At what age can a child start coding? What is the right age for kids to learn computer programming?

While ambitious parents in China are already registering kids as young as four for coding classes, the CEO of a major Chinese online gaming and entertainment company proposes that the playing field be leveled by including computer programming in China’s compulsory basic education curriculum.

William Ding Lei, the founder and chief executive of Hangzhou-based NetEase, said in a proposal for the Two Sessions that the country should have a continuous curriculum for coding from primary school to senior high school and build a resource library to help young learners pick up the skill.

Ding Lei, founder and CEO of NetEase attends the World Internet Conference (WIC) in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province, China, October 20, 2019. (Picture: Reuters)

His proposal also suggested including coding as part of academic examinations, which would position coding as an “important” aspect of the education system, according to the proposal released on Thursday.

Ding’s proposal comes as China aims for global supremacy in multiple hi-tech sectors, from artificial intelligence to blockchain, driving up the demand for developers and computing engineers.

But despite China’s lofty ambitions to become an AI powerhouse and rising interest in tech-related professions, coding education in the world’s second-largest economy has remained behind those in other countries.

In Israel, for example, coding is a compulsory course in high schools. In 2014, Britain adopted a national computing curriculum that included coding lessons for children as young as five. In the same year, then-US President Barack Obama pledged US$4 billion in funding for computer science education in the nation’s schools.

A shortage of hi-tech talent has already been preventing the wider adoption of AI in China, according to an industry white paper released in December, which nonetheless projected that the market would be worth US$11.9 billion by 2023.

In his proposal, Ding – a member of the country’s top political advisory body Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) – also suggested that authorities set up a nationwide digital education platform that continues e-learning methods popularised during the coronavirus pandemic, allowing children in less-developed regions to access high quality education materials.

Online learning enjoyed a surge in popularity in the early part of this year after authorities postponed the start of the new school term for months in an effort to contain the spread of the outbreak, forcing traditional bricks and mortar schools in China to innovate.

This spells hope for online education providers that had been struggling to make money. NetEase’s e-learning unit Youdao, for example, had slashed its New York Stock Exchange IPO target by half in October after it recorded a net loss of US$24 million in the first half of last year. However, the online education company reported that its net revenues jumped almost 140% year-on-year in the first quarter, with gross billings of online courses almost tripling to 518.6 million yuan (US$73 million yuan) compared to same period last year.

The CPPCC and the National People's Congress (NPC), China’s parliament, are two main political bodies of China that convene each year to discuss major laws and regulations, as well as scrutinise work reports and the national budget, in what is known as the Two Sessions.

Some of the country’s best-known technology names including Baidu chief executive Robin Li Yanhong, Xiaomi chairman Lei Jun and Lenovo CEO Yang Yuanqing are slated to appear in person at the annual event as delegates and members, reflecting the importance of tech in the country’s policies.