Use Education to Transform China From Within

BEIJING—China’s university system is growing.  However, the People’s Republic of China still lags behind the U.S. and other Western nations.  Chinese students increasingly are heading to America for higher education. 

While recently playing tourist in Beijing I spoke to a number of young Chinese.  They were bright and inquisitive, ambitious and nationalistic.  They worried about finding good jobs and were irritated by government restrictions on their freedom. 

Beijing’s global influence depends upon domestic economic growth and political stability.  And that ultimately depends upon China’s young. 

The PRC’s university students today are most likely to become the country’s leaders tomorrow.  The number of college graduates has increased to seven million, a four-fold jump over the last decade. 

While the number of universities in China is growing, few have national, let alone international, reputations.  Undoubtedly that will change over time.  Today, however, competition for the few available spots at top schools is extraordinary. 

For instance, Peking and Tsinghua Universities are the only Chinese universities among the world’s top 100.  They have space only for 6000 new students a year. 

Obviously, far more Chinese students could succeed, indeed thrive, at fine universities.  So more than 400,000 young Chinese are heading abroad every year. 

The Chinese government increasingly accommodates students who desire to study overseas.  Indeed, in 2011 President Hu Jintao admitted:  “While people receive a good education, there are significant gaps compared to the advanced international level.”  The daughter of his successor, President Xi Jinping, attended Harvard University. 

The U.S. remains the favored destination of Chinese students.  There were 235,000 Chinese students in America during the 2012-2013 school year.  In the past most Chinese students were in graduate school, but the share of undergraduates has been increasing—up more than ninefold from 2005 to 2012. 

U.S. universities offer a greater variety of courses, making it easier to specialize.  They also provide an education more attuned to the global economy in which China is expanding its role. 

A foreign degree is particularly helpful for the three of ten Chinese students who remain overseas.  Chen Yuyu of Peking University observed:  “High-end jobs that should have been produced by industrialization, including research, marketing and accounting, etc., have been left in the West.” 

Foreign companies doing business in China also desire employees with a Western-oriented education.  Even Chinese students destined to work in China gain an advantage from schooling that sets them apart. 

Of course, while many Chinese students are capable of succeeding at foreign universities, many find foreign study difficult.  Some prospective applicants turn to private companies to help them prepare.

The Chinese educational surge is good for America.  Chinese students deliver $24 billion to the U.S economy. 

Moreover, educating many of China’s future leaders is more likely to lead to better bilateral relations and a more peaceful future.  Attending American colleges won’t turn Chinese into Americans, but will yield many personal friendships and business relationships. 

A common educational experience also may encourage a more liberal international vision.  Western schooling certainly does not guarantee humane views, but as I wrote in Forbes online, “a U.S. university education is more likely to reinforce the independent impulses evident in so many Chinese students today.”

They still will be Chinese patriots (and likely quite nationalistic in the eyes of most Americans).  But Western-educated Chinese may be more likely to appreciate if not share U.S. worldviews and objectives.  At least, the possibility is there.

The U.S.-China relationship is the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st Century.  Both nations must work through the inevitable disagreements and make cooperation rather than confrontation the hallmark of their relationship.  While there’s no panacea to make that happen, the growing number of Chinese attending U.S. universities is a hopeful sign.