In practice, we have realized that building learning cities has very vital significance in improving the scientific and cultural qualities of all citizens, promoting people’s all-round development, and promoting social harmony and sustainable development. Meanwhile, building learning cities is also a systematic project that needs long-term, unremitting and courageous innovation practices.

Wang Anshun, Mayor of Beijing

Beijing, one of the most populous cities in China, officially launched its learning city agenda in 1999 in order to promote innovation, sustainability and inclusiveness in the city in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games. Beijing City Council’s official report The Decision to Vigorously Promote the Construction of a Learning Beijing in the Capital City (2007) states that the overall objective of building a learning city in Beijing is to achieve sustainable and scientific development. (Scientific development is one of the guiding socio-economic principles of the Communist Party of China. Its goals centre on the promotion of scientific socialism, sustainable development, social welfare, a humanistic society, increased democracy and a ‘Socialist Harmonious Society’).

The Beijing Municipal Government, which has played a key role in systematically establishing a lifelong education system, has set up a lifelong learning team within the Beijing Municipal Commission of Education. The strong leadership provided by the government has led to the strengthening of adult and further education, the promotion of community education and the creation of websites that serve as lifelong learning platforms for citizens. The Learning Beijing initiative has grown rapidly over the last fifteen years. Having successfully hosted the first International Conference on Learning Cities in October 2013, Beijing is now entering a new phase in its development.


General overview

Beijing looks back on a history of 3,000 years as a city and 800 years as a capital city. It is a centrally administered municipality and is divided into fourteen districts and two counties. At the end of 2013, the population of Beijing was 21.148 million. The Beijing economy has been growing fast, increasing by 7.7 per cent between 2013 and 2014 alone. To accompany ongoing reforms, the introduction of more liberal policies and the rapid development of China’s economy and society as a whole, the Chinese Government began to promote lifelong learning and the building of a learning society from the late twentieth century onwards. The Beijing Municipal Government responded by developing a proposal to build a learning city in 1999. In that year, the Beijing Municipal Government’s report Deepening Education Reform and Promoting Quality Education officially put becoming a learning city on the government agenda.

Main issues to be tackled

Beijing launched its learning city agenda as a response to the economic, environmental, demographic and social challenges arising from rapid urbanization and economic development. Beijing has achieved an impressive increase in GDP over the past two decades. However, traditional industries are leaving Beijing, and so the city must now ensure that it has a ‘soft landing’ by finding other, sustainable ways to achieve economic growth. A second challenge centres on finding solutions for the severe environmental damage that has been caused by Beijing’s dramatic economic development. A third significant challenge involves managing population growth and finding solutions to the problems already caused by overpopulation in the city.

Motives for becoming a learning city

Hosting the 2008 Olympic Games was the main catalyst for becoming a learning city. Beijing not only had to prepare stadiums and other facilities for the Games, it also had to train the people who would provide the support services. Many learning initiatives were launched for this purpose in the years leading up to the Games. On 10 November 2007, the Beijing Municipal Government launched the Lifelong Learning Day, which centred on the theme ‘Welcome the Olympic Games’. Also in 2007, the Beijing Municipal Party Committee and Government convened an important conference on building a learning city, publishing a policy document entitled The Decision to Vigorously Promote the Construction of a Learning Beijing in the Capital City. This document highlights the important role played by the learning city in rising to the challenges of the knowledge-based economy and adapting to globalization. The document also states that being a learning city enhances the competitiveness of Beijing and improves its capacity for innovation.

Beijing’s main motives for becoming a learning city are therefore to promote innovativeness, sustainability and inclusiveness. A well-designed lifelong learning system within the Learning Beijing structure is the best way to continuously enhance the quality of the workforce. Highly qualified workers can support the sustainable development of the urban economy and improve Beijing citizens’ quality of life. Furthermore, many Learning Beijing projects address social problems by targeting specific disadvantaged groups, such as older people, women and people with disabilities. These projects aim to enrich the lives of participants by developing their skills and thereby helping them to find jobs.

Learning city policies and strategies

The government is playing a leading role in developing Beijing into a learning city and has made several key policy decisions over the past years.

Definition of a learning city

The Beijing Municipal Government has not explicitly defined the term ‘learning city’. Nevertheless, it is clear from official reports that Beijing sees a learning city as one that can respond to the demands of the globalized world by fostering citizens’ all-round development, in particular their ability to innovate. It is also clear that Beijing believes a learning city should not rely solely on the Ministry of Education; government departments, public institutions and the private sector should all work together to achieve learning city goals.

Vision and objectives

As already indicated, The Decision to Vigorously Promote the Construction of a Learning Beijing in the Capital City (Beijing City Council, 2007) states that the overall objective of building a learning city in Beijing is to achieve sustainable and scientific development. More specifically, the construction of the learning city will pursue the following objectives:

• to build up a lifelong learning structure;

• to mobilize educational resources;

• to create a learning atmosphere;

• to establish good conditions for learning; and

• to attract experts with an innovative and dynamic spirit.

Legislative framework

At the national level, there are several official documents and policy papers on the development of learning cities in China. The latest and most important one is The Outline of China’s National Plan for Medium and Long-Term Education Reform and Development (2010–2020). This paper, which sets out a clear policy for building a learning society, states that the chief goals of the education reforms it proposes are ‘to basically modernize education, bring a learning society into shape, and turn China into a country rich in human resources’ (Ministry of Education of China, 2010, p. 9).

The Beijing Municipal Government believes that developing a learning city is important for the overall development of the region. The government is playing a leading role in developing Beijing into a learning city and has made several key policy decisions over the past years. In 2002, the strategic goal of ‘building a learning society and promoting the modernization of education in Beijing’ was accepted by the ninth Congress of Party Representatives of Beijing. In 2004, the Beijing Municipal Educational Conference announced the strategy for developing education in Beijing and positioned the city to take the lead in modernizing education for the whole country. It proposed building the learning city and set 2010 as the target for nationwide modernization. The Advisory Report on Implementing the Eleventh Five-Year Plan for the National Economy and Social Development of Beijing was published in 2005. It proposed building a lifelong education system and promoted building a learning city. The Municipal Party Committee and Government convened a conference on building a learning city in 2007 and published The Decision to Vigorously Promote the Construction of a Learning Beijing in the Capital City. The Twelfth Five-Year Plan for Building Beijing as a Learning City was published in 2011; this provided a systematic design and plan for the next five years.

Governance and partnership

The Communist Party of China (CPC) is responsible for regulating municipal government. This includes issuing administrative orders. The Beijing Communist Party of China and the Beijing Municipal Government act as the local government of Beijing City. The strong leadership of the CPC and the Beijing Municipal Government is crucial for maintaining momentum in building the learning city.

All Learning Beijing activities, the Beijing learning city website, other learning resources and the evaluation of the learning city are under the supervision of the Beijing Municipal Government. The Beijing Municipal Government has also created a lead learning city team headed up by city leaders and comprising twenty-nine government departments and other thirdsector organizations. This team submits work plans and summaries of learning city work each year and supports Beijing Learning Week, a national celebration of lifelong learning. The team also organizes an annual working conference. Parallel to this and using the same model, the districts and counties in Beijing all set up their own leadership management systems and operating mechanisms to coordinate the work involved.

The role of non-governmental institutions is mainly one of follow-up and support. Public institutions such as universities and research institutions contribute to research work. In 2011, Beijing established three new research centres: the Beijing Capital Learning Institute (based in Beijing Normal University), the Beijing Learning Organization Developing Research Centre (based in Renmin University of China) and the Beijing Learning School Research Centre (based in Capital Normal University), all of which contribute to learning city research. The Beijing Learning City Research Centre, which is based in the Beijing Academy of Educational Science, has the longest history of research and practice in learning city development. It is responsible for organizing a team of experts for assessment and auditing. The Beijing Learning City Research Centre provides many other services too, such as organizing training sessions and workshops and providing various districts in Beijing with research support.


Provision of lifelong learning

Beijing has developed four kinds of adult and further education support systems. These are:

• a community education and training network headed by a community college (some 80 per cent of neighbourhoods have founded community education centres based on this model);

• a college network composed of twenty-six adult colleges that is directed and managed by the Beijing Municipal Government;

• a network for enterprise education and training geared to the needs of industry and state-owned enterprises; and

• a training network led by various thirdsector organizations that is mainly concerned with providing vocational, social skills and cultural training.

By the end of 2011, community colleges in Beijing’s urban districts had established more than forty programmes. Each year, a total of around 200,000 sessions of further education, on-the-job training and training for vocational qualifications take place. Around half of the participants complete their courses successfully and are awarded certification.

Developing community education has entailed pooling resources from local schools and colleges and opening them up to the wider community. This has strengthened links between primary and secondary schools and their communities so that local people now have access to teachers, classrooms and equipment. More than 60 per cent of educational institutions in Beijing offer their local communities lifelong learning opportunities.

Furthermore, the city has assigned over 1,000 full-time teachers to work in local neighbourhoods, where they are building relationships between colleges and their communities. Learning opportunities for older people are also increasing rapidly. There are two municipal universities for older people and sixteen universities offering courses designed especially for older people, such as singing, dancing and drawing courses. There are also schools for older people in other parts of the city.

There are more than 700,000 visits to the Beijing learning city website (www.bjlearning.gov.cn) every year. Eight districts in the city have already established their own lifelong learning and community education websites, and some have also created digital libraries. More than 300 distance learning facilities have been provided in more remote suburban districts.

Eight districts in the city have already established their own lifelong learning and community education websites, and some have also created digital libraries.

Full use is being made of the latest technology to launch distance education in rural areas. In addition, each government department in the region has created its own digital learning space.

To give impetus to the plan to develop community education, enterprise education and further education, Beijing has established learning organizations in urban districts, towns and local neighbourhoods and within enterprises and schools. Thousands of learning organization pilot projects have been launched, and all of these have been successfully evaluated.

Civic education activities have been established to promote healthier and higher-quality lifestyles in the city. Activities include education on social behaviour, including politeness and etiquette. The Beijing Municipal Commission of Education holds a range of citizen lectures, the Municipal Bureau of Press and Publication has implemented a project to improve reading habits and the Women’s Federation has developed projects on learning families.

Beijing has also launched Learning Brands – quality seals that it awards to excellent learning products and services – in order to encourage people to participate in lifelong learning activities. Learning Stars are awarded to outstanding individual learners. The Learning Brands and Learning Stars are announced during Beijing’s annual Learning Week Festival, during which free learning activities are offered across the country in order to inspire adults to take the first steps back into learning.

Example of innovation or good practice

Shougang Group: a learning organization integrating individuals and enterprise


Shougang is one of China’s largest steel producers. In February 2005, Shougang relocated for environmental reasons. This move, which involved relocating 100,000 employees, provided an opportunity to turn Shougang into a learning organization. The company’s main objective was to promote learning in order to ease employees’ transition, enhance their skills, improve product quality and ultimately build an innovative, environmentally sustainable and technologically advanced enterprise.

Main target groups

The target group was the company’s employees. Shougang organized a range of learning and training exchanges to introduce employees to the advanced technology in the new steel plant. For example, the corporation established a strategic partnership with well-known enterprises at home and abroad as well as institutions of higher learning and research. Shougang also put together professional research and development teams, established a group of first-class experts from home and abroad, and took part in major science and technology projects.

Relocation rarely happens without personnel problems. Shougang’s approach was to turn the relocation into an opportunity for staff to develop personally and professionally. Some staff went to the new steel factory and some left the company, but almost all were able to use the situation to their advantage.

The corporation even managed to ride out the financial crisis of 2008 at the exact moment of relocation and restructuring. It saw the financial crisis as another opportunity to reinforce the learning organization and expand its vision. The learning organization became a way to tackle key problems together. This helped to reduce risk and enhance the competitiveness of the enterprise.

Main activities

Group learning: The Shougang headquarters holds annual seminars on innovation, creating excellence and the experience of start-ups. Seminars focus on a different theme each year and provide opportunities for interaction between senior and middle management.

‘Happy’ learning: Shougang works hard to ensure that employees are eager to learn and that early resistance (‘They are making me learn’) gives way to a desire to learn (‘I myself want to learn’). This is achieved partly by the way in which training materials are presented: care is taken to distil learning material into easily assimilated packages. For some purposes, for example, staff are offered ‘ten little tips’ about how to do something or ‘ten little things that can lead to ten changes’.

Focusing on realizing people’s potential: The training aims for self-actualization and encourages people to go beyond what they think they can achieve. Several Shougang staff members have won awards for being model employees, and through the learning processes offered by the corporation, many have achieved positions well above those that their initial qualifications would normally have merited.


The success of Shougang’s learning organization programmes is attributable to two things: the involvement of senior management and the training process itself. The Party Committee Secretary, the Chairman of the Board of Shougang Headquarters and the General Manager led the teams designing the learning activities. They designed a scheme that linked learning outcomes to remuneration. Based on learning outcomes and merit, more than 30 per cent of employees are promoted and awarded a salary increase.

Mobilization and utilization of resources

The initiatives of Learning Beijing always have sufficient funding, not least because the Municipal Finance Bureau is a member of the learning city leadership team. Indeed, funding for Learning Beijing is increasing. In 2013, the municipal government awarded 22 million yuan (about 3.6 million US dollars) to seventeen learning city projects, and funding will rise to 35 million yuan (about 5.7 million US dollars) in 2014. Some extra funding is provided by various local governments.

The municipal government places great emphasis on human resources and publications to support the learning city. The City of Beijing provides a team of experts, researchers, practitioners and volunteers, and, as well as maintaining the Learning Beijing website, it publishes a weekly magazine entitled Learning in Beijing. The Beijing Learning City Research Centre also publishes annual reports and research articles. All these materials are shared during the annual Learning Week.

Monitoring and evaluation

The Beijing Municipal Commission of Education organizes a group of experts to conduct the whole assessment process. With the experts’ help, Beijing has created an evaluation index to monitor performance. The Beijing Evaluation Index, which in recent years has included some changes to incorporate the Key Features of Learning Cities, covers factors such as policy, legislation, media coverage, organization, management, funding, human resources, research, innovation and implementation across all levels, from preschool to education for older people, immigrants and disadvantaged groups. The region under assessment receives guidance from experts and training on how to understand and use the index before undergoing a formal assessment. The regional government leaders then perform a self-assessment and write a progress report describing results and sharing innovations. Finally, the experts give their feedback.

The Beijing Evaluation Index, which in recent years has included some changes to incorporate the Key Features of Learning Cities, covers factors such as policy, legislation, media coverage, organization, management, funding, human resources, research, innovation and implementation across all levels.

Impacts and challenges

Evaluation is key to maintaining the quality of a learning city.


Building a learning city has had a remarkable impact on Beijing over the past fifteen years. Learning Beijing has enriched the theory of lifelong education; promoted adult and further education; facilitated connection and communication between different types of education at all levels; established new learning organizations; opened up schools’ educational resources to the wider public; expanded community education institutions to all citizens; and created websites providing information and learning materials.

More and more citizens have become involved in learning city initiatives. More than 8 million people attend various further education courses annually, and nearly 200,000 people a year attain vocational certificates and diplomas after completing training courses. More than 100 community education activities have received Learning Brands, and nearly 500 people have been awarded Learning Stars.


As Beijing enters a new phase of innovation and development, the environment is replacing the economy as the government’s top priority. The learning city therefore needs to develop a strategy for educating citizens about environmental protection. Another challenge is ensuring that Beijing adapts to a new era by providing learning programmes that meet citizens’ changing needs.

Lessons learned and recommendations

The government should play a central role in developing and implementing learning city strategies. With strong support from national and local government, the learning city initiative can have enough funding and policies to ensure it stays on the right track.

Systematic structural design is the foundation for a good learning city. As a megacity, Beijing designed and put into practice various levels of community education and learning organizations.

Evaluation is key to maintaining the quality of a learning city. The municipal government in Beijing started the evaluation process as soon as it launched its learning city strategy. To ensure that practitioners understand the objectives of their efforts, the Key Features of Learning Cities need to be incorporated into the Beijing Evaluation Index.




Yuan Dayong

Official title

Researcher, Beijing Academy of Educational Sciences






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For citation please use

Raúl Valdes-Cotera, Norman Longworth, Katharina Lunardon, Mo Wang, Sunok Jo, Sinéad Crowe. 2017. Beijing. China. UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. Available at: https://preprod.uil.unesco.org/case-study/gnlc/beijing [Accessed 5 December 2021]

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