Analysis Of China’s PISA 2009 Results

As human capital is so important for prosperity, it behoves us to know China’s in detail to assess whether it will continue converging on developed countries. Until recently the best data we had were disparate IQ tests (on the basis of which Richard Lynn’s latest estimate is an IQ of 105.8 in his 2012 book Intelligence: A Unifying Construct for the Social Sciences) as well as PISA international standardized test scores from cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong. However, the problem was that they were hardly nationally representative due to the “cognitive clustering” effect. The Chinese did not allow the OECD to publish data for the rest of the country and this understandably raised further questions about the situation in its interior heartlands, although even in 2010 I was already able to report a PISA representative saying that “even in some of the very poor areas you get performance close to the OECD average.”

As regards Chinese intelligence

Happily (via commentator Jing) we learned that the PISA data for Zhejiang province and the China average had been released on the Chinese Internet. I collated this as well as data for Chinese-majority cities outside China in the table below, while also adding in their PISA-converted IQ scores, the scores of just natives (i.e. minus immigrants), percentage of the Han population, and nominal and PPP GDP per capita.

Reading Math Science Average (native) IQ (native IQ) %汉族 GDP/c (n) GDP/c (P)
China* 486 550 524 520  ~ 103.0  ~ 91.6% 5,430 8,442
China: Shanghai 556 600 575 577 589 111.6 113.4 99.0% 12,783 19,874
China: Zhejiang 525 598 567 563 ~ 109.5 ~ 99.2% 9,083 14,121
Hong Kong 533 555 549 546 557 106.9 108.6 93.6% 34,457 49,990
Macau 487 525 511 508 514 101.2 102.1 95.0% 65,550 77,607
Singapore 526 562 542 543 550 106.5 107.5 74.1% 46,241 61,103
Taiwan 495 543 520 519 534 102.9 105.1 98.0% 20,101 37,720

* Twelve provinces including Shanghai, Zhejiang, Beijing, Tianjin, Jiangsu totaling 621 schools, 21,003 students. Results have been released for Shanghai, and later on for Zhejiang (59 schools, 1,800 students – of which 80% were township-village schools) and for the 12-province average.

(1) Academic performance, and the IQ for which it is a good proxy, is very high for a developing nation. Presumably, this gap can largely be ascribed to the legacy of initial historical backwardness coupled with Maoist economics.

(2) The average PISA-converted IQ of the 12 provinces surveyed in PISA is 103.0. (I do not know if provincial results were appropriately weighed for population when calculating the 12-province average but probably not). We know the identities of five of the 12 tested provinces (Shanghai, Zhejiang, Beijing, Tianjin, Jiangsu). They are all very high-income and developed by Chinese standards. Furthermore, these five provinces – with the exception of Tianjin – all perform well above average according to stats from a Chinese online IQ testing website.

The provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang also have a reputation in China as gaokao powerhouses.

(3) The Chinese average as given by PISA therefore appears to have an upwards bias, as at least a third of the tested provinces – Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Beijing – are at the very top end of the Chinese IQ league charts. As such, the true IQ average for China is likely closer to 101-102.

(4) The very high score of Shanghai (111.6) is surely for the most part a reflection of its long status as a magnet of Chinese cognitive elites. This may well be true for Hong Kong (106.9) too although perhaps to a lesser extent. But the IQ of native Taiwanese is 105.1 even though the Han Chinese there are substantially interbred with lower-IQ aborigines. Singapore (107.5) too drew Chinese cognitive elites, and quite consciously too – their immigration policies were (are) de facto cognitively elitist – but on the other hand, this is counteracted by their large, lower-IQ Malay and Indian minorities. Regardless, one cannot escape the conclusion that with the (unexplained) exception of Macau, all developed Han majority regions have IQ’s in the 105-110 range. Likewise with other East Asians, such as native Koreans (106.6) and native Japanese (105.3). This means that there is a 5-10 point IQ gap between developed East Asian regions and the Chinese average.

(5) The biggest gaps between China and Chinese enclave regions are typically where we can reasonably hypothesize a “cognitive clustering” effect, so minus that the current gap is probably closer to 5 points. This means that China very likely still has the potential to raise its average IQ by c. 5 points via the Flynn Effect.

(6) A side-consequence is that this presents a serious challenge to Ron Unz’s theory of The East Asian Exception to Socio-Economic IQ Influences.

As regards Chinese intelligence in global perspective

Below is another table with a list of countries representing a typical sample of the developed countries that China is striving to become; and the emerging nations (BRIC’s and SE Asian) with which China is typically compared.

Reading Math Science Average (native) IQ (native IQ)
Korea 539 546 538 541 544 106.2 106.6
Japan 520 529 539 529 535 104.4 105.3
China 486 550 524 520 ~ 103.0 ~
Germany 497 513 520 510 533 101.5 105.0
United States 500 487 502 496 502 99.5 100.3
Russia 459 468 478 468 477 95.3 96.6
Thailand 421 419 425 422 422 88.3 88.3
Malaysia 414 404 422 413  ~ 87.0 ~
Brazil 412 386 405 401 399 85.2 84.9
Indonesia 402 371 383 385 378 82.8 81.7
India* 327 345 337 336 ~ 75.4 ~

* Average of Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh.

(1) Assuming that average Chinese IQ is now 101-102:

  • Means that it is approximately equivalent to the German IQ of 101.5 (with the typical East Asian bias towards better numerical and worse verbal scores).
  • As of today, this IQ level is still somewhat below those of other developed East Asian nations be they Korean, Japanese, or Han majority. It is also slightly below the results of Australians, Canadians, native Germans and white Americans; and approximately equal to the results of native Britons and French.
  • It is head and shoulders above other SE Asian “tigers” whose average IQ’s are in the high 80’s (Thailand, Malaysia) or low 80’s (Indonesia).
  • Relative to the BRIC’s, the Chinese average IQ is substantially ahead of Russia (95.3) and greatly ahead of Brazil (85.2). As for India, whose average IQ is 75.4 according to PISA results from two fairly rich provinces, there is simply no comparison whatsoever. As I have indeed pointed out on numerous occasions.

(2) Needless to say this is an extremely good result that practically ensures convergence to developed country levels within a reasonable time frame. This is especially true because as is almost always the case, there exists a positive feedback loop with greater development pushing average Chinese IQ to its genetic “ceiling” of approximately 105-108. That in turn will further raise the capacity of Chinese labor for skills absorption and even greater productivity.

Addendum 8/15: The commentator Jing graciously provided the list of all the 12 Chinese provinces that participated in the PISA 2009 study. They were: Tianjin, Shanghai, Beijing, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Jilin, Hubei, Hebei, Hainan, Sichuan, Yunnan, Ningxia.

This allowed me to make an interesting conclusion. No matter whether you weigh the provincial IQ scores above by population or not, the difference between the 12 provinces and China on average is only about 0.5 points in favor of the 12 provinces. This means that the PISA sample is actually pretty good – and that China’s PISA-derived IQ is in fact about 102.5 or so.

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