@cloudtrapezer : "awful regime of rote learning, hours of homework etc" [...]
creeping in here and there under the banner of tigermumism"
Agreed, but I'd put this into context of the Chinese development stage, and go as far as cultural revolution. Chinese had a lot to catch up, and the parent/grandparent generations (quite correctly I argue) think that education is the way to go further.
Also I'd add that in first years of primary school, China's rote learning is praised even among many foreign education specialists. The youngest kids are served well by learning their alphabet and basic math that way, and independent thinking can come later.
Furthermore, to my understanding Chinese language cannot be taught (and learned) same way as many western languages, especially when it comes to reading and writing.
In this perspective even popular languages like English fall short in comparison to some other western languages that follow phonemic principle, like Spanish or Finnish.