In the 1980s, the Chinese government undertook a major structural reform in education by which upper secondary education was converted from predominantly general education to an equal mix of general education and vocational/technical education. A critical examination is provided of the rationale for and implementation strategies of the reform, framed in a broader context of the development of secondary education in the past four decades. It points out that, although the reform was justified in largely economic terms, there is actually little empirical support for the economic assumptions; the development of vocational/technical education is prompted more by a desire to reduce the social demand for higher education and to use education as a social stratification device. The reform reflects changing perspectives of the Chinese leadership on the role of education in national development; and it can be seen as the outcome of the most recent episode of continuing social and political conflicts in the Chinese state that began in the 1950s.
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