many ways a mirror of the socialist period. Like socialism, the reform era is a utopian project, positing a teleology into a better future. The future is no longer defined by socialism or communism, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) imagined until the late 1970s, but today it is instead a future of national development marked by wealth and power. Young people embody this future and must prepare for it by ever-increasing investment, for what makes this future better is not the radical egalitarianism of communism but consumption, wealth, and money.

The future thus progresses today through the logic of the commodity: the more a person has, the better off he or she is. The progressiveness of consumption and the commodity make this imagination of the future concrete: people’s lives get progressively better as they consume more commodities. The moral value of this form of progress is unquestioned, for it is demonstrated mathematically, by numbers that prove progress, including increased living standards, profits, and annual growth. Youth and their families are again metonymic of the nation: as national wealth and living standards are measured and counted, so, too, do individual youth progress by accruing measurable numeric capital. And just as the utopian project of communism was never achieved, the promise of development may be speculative for some; investment may not pay off until an unknown future date, when value that is imagined now is made real.

In the following study, vocational education serves as my “case study” to illuminate some of the regimes of value underlying the new forms of capitalism and late socialism that are coexisting, intersecting, and competing in China today (Hubbert 2006). The old logics of industrial socialism and the new logics of late-industrial capitalism are both at work as the values of numeric capital emerge in different ways around the figure of the vocational student, their schools, their teachers, and the job market. My goal is to try to understand the students’ experience of life in their schools within these changing and overlapping modes of production by exploring what life is like for those who have low numeric capital, who have invested poorly, and who are moving out into the new job market with little or nothing to offer in the way of skills or value. I seek to understand how schools structure these students’ lives and what they are able to make of their schooling and limited opportunities after they have been forced onto a particular life path at about age sixteen.


1. Primary enrollment was estimated at 99.5 percent in 2007; junior middle school rose from 36.7 percent in 1985 to 98.0 percent in 2007 (Yan Hao 2010, 2). This figure is lower in poorer, far western, and minority areas, but today enrollment in grades K–9 is universal in larger, urban areas.

2. The name “regular” (putong) further indicates the ways that studying and high educational achievement are normative in China and that educational failure is stigmatized and unnatural.

3. This goal has been repeated regularly since then. For example, the Ministry of Education’s “Work Priorities” for 2012 stated that “it will be ensured that regular high schools account for a ratio roughly same [sic] as that of vocational schools in the education of this stage” (Ministry of Education 2012, 9).

4. As Shi (2013) notes, vast differences in labor markets, levels of development, and training needs across the different parts of the country make it difficult to gather and produce national-level statistics. Although there are national-level goals that call for equal relative enrollment in regular high schools and vocational schools, officials also recognize that they have to take local conditions into account when setting targets and passing rates.

5. See Ministry of Education (2013a). Presumably, if 55 percent of students are enrolled in regular high schools (those who passed the HSEE), 45 percent must have failed, but that must be inferred from the enrollment data. A close look at the figures on this site shows the totals and relative percentages of vocational, technical, adult ed, and regular secondary enrollments have fluctuated significantly in the past fifteen years. This is more a reflection of changing policies than enrollment anomalies or demographic variations. Since 2000, the government has vigorously promoted voc ed (and then retreated from its initial vigor; see Lewin and Xu 1989; Yan Hao 2010), added vocational programs into regular high schools, converted some regular schools into vocational schools (and converted them back again), and changed the definition of what counts as a “vocational” or “technical” school. Luo refers to this as “disorderly management” (2013, 24).

6. See Ministry of Education (2013a). This number includes technical schools, vocational schools, and adult education.

7. Secondary vocational school graduates do have a few options to continue their education. Some vocational tertiary institutions are open to vocational secondary graduates (although most tertiary vocational institutions today serve graduates of regular high schools who fail the UEE and do not gain entry into regular universities). There is also a self-study version of the UEE for students who did not complete regular high school, but passing rates for these tests are exceptionally low. (A Jiangsu Province Educational Office official we spoke with in 2008 estimated the passing rate on the provincial “self-study UEE” was less than 5 percent.) Students who do pass the self-study UEE are admitted into separate programs on university campuses, where it is widely believed that they receive a second-rate education and are poorly positioned in the job market after graduation.

8. In spite of these limitations, a few vocational secondary graduates have become quite wealthy as entrepreneurs. The Chinese media frequently use the example of these few exceptions to make the case that the vocational stream does not foreclose class mobility. Yet, as Osburg (2013) notes, entrepreneurial wealth is morally suspect in China, and people are generally skeptical of those whose wealth is not clearly derived from white-collar employment.

9. Song, Loyalka, and Wei (2013) have completed one of the very few studies in English or Chinese that measured the ambitions and intentions of graduating ninth-graders against their actual educational outcomes after taking the HSEE, although it is based on a study of rural students.

10. These assumptions and discourses are increasingly mirrored globally around middle-class ethnic Chinese and their parenting styles; for example, the recent “Tiger Mother” (Chua 2011) phenomenon in the United States is an example of the way class is muted in the cultural naturalization of global “Chinese mothering,” which supposedly focuses on pressuring children to study and high academic achievement.

11. The term—and concept—“economism” originated with a 1916 article by Lenin, later published in Bolshevik magazine, in which he refuted the possibility that socialist reforms can be purely economic and without a political dimension (Lenin [1916] 1929). For a discussion of the history of use of the term “economism” in China, see Wu (2014).

12. This is particularly stressful for families, because they are aware that sometimes their investments will not pay off. For example, because of the very rapid growth in Chinese tertiary education since 2000, increasing numbers of university graduates are finding that their (and their families’) enormous investment in their education has not paid off, for the job market has been unable to absorb them. This is creating a well-publicized social and moral crisis of impoverished, unemployed young university graduates who have clustered in some of China’s largest cities, a phenomenon known to sociologists there as the “ant tribes” (Lian 2009).

13. The value of students who excel at nonacademic tasks, such as athletes or musicians, is also produced through testing regimes that condense their abilities into test scores (Chumley 2013).