Dossier: Managing Knowledge

Providing diversified learning: some innovative practices of China Customs

2 March 2023
By Dr. Hua TONG, President Secretary, Shanghai Customs College, General Administration of China Customs

In March 2018, the Chinese government decided to integrate China’s entry-exit inspection and quarantine duties and workforce in 306 ports nationwide into China Customs. The former entry-exit inspection and quarantine officers then commenced working as Customs officers. This marked the birth of the new China Customs, which now counts more than 100,000 staff.

China Customs explained, back in October 2018, how it achieved the full integration of Customs and the inspection and quarantine services by developing completely new clearance procedures and information technology (IT) systems which enabled the digitalization of the clearance process and accurate data analysis[1], among other things.

One issue which was not addressed at the time was how the administration dealt with the gaps in knowledge of Customs officers and of inspection and quarantine officers with regards to their respective procedures and working methods. Some of the measures taken to solve this issue are presented below, together with recent initiatives to identify, collect, create, share and transfer knowledge across the administration.

Training for all staff strategy

To guide its action, China Customs formulated a strategy called “Training for all staff” covering the 2018–2019 period. The objective was to enable staff to expand their professional knowledge and skills, to build a sense of group belonging based on shared principles and practices, and to learn from each other.

The National Education and Training Centre of China Customs was put in charge of implementing the strategy. This was done in two phases. Phase one was dedicated to formulating principles and values, developing a teaching syllabus and training materials with Customs experts from headquarters and regional Customs houses, establishing teams of trainers, and setting up an online platform. The orientation training programme for newly recruited civil servants was also reviewed and updated. Phase two was dedicated to organizing online and in-person courses. In total, 261 training courses were conducted with headquarter staff and 5,598 with regional office staff. The latter had to follow a comprehensive curriculum covering relevant laws and regulations, supervision work, taxation matters, anti-smuggling working methods, and the drawing up of statistics. A specific focus was put on health and quarantine issues such as food safety and the supervision and inspection of imports and exports of animals and plants. The training laid the foundation for the use of a unified declaration, operating system, risk management system, instruction delivery, and on-site law enforcement.

All staff also undertook physical and team training based on military-style models. This included physical fitness training and behavioural training focusing on the importance of obedience to rules, teamwork and discipline. Senior officials also actively participated in this team training, which was designed to promote self-discipline and enable officers to better understand the administration’s code of conduct, organizational culture and values.

Online training

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of online training events and courses made available to staff has expanded sharply. China Customs has customized a training application on the DingTalk platform provided by Chinese retail giant Alibaba. This online learning platform for Customs staff offers more than 700 online courses and enable users to learn autonomously.

There are two kinds of courses: video courses produced by teachers from universities or institutes, and video courses produced by full-time or part-time trainers from China Customs. The courses are either recorded or live. Many trainers and teachers use blended learning, with officers being asked to take courses on their own and then to join a live online session dedicated to discussions and role-playing. It is worth noting that trainers are all experienced officers with expertise in specific subjects. Some are even accredited WCO experts. To enhance their training skills, China Customs has held several “Train the Trainers” workshops. One of the most recent focused on online presentation and how to develop interactive communication in a virtual classroom.

Knowledge credits

To record the time spent on learning, both in person and online, and to set goals for Customs officers, China Customs has established a knowledge credit management system. The time required to complete each course has been calculated in terms of learning hours (one learning hour equalling 40 minutes). Officers can accumulate knowledge credits by passing courses. Two learning hours count for one knowledge credit, but, in order to earn the credits, officers have to pass the test at the end of the course. In other words, not only do they have to take the course, they also have to prove that they have acquired the requisite knowledge and skill. All officers at or above division director level are required to accumulate no less than 110 learning hours per year of off-the-job training, plus no less than 50 learning hours of online training. All officers should therefore obtain no less than 100 knowledge credits per year.

Shanghai Customs College dual instructor system

Shanghai Customs College (SCC) was founded in 1953 to provide higher education in Customs techniques and management to China Customs staff. In March 2007, with the approval of the Ministry of Education, SCC started offering Bachelor’s degrees, which typically take four years to complete and can be the first step to a higher academic degree, such as a Master’s or a Doctorate. SCC subsequently designed a Master of Public Administration, too.

Today, SCC nurtures future Customs officials as well as Customs and trade professionals through three programmes at Bachelor level (Customs administration, entry-exit inspection and quarantine, and Post Clearance Audit). Graduates who then wish to join China Customs can then do so by passing the national civil service examination. The SCC currently has 2,823 full-time students, including 2,724 Bachelor students and 99 Master students. SCC also has 146 Master students following the part-time course of study, which takes three years to complete. The majority of these part-time students are Customs officers. They come to SCC for a full month every six months to take courses and conduct their research thesis while working. They can benefit from different scholarship programmes which cover the bulk of the tuition fees.

In the past two years, SCC mainly delivered its courses online. To ensure that its programmes balanced theory and practice, SCC implemented a dual instructor system whereby each student was assigned two instructors: one from SCC focusing on academic knowledge and the other from the Customs administration focusing on practices and know-how. For its Master of Public Administration, SCC currently has 20 “practice” instructors who are all well-known experts who have held various important positions. They include senior officials at director and director-general level from headquarters and regional Customs houses.

Creating knowledge

A first-class academic institution cannot content itself with spreading knowledge through its programmes and teachings. It must go further by producing original and pertinent findings through research activities and subsequent scientific publications. SCC is set to celebrate its 70th anniversary in 2023 and is working on setting up a Doctorate programme that will enable students to reach international standards of research quality.

Think tank

A think tank is an entity which studies a particular subject (such as a policy issue or a scientific problem) and provides information, ideas, and advice. SCC has a research institute on Customs history which brings together historical scholars and experts from Customs across the country to undertake research with the support of the National Natural Science Foundation of China. To leverage this platform and provide advice on the complex issues linked with international trade, SCC also decided to set up a Customs, Economics and Trade Research Institute. With the contribution of students and of these institutes, SCC produces a Journal of Customs and Trade. It also participates in research projects and publishes papers and books – a total of 123 research projects, 47 papers and 14 books in 2021 alone.

Lingang international campus

Since 2004, SCC has been an active WCO Regional Training Centre (RTC), aiming to be a centre of excellence for the WCO Asia Pacific Region. Under the supervision of the WCO Secretariat and in cooperation with the Regional Office for Capacity Building, it develops and conducts training for all administrations in the region, as well as maintains trainer pools in cross-border e-commerce, human resource management, free zones, IPR protection, rules of origin, post clearance audit, anti-smuggling, Customs valuation and classification.

During the 2016-2020 period, SCC also received 55 groups, including six ministerial-level groups. It held 75 training programmes for 1,840 individuals representing more than 100 countries. SCC sent more than 130 teachers and administrative personnel overseas. It invited 80 experts from foreign Customs, universities and international organizations to give lectures at its premises. A total of 60 students were selected to participate in exchange programmes with three well-known foreign universities, and a total of 54 international students came to study at SCC.

To reinforce this policy aiming at building capacity in the region, SCC established an international campus which will officially open in the second half of 2023 and will welcome high-level Customs officers and trade professionals from the “Belt and Road” countries[2]. Moreover, the campus will be used when training officers under the WCO RTC banner. The Lingang International Campus is to be located near the Dishui Lake in Shanghai.

Professional standards

Universities that wish to have their Bachelor and Master degrees officially recognized as meeting “WCO Professional Standards” can do so by applying to the WCO Secretariat. SCC did this for its Bachelor degree course majoring in Customs management, in order to ensure that its curriculum was geared to meeting the modern human resource requirements of Customs administrations. Certification was obtained in 2018. In 2019, the College applied for its Master in Public Administration to be recognized as meeting WCO requirements, obtaining certification in 2022.

SCC is likewise building a team with WCO accredited experts in human resource management, professors and faculty teachers to continuously update the content of the courses and the knowledge which is shared in line with the WCO PICARD Standards.

Customs Knowledge and Information Centre

The Customs Knowledge & Information Centre is an initiative that aims to offer a central point of access to Customs-related databases. Currently, it provides access to 74 sources of information, including:

  • The Customs self-built information database which was created by SCC and is managed by a team which collects information related to Customs from all over the world, such as papers or books;
  • Baichuan Information News, which is managed by a professional supplier of bulk raw material information;
  • China Customs Digital Library which contains the entire catalogues of three journals, namely People’s Customs, China Customs and Customs Research, with a total of more than 600 volumes and nearly 20,000 articles collected since 1950;
  • China Old Customs Archives 1854-1949 which contain about 120,000 pages of original materials, including general information about China’s domestic trade, taxation, overseas trade, inland tax, ships, passengers, gold and silver, medicine and soil;
  • Customs Gazette 1869-1913 which was founded in 1869 and closed in 1913. It was published quarterly, entirely in English, and contained records of imports, exports, re-exports and payment operations, as well as other trade data;
  • Customs Foreign Language Journals such as the World Customs Journals and the Global Trade and Customs Journal;
  • UN Comtrade (United Nations Trade Commodity Statistics Database) which is managed by the United Nations Statistics Division and contains commodity trade statistics for nearly 200 countries and territories since 1962. It has accumulated nearly 7 billion records;
  • WCO Data Model and WCO Trade Tools.

The way forward

China Customs has launched several initiatives which are in line with the theme chosen by the WCO Secretariat for 2023, “Nurturing the next generation: promoting a culture of knowledge-sharing and professional pride in Customs.”

Knowledge management platform

One initiative is the development of a knowledge management platform designed to break down barriers to communication, allow the continuous updating of content, easily answer questions and share experiences. The system will not only capture what the administration already knows, but also dynamically collect new knowledge. It will make use of information technologies to analyse open-source information such as newspaper articles, web pages and publications on various topics. It is to become a free online encyclopaedia, similar to Wikipedia, for Customs administrations.

The first phase of the project has been successfully implemented. It consisted of agreeing on the top-level design, undertaking Customs knowledge mapping, developing contents and modules, and establishing the maintenance and collaboration mechanism. The work was supervised by the Department of Science and Technology Development of China Customs. The second phase of the project will be launched in 2023. It will consist of implementing pilot projects, conducting big data analysis and collecting information.

Immersive learning

Similarly, courses make it possible to acquire the knowledge required to exercise the profession and to explore the theoretical aspects of various subjects to be mastered. However, it is always a challenge for trainers to build skills, that is to say the ability to act effectively in a defined situation, an ability which draws on knowledge, but is not reduced to it.

To enhance learner engagement, enable operational know-how to be transferred and assess officers’ skills and conduct, SCC turned to Immersive Learning, an experiential training methodology that uses Virtual Reality (VR) to simulate real-world scenarios. Some virtual reality courses were developed to complement existing courses and designed to train field officers in handling border security crises. Three modules are now available, one on the implementation of health quarantine regulations, one on the handling of explosions at ports and the disposal of dangerous chemicals, and one on the supervision and inspection of express mail items for security purposes.

VR technology allows 3D viewing through a VR headset, which enables the wearer to look around 360 degrees and have the image/video respond to the way they move their head. To generate a lifelike virtual environment in 3D that tricks the user’s brain into blurring the lines between digital and reality, a number of components are embedded in the headset, such as a head tracking module, motion tracking module, eye tracking module, and the most important optical imaging module. A high memory computer, a TV screen, hand-held controllers and censors to track the devices are also needed to deliver the virtual reality courses. In addition, the use of VR requires access to high-bandwidth connectivity delivered through fixed networks. VR devices and equipment are available at the RTC premises and in some regional Customs houses.

The administration is now working to deploy the VR courses across the country via standalone VR devices, interactive large screens and streaming media servers. One of China’s regional Customs, Huangpu Customs, is testing the introduction of VR devices, enabling officers to immerse themselves into real premises and situations when undertaking training, apply knowledge acquired in the classroom to the field, and improve their operational skills.

China Customs also plans to connect the classrooms with Customs inspection premises via 4K high resolution cameras. Thanks to 5G, the fifth generation of cellular technology, officers undertaking an inspection should be able to ask students and teachers for their assistance via a live video call. This would enable students to work on practical cases and better understand some of the challenges they will be faced with in the field.

More information


[2]“Belt and Road” refers to the combination of two initiatives unveiled in September and October 2013 respectively: the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road. They focus on promoting policy coordination, the connectivity of infrastructure and facilities, unimpeded trade, financial integration, and closer people-to-people ties. China has signed Belt and Road cooperation documents with 150 countries and 32 international organizations.