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Throughout the millennia, students of all ages in China have had to endure the miseries of learning by rote. Teachers have stifled creativity in the pursuit of the accumulation of facts, and parents have forced children to spend mind-numbing hours cramming for exams. But for the past year, the government has been experimenting with what could amount to revolutionary changes in China's classrooms. The aim is to make education more pleasant, more useful and, above all, to challenge students to think for themselves.

What has prompted the reforms is a belated recognition that China's education system is failing to produce enough innovative thinkers. In addition, students are deeply unhappy. A survey conducted by the Education Ministry five years ago found more than 80% of students disliked school. Dropout rates have been rising in rural areas—partly for economic reasons but also because of the stultifying atmosphere of their classrooms. Exam pressures frequently lead to suicides. According to a survey last year among senior secondary-school students and university freshmen in one area, more than 50% had considered killing themselves.

Several other countries in East Asia, including Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, are grappling with similar problems. But the implications of China's reform efforts are particularly profound. China's traditional education methods are ideally suited to a political culture that requires citizens to submit blindly to authority. By encouraging students to question their teachers and regard them as equals (even official literature now talks of fostering a “democratic” atmosphere in classrooms), China could be ushering in a new kind of relationship between the rulers and the ruled.

The problem is making it work. The government has set ambitious targets with few resources to ensure that the country's more than 10m primary- and secondary-school teachers acquire the skills and determination to change the habits of a lifetime. The reforms started in September 2001 with about 420,000 primary- and junior secondary-school students (out of a national total of more than 215m) taking part in 38 experimental zones around the country. In September this year, participation increased to 9.1m pupils in 572 zones. These figures will double next year. The Education Ministry's original idea had been to implement the reforms nationwide by 2010. But according to Liu Jian of the ministry's National Centre for School Curriculum and Textbook Development, employers from a variety of enterprises said they wanted a quicker timetable. So now the target is 2005. In 2004, similar experiments will start in secondary schools.