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China goes back to school

China is making a $250 billion-a-year investment in what economists call human capital. Just as the US helped build a white-collar middle class in the late 1940s and early 1950s by using the GI Bill to help educate millions of World War II veterans, the Chinese government is using large subsidies to educate tens of millions of young people as they move from farms to cities.

world Updated: Jan 18, 2013 01:43 IST

Zhang Xiaoping’s mother dropped out of school after sixth grade. Her father, one of 10 children, never attended.

But Zhang, 20, is part of a new generation of Chinese taking advantage of a national effort to produce college graduates in numbers the world has never seen before.

A pony-tailed junior at a new university in southern China, Zhang has a major in English. But her unofficial minor is American pop culture, which she absorbs by watching episodes of television shows like The Vampire Diaries and America’s Next Top Model on the Internet.

It is all part of her highly specific ambition: to work some day for a Chinese automaker and provide the cultural insights and English fluency the company needs to supply the next generation of fuel-efficient taxis that New York City plans to choose in 2021.

“It is my dream,” she said, “and I will devote myself wholeheartedly to it.”

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Even if her dream is only dorm-room reverie, China has tens of millions of Zhangs — bright young people whose aspirations and sheer numbers could become potent economic competition for the West in decades to come.

China is making a $250 billion-a-year investment in what economists call human capital. Just as the US helped build a white-collar middle class in the late 1940s and early 1950s by using the GI Bill to help educate millions of World War II veterans, the Chinese government is using large subsidies to educate tens of millions of young people as they move from farms to cities.

The aim is to change the current system, in which a tiny, highly educated elite oversees vast armies of semi-trained factory workers and rural laborers. China wants to move up the development curve by fostering a much more broadly educated public, one that more closely resembles the multifaceted labour forces of the US.

It is too early to know how well the effort will pay off.

While potentially enhancing China’s future as a global industrial power, an increasingly educated population poses daunting challenges for its leaders. With the Chinese economy downshifting in the past year to a slower growth rate, the country faces a glut of college graduates with high expectations and limited opportunities.

Much depends on whether China’s authoritarian political system can create an educational system that encourages the world-class creativity and innovation that modern economies require, and that can help generate enough quality jobs.

China also faces formidable difficulties in dealing with widespread corruption, a sclerotic political system, severe environmental damage, inefficient state-owned monopolies and other problems. But if these issues can be surmounted, a better-educated labour force could help China become an ever more formidable rival to the West.

“It will move China forward in its economy, in scientific innovation and politically, but the new rising middle class will also put a lot of pressure on the government to change,” said Wang Huiyao, the director general of the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based research group.

To the extent that China succeeds, its educational leap forward could have profound implications in a globalised economy in which a growing share of goods and services is traded across international borders. Increasingly, college graduates all over the world compete for similar work, and the boom in higher education in China is starting to put pressure on employment opportunities for college graduates elsewhere — including in the United States.

Beijing Geely University, a private institution founded in 2000 by Li Shufu, the chairman of the automaker Geely, already has 20,000 students studying a range of subjects, but with an emphasis on engineering and science, particularly auto engineering.

Li also endowed and built Sanya University, a liberal arts institution with 20,000 students where Zhang is a student, and opened a 5,000-student vocational community college in his hometown, Taizhou, to train skilled blue-collar workers.

China’s growing supply of university graduates is a talent pool that global corporations are eager to tap.

“If they went to China for brawn, now they are going to China for brains,” said Denis F Simon, one of the best-known management consultants specialising in Chinese business.

Multinationals including IBM, General Electric, Intel and General Motors have each hired thousands of graduates from Chinese universities.

“We’re starting to see leaders coming out of China, and the talent to lead,” said Kevin Taylor, the president of Asia, Mideast and Africa operations at BT, formerly British Telecom.

The overarching question for China’s colleges is whether they can cultivate innovation on a wide scale — vying with the US’ best and brightest in multimedia hardware and software applications, or outdesigning and outengineering Germans in making muscular cars and automated factory equipment.

Sanya University is ramping up international business education. Students there, like Zhang, try to learn as much as possible about foreign markets: their languages, cultural touchstones and more.

“The status of China is growing all the time; we’ve got a really important role in international markets,” she said.

Keith Bradsher, New York Times