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lesson plans
One Nation: Two Futures? by Melvin Maskin
Overview Prodecures for Teachers Organizers for Students
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Procedures for Teachers


  1. Divide the class into three groups, as follows: (a) 75% of the class in one group; (b) 20% of the class in the second group; (c) 5% of the class in the third group. Distribute expensive-looking plates and utensils to group (c); distribute plain paper plates and no utensils to group (a); distribute no plates or utensils to group (b).

  2. Ask the students who are given the expensive-looking plates and utensils if they think it is fair that a few people can afford to eat with utensils and expensive-looking dishes while others can afford to eat only from paper plates and no utensils, while still others eat with no plates or no utensils. (Student answers will vary, but should include the idea that if a person has more money and can afford a fancier plate, he or she should be allowed to take care of his/her wants). Ask students with the paper plates how they feel about that answer. (Student answers will vary, but may include the idea that it is not fair that some should live well while others without those comforts or even basic necessities.) Ask the students who have no plates or utensils how they would feel if the government required that the students with dishes, plates, and utensils (the haves) give up their advantage and share with the less fortunate students (the have-nots), so that everyone could have at least a plate on which to eat. (Answers will vary, but could include the idea that this would not be fair or democratic as it fails to reward those students who have worked hard or have a skill that allowed them to enjoy a higher standard of living, and that the government should not be in the business of redistributing wealth.)

  3. Point out to the students that a central idea of Chinese Communism was Mao's egalitarian belief that everyone "should eat out of the same iron rice-bowl." Ask students what Mao meant by this, and why he saw this as a good thing for China. (Answers will vary, but should include the idea that extreme poverty or affluence should be avoided, and that it was not right that some members of society should be privileged while others are in need; that for a harmonious society to exist it was necessary for people to sacrifice their individual comforts and luxuries so that the Chinese people could "all get rich together.")

  4. Have students examine the story of the Chinese Communist hero, Lei Feng, available at: http://www.iisg.nl/~landsberger/lf.html. Give your students about ten minutes to read the story. Ask the students what Lei Feng learned from studying the writings of Chairman Mao. (Answers should include the observation that Lei Feng learned to live a life of extreme frugality, that he avoided being selfish, and that he devoted all of his energies to the people.) Then ask the students what acts Lei Feng performed to prove that he really was "a revolutionary screw that never rusts." (Answers should include Lei Feng's many good deeds where he shared with others less fortunate than he, where he proudly helped others, not for personal fame, but simply to teach the people to be happy with what they had.) Then ask students how Mao reacted once he learned of Lei Feng's reported accidental death. (Answers should include the fact that upon his death Lei Feng was made an object of national study, and that he became a martyr featured in books, movies, and posters produced by the Chinese government.)

  5. Ask students how Chairman Mao would have resolved our "plate and utensils" dilemma. (Answers may vary, but should include the notion that he would bemoan the inequality of riches and consider it unfair that some in the class [he would call them counter-revolutionary class enemies] should live in comparative luxury while the great majority in the class lived modestly or in squalor; he would suggest the solution that everyone, for the time being, eat off of paper plates and from a common bowl, and that the plates and utensils not be owned by individuals, but be part of the people's property; and that it was the role of the government to redistribute resources in the service of all the people and not to support the few in getting richer.)


  1. Explain to your students that since the late l970s, the vision that Mao had for the future of China has been greatly altered. The emphasis on developing a "harmonious society" based on the maintenance of social and economic equality has been replaced by an emphasis on economic development—regardless of whether the development first created and then widened the gap between those who are relatively well-off and those who are in need of basic services including health and education.

  2. Since l980, China's economy has grown rapidly. It has become a nation where many still feed from Mao's "iron rice bowl," while increasingly, others find themselves able to enter the middle class and enjoy the consumption of expensive Western products. The reasons for this growing gap, and the potential consequences for China if the gap is not narrowed, are explored in the next activity.

  3. New Worker Class
    Photo Dwanshi She in his new apartment.
    Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to view the following two clips and to discuss the difference in life-styles and thinking from that of Dwanzhi She, the Chinese manager of a foreign-owned company in China, and that of the Communist Chinese hero, Lei Feng. PLAY Clip 1, "New Worker Class," for the class. Pause for comprehension after Clip 1, then proceed to Clip 2.

  4. Home Village
    Photo of a girl in the Chinese countryside.
    PLAY Clip 2, "Home Village," for the class. Ask the students to reflect on the two clips. How does Dwanzhi She's outlook differ from Lei Feng's? (Students answers will vary, but should note that Dwanzhi She enjoys living a life filled with luxuries, that he is very proud of his individual accomplishments, and appears not overly upset when he describes the poverty and backwardness of the conditions in which people in his rural village must live, that he ascribes his personal success to a combination of hard work and intelligence which have given him the ability to move out of that village and into an opportunity-filled city in which he could maximize his talents; that he appears to accept as an unfortunate fact of life the vast difference in lifestyle between his own and those who remain in the tiny village of his birth. Lei Feng would have been distressed at what he saw, especially the vast difference in the standard of living of the haves and have-nots and with Dwanzhi She's apparent enjoyment of luxuries while his own people stayed mired in poverty.)

  5. Remind students that the wide gap in income between people living in the Chinese countryside and those living in the cities mirrors the wide rural/ urban gap in life expectancies, literacy rates, school enrollment rates and access to health care. Have students examine the graph, "Pulling Away," and the accompanying text, available at: http://www.globalpolicy.org/socecon/inequal/2003/0925chinaurbanrural.htm. (Students will need to scroll down to access graph.) Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to discover what trend occurred during the ten year period, l992-2002, in relation to average income per head (per-capita income) in China's cities and rural areas, and to suggest explanations for this trend. (Students should note that the gap in per-capita income has widened dramatically. In 2002, per-capita urban income was three-and-a-half times that of per-capita rural income. The article suggests that the disparity is the result of increased competition between inefficient rural enterprises and more efficient city enterprises, and that the gap is most keenly felt when comparing China's relatively well-off coastal provinces with its backward interior provinces.)

  6. Explain to the class that the next activity will help them appreciate the human face of China's wealth gap. Ask the students to examine the picture gallery, "China's Wealth Gap," available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/spl/hi/picture_gallery/04/
    . Provide your students with FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them which of the eight "voices" (representing 800 million rural poor) could potentially spell political and social trouble for the PRC's rulers. (Student answers will vary, but should note widespread disaffection with the government, a sense of despair and hopelessness, and the realization that life would not get better for them until they could live in the city.)

  1. Remind the students that rural peasants, as the images in the last activity reveal, are keenly aware that their standard of living and quality of life are far below those of residents of China's bustling coastal cities. In fact, since the l980s, over 15% of China's rural peasants have left their farms to live in urban areas. Rural-to-urban migrants in China are known as China's "Floating Population," or people who live in the city but who maintain a home in the countryside and a claim to agricultural land. Explain to students that those who make up China's "Floating Population" do not enjoy any of the rights and privileges offered to established registered residents of the city. The services that are generally denied to these migrants or provided to them on an inferior level include housing, health care, and education.

  2. Illegal in Beijing
    Photo of a Chinese girl.
    Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to discover what life is like for many of the migrant workers and their children who live in China's capital city, Beijing. PLAY Clip 3, "Illegal in Beijing," for the class. Check for comprehension. (Student answers will vary, but should include the observation that migrants come to the city in search of work, that they live in cramped quarters, that many schools in Beijing do not accept migrant children, that even well-educated migrants are paid very little, and that they generally do not have an equal opportunity to realize their dreams.)

  3. Explain to students that in the U.S., the countryside is often considered somewhere to escape to. In China, of the 21st century, the countryside is considered somewhere to escape from. Explain the role of the Hukou system of Household Registration. Under this system, people in China were classified as rural or urban residents. Those classified and registered as rural residents were bound to their communes and villages and were not permitted to migrate to towns. If they did so, in violation of their Hukou, they were treated as second class citizens and denied rights of registered city dwellers. The breakdown of the system in the mid-1990s led more than 100 million unemployed peasants to migrate to economically vibrant urban manufacturing centers in search of jobs.

  4. Explain to students that there were other factors behind this huge internal migration, including both legal and illegal land seizures in rural areas by entrepreneurs looking for investment opportunities. Also point out that the Chinese government is aware that a legally free education for all citizens of the PRC, regardless of gender, age, occupation, and property status, is guaranteed by the nation's constitution. It is also recognized by the government that failure to provide equal educational opportunity to the poor, especially those living in rural China, could retard China's economic development as well as provide a source for social instability in the country.

  5. 5) Ask the students to examine the article, "China Pledges Elimination of Rural Compulsory Education Charges in Two Years" available at: http://english.people.com.cn/200603/05/eng20060305_248011.html. Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them why they think Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was prompted to initiate the new educational policy in the countryside. (Students answers should note that China is only one of fewer than 30 countries in the world that fail to provide their primary and middle school-aged children with completely free compulsory education, that the government hopes to close the rural-urban income gap, heading off, in the process, rising discontent with the government amongst Chinese farmers, and so slowing the pace of rural-to-urban migration.)

  6. Inform students that Li Xiuying, the l3-year old daughter of migrant workers who is featured in the video clip, was the beneficiary of the generosity of a WIDE ANGLE viewer. This viewer donated the cost of an elite private school tuition that now allows the teenager to leave her low-quality school for illegal immigrants that she was forced to attend.

  1. Explain to students that as a combined result of Deng Xiaoping's export-driven market reforms and the PRC's decision in the early l990s to begin signing multilateral and bilateral trade treaties with European, North American, and more developed Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea, China has been inundated by foreign-owned companies selling their wares to newly-prosperous Chinese consumers. China's entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001 has accelerated this process of joining China's economy to that of the rest of the world. (Since China joined the WTO, its imports have increased by 70%, while U.S. exports to China have grown 5 times faster than they have with the rest of the world.)

  2. The ability of much larger numbers of Chinese consumers to purchase these foreign goods is reflective of the country's widening wealth gap: as of March, 2006, the country has 300,000 people with a net worth of $1 million each. 13% of China's population, or 170 million people, are now able to purchase top-tier brands. The country is now the third biggest consumer of luxury goods; if the trend continues, by the year 2015, China will account for 29% of the world's luxury sales. Students should also be aware of the fact that the average rural income in 2004 was 2,936 yuan ($362), with average urban income slightly more than 9400 yuan ($1,158).

  3. Explain to students that Deng Xiaoping's free market policies (his slogan was "to be rich is glorious"), combined with China's huge supply of low-cost workers, has turned China's largely agrarian-based economy of Chairman Mao's day into the world's largest manufacturing center. The result, according to proponents of the policies Deng set in motion, has been the lifting of an estimated 400 million Chinese out of poverty. However, the growing wealth gap has upset those in China who feel that the nation is abandoning Mao's vision of an egalitarian "iron rice bowl" society and its promise of equal opportunity for all. China's new found riches, they argue, have gone to a comparative few, widening an already gaping wealth gap and accentuating regional disparities in the country's development.

  4. Explain to your students that the debate over the impact of China's economic modernization policies is ongoing amongst the Chinese. The next activity will allow us to hear some of the voices raised in this debate.

  5. Divide the class into four groups: Assign each group one of the following documents:

    Provide each group with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking each group to report out to the rest of the class the source of the document they have examined and what information was provided that could help the rest of the class gain a more complete picture of how those Chinese who apparently have benefited from the reforms and from globalization feel about themselves and their impact on Chinese society. (Answers will vary, but should include the observation that in Document #1, for Jackie Wu, the prospect of earning more money for his family makes the changes worthwhile; that Document #2 illustrates the disturbing (for some) fact that Chinese women have let Western tastes define their notion of beauty and that they are becoming conspicuous consumers; that in Document #3, there are ambivalent feelings expressed about the opportunity of owning a first home; and that in Document #4, at least one shopper, a proud member of the Communist Party, claims that with reform has come equal opportunity for all.)


  1. Barshefsky Interview
    Photo of Ambassador Charlene Barshefsky..
    Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them why Ambassador Barshefsky, former U.S. Trade Representative, thinks that China's poor human rights record is likely to improve in the future. PLAY Clip 5, "Barshefsky Interview," for the class. Check for comprehension. (Student answers will vary, but should include reference to Ambassador's Barshefsky's comment that economic engagement with the West could move China to adopt greater political pluralism: e.g. tolerance for dissent, multiparty electoral system, that accessibility to technology will allow the average Chinese person to get online and get information from anywhere in the world, including the West.)

  2. Have the students consider the question that was raised in the clip, namely, that the economic opening up of a society will lead to the acceptance of more democracy in that country. Divide the class into four groups: Assign each group to one of the following documents:

    Provide each group with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking each group to report out to the rest of the class the source of the document they have examined and what, if any, evidence was provided to indicate that the Chinese government has adopted Western style democratic values and institutions to go along with its economic liberalization (e.g. a free market economy, openness to foreign investment and technologies). (Answers will vary, but should include the observation that Document #1, while noting the tremendous growth in online users, claims that this growth has been accompanied by increased efforts by government censors to "sanitize" the Internet, blocking unfettered access to the web and holding Internet service providers responsible for what their customers do; that Document #2 indicates that despite the direct elections of many local officials across China, non-Communist party members are being forcefully discouraged from running for office, and that political reform has not taken root above the village level; that Document #3 reveals that Chinese officials at the highest levels are watching to make sure that private companies and the nation's Internet users are conveying "the right message and information," and that such safeguards are considered necessary if social order is to be maintained; and that Document #4 notes that the Communist party has clamped down on the media, with journalists arrested or dismissed from their posts, and that there is a growing movement amongst people in business, law, and government within China which advocates that freedom of speech and of the press must be a necessary part of China's modernization.)

  3. As a written homework assignment, ask students to compose an essay discussing if what they have seen or heard in this activity convinces them that these voices for political reform will ultimately force the Chinese Communist Party to relinquish its monopoly on political power. (Student answers will vary, but should include the notion that forces from outside of China, including the Internet, the presence of Western businesses, the international community, combined with mounting opposition from peasants and others left behind in China's economic boom will make it difficult for the Communists to continue repressing the population; on the other hand, it can be predicted that the government will do everything it can to preserve a "harmonious society," preserve China's cultural identity, and continue to develop socialism with Chinese characteristics and place the need for national security above desires for individual freedom.)


Language Arts

  • Compose a letter from the perspective of a teacher at a school for migrants to Beijing to his friend who teaches in a rural village in an interior province in China. The letter should indicate how the teacher feels about teaching in a low-quality school in Beijing.

  • Compose a letter from one of Jackie Wu's former students asking Jackie to consider returning to teaching where he was so well-liked and respected.

Social Studies

  • For economics and government classes, compare and contrast the incidence of income inequality in the PRC with that of the U.S., as well as the efforts of each respective government to deal with the problem.

  • For a Global/ World History class, compare and contrast the human migrations in each of the following societies:

      a) China's rural-to-urban migration during the l980s to the present

      b) The settlement of the American West during the l9th century

      c) The Bantu migrations to southern Africa

      d) The Irish migration to the U.S. during the l9th century

  • For a Global/World History class, have students prepare a thematic essay on the subject of economic and social change occurring in China.

      Historical Context:
      China is experiencing rapid economic and social changes. These changes have affected the Chinese people in both positive and negative ways.


      • Describe the economic and social changes that the Chinese people are experiencing.

      • Evaluate the positive and/or negative impacts these changes are having on the Chinese people.

  • For a U.S. history class, compare and contrast the reasons for the disappearance of the social safety net in both the U.S and the PRC.

  • For a U.S. history class, assess the impact of the following U.S.-based companies doing business in China on the PRC's material culture:

      a) Wal-Mart

      b) Starbucks

      c) Timberland

  • Additional Web resources for further study:


Contact a non-governmental organization which works in China to sponsor children and/or provide social welfare assistance to communities. Discover whether there is a representative of a sponsoring institution in your community. Invite that representative to your classroom to share the experiences associated with sponsoring an overseas child.

Locate an individual/organization in your community that helps Chinese immigrants from the PRC adapt to life in America. Invite the individual or representative of that organization to your classroom to share his or her thoughts on the problems recent immigrants faced in the PRC and what new problems they encountered in the United States.

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