‘Stupid and lazy’ youths? Meritocratic discourse and perceptions of popular stereotyping of VET students in China

Research Highlighted

Geng Wang (2021) ‘Stupid and lazy’ youths? Meritocratic discourse and perceptions of popular stereotyping of VET students in China, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, DOI: 10.1080/01596306.2020.1868977

Read about Dr Wang’s other article here.

Dr Geng Wang, Tianjin University, China


Since the start of the Reform Era in 1978, vocational education and training (VET) in China has been seen as inferior to academic routes and positioned at the bottom of the educational hierarchy. VET students are stereotyped as being ‘stupid and lazy’ and suffer considerable prejudice in Chinese society. Drawing on Foucault’s disciplinary power and Ball’s idea of performativity, this paper analyses how academically focused, exam-driven societal attitudes, as a form of meritocratic discourse, impact on these students and on how they perceive their stereotyped position within the Reform Era educational system. The findings reveal that these students have internalised the ideology of meritocracy, coming to see themselves as inferior and inadequate compared to their academic counterparts. Turning ‘the gaze’ upon themselves, they examine whether they ‘add up’ and assume responsibility for their own ‘failures’. VET students are trained to be the new kind of youthful subject required to sustain the Reform Era China’s engagement with neoliberal governance.


Based on the lived experiences of Chinese vocational college students, this article focuses on the academically focused, exam-driven societal attitudes and sentiments that have permeated so many areas of these young people’s lives. Drawing on Foucault’s (1977) concept of disciplinary power and Stephen Ball’s (2000, 2003, 2012) idea of performativity, this study analyses how such societal attitudes, as a form of meritocratic discourse, impact on vocational students and on how they perceive their position within the Reform Era educational system.

Theoretical framework

In his early work, Discipline and Punish (1977), Foucault suggests that disciplinary power is a form of ‘power-knowledge’ that observes, monitors, shapes, and controls the behaviour of individuals within institutions and society. The technique of examination is particularly powerful as ‘it is a normalizing gaze, a surveillance that makes it possible to qualify, to classify and to punish’, and ‘it establishes over individuals a visibility through which one differentiates them and judges them’ (1977, p. 184). Within a Foucauldian framework, Ball theorised his ideas about the performance of students, teachers, and schools into the notion of ‘performativity’ (2000, 2003, 2012). For Ball, performativity is a technology, a culture, and a mode of regulation – or a system of ‘terror’, in Lyotard’s words – that employs judgments, comparisons, and displays as means of control, attrition, and change (Ball, 2000; 2003). The performances (of individual subjects or organisations) serve as measures of productivity or output, or as displays of ‘quality’, or as ‘moments’ of promotion or inspection. They stand for, encapsulate, or represent the worth, quality, or value of an individual or organisation within a field of judgement (Ball, 2000). Operating in the neoliberal market of performances, the individual is made into an enterprise, a self-maximising productive unit committed to the ‘headlong pursuit of relevance as defined by the market’ (Falk, 1999, p. 25).

Foucault’s concept of disciplinary power, especially his understanding of using examination as a technique (1977, p. 184), provides a conceptual lens to help us understand how individual young subjects are formed in the Reform Era and how the exam culture constructs the ‘docile and capable’ bodies required by neoliberalism (Foucault, 1977, p. 294). Moreover, Ball’s idea of performativity is an important complement to the Foucauldian perspective for this paper, as it looks at the ways in which lists, grades, and rankings work to change the meaning of educational practice within a neoliberal context (Ball, 2013). Ball extended the Foucauldian concepts to consider how performativity as a key mechanism of neoliberal government uses comparisons, judgments, and self-management (Ball, 2013, p. 163). The next section discusses the methods employed for this study.


Vignettes of several students’ life stories regarding their family expectations and secondary school learning experiences are presented. These vignettes are representative of the stories told by the participants in the study. The findings also demonstrate how the students perceived the exam system and their stereotyped positions.

Discussion and Conclusion

This study reveals the lived experiences of these students when pushed to achieve academic excellence in their previous schooling experiences, their perceptions of the exam system, and their interpretations of their disadvantaged situations. Growing up in an environment where the meritocratic discourse permeated so many areas of their lives, these students had internalised the ideology of meritocracy and consequently the stereotypes against them, seeing themselves as inferior and inadequate in relation to their academic counterparts. Foucault’s concept of disciplinary power and Ball’s idea of performativity have provided useful tools for making sense of vocational students’ lived experiences and opinions in the Chinese Reform Era.

In their research, Gong and Dobinson (2019, p. 339) found both socialist and neoliberal rhetoric at play in the Chinese young people’s narratives they investigated. They supported the view that ‘the existence of a neoliberal discourse in Chinese education does not mean a neoliberal subjectification in the Chinese people’ (Gong & Dobinson, 2019). However, the findings of this paper demonstrate that the Reform Era has produced a neoliberal legacy – vocational students who are stereotyped as self-deserving failures and assigned to the bottom tier of the educational system. Through the discourse of meritocracy, these young people turn ‘the gaze’ upon themselves to see if they ‘add up’, and take responsibility for their own ‘failures’. They are trained to be ‘bodies that are docile and capable’ (Foucault, 1977, p. 294), producing a new kind of youthful subject who can act in their own self-interest in order to sustain the Chinese Reform Era’s engagement with neoliberal governance. However, the perspectives of these students also offer evidence that young people have the potential to move beyond being mere ‘objects and instruments’ for the exercise of disciplinary power.

Author bio:

Dr Geng Wang currently works as a researcher at School of Education, Tianjin University, China. She is also a member of Tianjin Institute for Emerging Engineering Education. She holds a PhD (University of Glasgow) in education. Her research interests revolve around education and work transitions through the lifecourse, particularly in relation to vocational education and training for young people, what influences transitions and their impact on learning and development. She can be contacted via geng.wang0313@hotmail.com.

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