SANYA, China – 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.”
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 United States 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 labor forces of the United States and Europe.
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 labor 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 globalized 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.
China's current five-year plan, through 2015, focuses on seven national development priorities, many of them new industries that are in fashion among young college graduates in the West. They are alternative energy, energy efficiency, environmental protection, biotechnology, advanced information technologies, high-end equipment manufacturing and so-called new energy vehicles, like hybrid and all-electric cars.
China's goal is to invest up to 10 trillion renminbi, or $1.6 trillion, to expand those industries to represent 8 percent of economic output by 2015, up from 3 percent in 2010.
At the same time, many big universities are focusing on existing technologies in industries where China poses a growing challenge to the West.
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 specializing 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.
Sheer numbers make the educational push by China, a nation of more than 1.3 billion people, potentially breathtaking. In the last decade, China doubled the number of colleges and universities, to 2,409.
As recently as 1996, only 1 in 6 Chinese 17-year-olds graduated from high school. That was the same proportion as in the United States in 1919. Now, 3 in 5 young Chinese graduate from high school, matching the United States in the mid-1950s.
China is on track to match within seven years the United States' current high school graduation rate for 18-year-olds of 75 percent – although a higher proportion of Americans than Chinese later go back and finish high school.
By quadrupling its output of college graduates in the past decade, China now produces 8 million graduates a year from universities and community colleges. That is already far ahead of the United States in number – but not as a percentage. With only about one-fourth the number of China's citizens, the United States each year produces 3 million college and junior college graduates.
By the end of the decade, China expects to have nearly 195 million community college and university graduates – compared with no more than 120 million in the United States then.
Volume is not the same as quality, of course. And some experts in China contend that the growth of classroom slots in higher education has outstripped the supply of qualified professors and instructors.
Xu Qingshan, the director of the Institute for Higher Education Research at Wuhan University, said that many university administrators seek the fastest possible growth in enrollments to maximize the size and revenue of their institutions, even though this may overstretch a limited number of talented professors.
China's president, Hu Jintao, in a speech in 2011 acknowledged shortfalls in the country's higher education system.
“While people receive a good education,” he said, “there are significant gaps compared with the advanced international level.”
Giles Chance, a longtime consultant in China who is now a visiting professor at Peking University, said that many of the tens of millions of new Chinese college graduates might find jobs at manufacturers but did not have the skills to compete in big swaths of the U.S. economy – particularly in services like health care, sales or consumer banking.
“A Chinese graduate from a second-tier university is not the equal of an American in language skills and cultural familiarity,” he said.
The overarching question for China's colleges is whether they can cultivate innovation on a wide scale – vying with the United States' best and brightest in multimedia hardware and software applications, or outdesigning and outengineering Germans in making muscular cars and automated factory equipment.
Indeed, Japan's experience shows that having more graduates does not guarantee entrepreneurial creativity.
In the decades after World War II, Japan mounted an educational effort similar to the one in China now. Japan's version led to a huge middle class and helped turn that nation into one of the world's largest economies. But partly because of a culture where fitting in is often more prized than standing out, Japan hit an economic plateau.
If China's universities cannot help solve the innovation riddle, the country may also have a hard time moving forward once its advantages of low-cost labor and cheap capital disappear, which economists say could happen within 10 to 15 years, and possibly much sooner.
Still, with 10 times Japan's population, China has the capability to compete with white-collar Americans and Europeans in a wide range of industries.
SO FAR, SO FAST
To see how far China has come, so fast, look no farther than Zhang's own family. For her parents, education was barely an option.
Her father, the eighth of 10 children, was born to rice farmers in 1968 in a small village near Nanchang in one of China's poorest provinces, Jiangxi, halfway between Shanghai and Hong Kong. The family survived on one meager meal a day. Most of the children, including Zhang's father, did not attend school. At age 12, he followed his brother to a construction job in neighboring Fujian province.
Zhang's mother was born two years after her father and was the daughter of the local Communist Party official who ran the village until 1990. She belatedly started school at age 7, in 1977, a year after the end of the Cultural Revolution, Mao's longest anti-intellectual purge. She dropped out after primary school, six years later, following a pattern then common in rural areas.
Zhang's father moved back to the village and married Zhang's mother over her parents' initial objections. He started a construction business with his brothers. The enterprise has done moderately well, enabling Zhang's father to buy, six years ago, the family's first car, a black Ford Focus that was already 9 years old.
Rather than pursuing material comforts, the Zhangs, like hundreds of millions of families across China, have focused their money and effort on getting their children through high school and into universities.
One of Zhang's two younger brothers – China's one-child policy is less rigorously enforced in rural areas – is a sophomore studying international trade at Tongji University, a 105-year-old institution in Shanghai considered among the top two dozen or so in China. The other brother is now a freshman at highly regarded Nanchang University, having skipped a grade in middle school and another in high school.
When Zhang did not get into a top Chinese university despite attending a magnet high school, she recalled, “my parents were very disappointed.”
Nor did she initially win a government scholarship. Her parents had to pay the full annual tuition of $2,000 at Sanya University, which as a private institution does not receive subsidies as generous as those given to public universities. Room and board are an additional $1,800 a year.
At top public institutions, annual tuition is a little less than $1,000 – equal to about two months' wages for a skilled factory worker.
But as a reward for top grades, Zhang has won government scholarships for her sophomore and junior years at Sanya that cover three-quarters of the tuition.
Even as students like Zhang flock to Chinese universities, rising numbers of China's students attend foreign universities. Chinese undergraduate or graduate students at American universities reached a record high of 194,000 in the last academic year, according to the Institute of International Education in New York. That was almost triple the 67,000 five years earlier.
In part, this reflects the prestige of studying abroad, and that more Chinese families can afford the cost and are looking for ways to get their money and their children out of the country as a way to hedge their risk against internal political or economic turbulence. But it is also because a Western college education is better, and Western universities do not require the same high marks as Chinese ones do on China's famously difficult college entrance exams.
Chinese undergraduates who study in the West tend to be from wealthy families and show a wide range of academic ability, from mediocre to outstanding. But Chinese graduate students studying abroad typically have bachelor's degrees from top-tier universities either at home or in the West, and they almost always excel academically while overseas, said Doug Guthrie, a professor of Chinese business strategies who is the dean of George Washington University's School of Business.
Graduate students from China often have government scholarships to study abroad. The scholarships are a tacit acknowledgment by Beijing that a superior graduate education, particularly in fields like engineering and science, often is still to be found in the West.
QUANTITY, BUT QUALITY?
Walk around some of the hundreds of newly built Chinese universities these days and at first glance they look a lot like big state universities in the U.S.
Just as China has built national grids of high-speed rail lines and superhighways in the past decade, it has built campuses full of modern classroom buildings, dormitories, libraries and administration buildings.
Peek inside the classrooms and virtually every seat is filled.
One of the biggest questions about the quality of Chinese universities involves who is teaching, and what and how.
Chinese administrators struggle to find seasoned professors. Because few Chinese went to college until the last decade, much less to graduate school, most universities find themselves in hiring competitions – with one another and with companies all over China that are struggling to find middle managers and executives.
“The biggest problem is finding good professors, especially good professors of around 40 years old with good experience – they are the most sought-after teachers in China,” said Nathan Jiang, the vice president of Geely University.
All but the best universities must find teachers among recent graduates, who may lack experience, or retirees, whose knowledge may be out of date.
China was producing fewer than 10,000 doctoral degrees a year until 1999, according to Education Ministry data. So for every person in China who received a doctorate during the 1990s and might now be in the prime of a teaching career, there are 3,000 undergraduates.
Especially in fields like engineering, the most popular undergraduate major by far in China, corporations can easily outbid universities. The basic pay of a professor is typically under $300 a month – less than an assembly line worker makes.
Professors can earn considerably more by winning promotion to university administration positions, but these posts are often based on activism within the Communist Party instead of research excellence. Those who stay as professors frequently line up multiple grants to conduct several research projects simultaneously, which almost inevitably places quantity of research ahead of quality.
Or, dissatisfied with their pay, many senior professors start companies on the side, said Weng Cuifen, a National University of Singapore researcher who studies Chinese university education. “They spend their time on second jobs, making money.”
Teaching methods in China also tend to be outdated by Western standards, and seem ill suited to producing either the entrepreneurs or the socially adept managers that multinationals covet.
A few newer colleges and universities have begun experimenting with seminars and workshops. But the prevailing pattern remains for professors to lecture in large halls, with students expected to be quiet and listen.
“Some younger teachers like to communicate with the students, but older teachers just stand in front of the students and speak alone,” said Long Luting, a 2010 chemical engineering graduate of Tianjin University, one of China's best schools. She just finished a two-year trainee program and has moved into management at the Beijing offices of BASF, a German chemicals multinational.
As in Japan, students in China tend to do their most strenuous studying in high school. In college, they can slow down, whether to pursue more diverse interests – or, like many students around the world, to spend a lot of time at parties.
Growing up as the only child of a municipal civil servant in Zigong, a medium-size city in western Sichuan province, Long said that she studied practically every waking hour in high school and had little chance to socialize.
“In high school, it's a tragedy,” she said, recalling her father's exhortations to succeed. “Most of my classmates were also only children; we have a lot of pressure from our parents.”
But when she reached Tianjin University, Long said, she could take her classes and do all her homework during the mornings. She spent her afternoons at an English language club, honing her considerable ability to banter in the language despite never having traveled overseas.
Some Chinese universities offer as many as 1,000 clubs. They cover everything from languages to karaoke.
Many academics inside and outside China question whether the growing number of clubs is enough to foster creativity because the Chinese system still requires students to specialize from an early age. Most students choose their major before going to a university, and then enter highly focused academic programs in which they have only a handful of electives.
Chinese employers tend to look for specialized students who can fill specific roles immediately. They have shown less interest in the long-term training of other types of students, like humanities majors.
Foreign-owned corporations in China often use Chinese graduates differently, putting more emphasis on long-term career development through a variety of assignments to build a trainee's ability to understand complex issues, work in teams and lead.
Long, for example, spent her first two years as a trainee at BASF rotating through marketing, the performance management division and the business operations department, before settling in business operations, tracking sales and other reports from BASF units around China.
Graduates like Long from the country's top 20 universities are among the best in the world, but multinationals are more able to make use of them than hierarchical Chinese companies, said Joerg Wuttke, BASF's chief representative in China.
“Where does the seed land – on a rock or on fertile ground?” he said. “We benefit by being able to hire all these talented graduates.”
READY TO TAKE ON AMERICA
China already has the world's largest auto industry, producing twice as many cars and trucks last year as the United States or Japan. But it exports virtually none of those cars to the West – yet.
Chinese automakers and policymakers have been quietly preparing for years to follow the export example of Japan and South Korea. But reaching that goal will require at least four big advances: designing more attractive cars and engines, improving reliability, developing local technologies that do not depend on patents leased from foreign automakers, and understanding overseas buyers and how to market to them.
Chinese officials say that a big reason they are pouring billions of dollars into the development of electric and hybrid cars is that they hope to leapfrog the West and develop indigenous technologies before other countries do.
Progress on energy-saving and less polluting technologies could give Chinese companies an advantage, for example, when the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission decides in 2021 what model or models the city's fleets will be required to buy next. The city has been asking for improved fuel efficiency in taxis.
But while China's lavish investments on next-generation automotive technologies have drawn international attention, the country is also trying to develop the soft side of international business: marketers, advertising specialists and others who can intuit what overseas customers really want in a car, and persuade them that the Chinese can offer it.
Li, the Geely chairman, grew up as a son of peasant farmers in east-central China. But he has become one of his country's wealthiest auto tycoons by building inexpensive cars that have just enough pizazz to be appealing. His holding company, Geely Group, bought Volvo Cars of Sweden from Ford in 2010, and he now wants to take on the West.
Geely is starting elaborate market research in Britain to determine which of its models will be popular there. That is the leading edge of what is likely to be a full-fledged assault by Chinese automakers on Western markets by 2015.
Li is also far along on another goal, training his own managers. His companies hire the best graduates from the three campuses he has founded.
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.
She is majoring in English, but her favorite courses have been in marketing. She works in her spare time as a guide for international conferences and sporting events here, to gain more exposure to native English speakers. She reads actively about automotive trends. And she brims with confidence about her ability to persuade New York City to buy Geely cars for taxis.
“The status of China is growing all the time; we've got a really important role in international markets,” she said in fluent English. “We need the capability to communicate with foreigners.”