John Schoen  /  msnbc.com
Gong Da Dian, 25, moved to the city looking for a better life. He wants to go back to school and start a computer company "if I can get enough money.”
Image: John Schoen
By John W. Schoen Senior Producer
msnbc.com
updated 10/19/2010 11:46:38 AM ET 2010-10-19T15:46:38

Gong Da Dian had some great expectations when he came to this burgeoning city in southwestern China.

Four years ago, he left his family farm in a small town about 60 miles to the southwest, and took a job testing video games. It wasn’t long before he’d switched jobs.

“I was tired of looking at a computer screen all day long,” he said. “You worked overtime and they didn’t give you extra money. It’s not fair.”

Now he’s working as a bellhop at a downtown hotel overlooking the Funan River; the shiny brass nameplate on his uniform shows his English name, Dickens.

“But I can’t stay at the hotel,” he said between trips to the street to hail cabs for guests leaving the hotel. “I need to become smarter. I need to improve. I’ll go back to school, if I can get enough money.”

    1. msnbc.com
      West get ready, here comes China 2.0
    2. China seeks a new generation of innovators
    3. Wealth gap strains social fabric

Creating a new generation of higher-skilled workers is both a means and an end for China’s ambitious development plan. With wages rising for low-skilled factory jobs, Chinese leaders say they need to expand the base of higher-paying jobs and create the highly trained work force needed to fill those jobs.

But as China overhauls its education system, it faces a big risk: What happens if the next generation learns to think too far outside the Communist Party's box?

John Schoen  /  msnbc.com
To create new technology and high-wage jobs, China has embarked on a big investment in education. But traditional Chinese teaching methods stress memorization - not thinking "outside the box."

Upgrading an education system to serve a continent-sized country of 1.3 billion people would be a monumental challenge under any  circumstances. A big boost in spending has raised China's enrollment rate to 95 percent of primary school-aged children from 80 percent in 2001, according to a recent World Bank report.

But those "high average enrollment ratios masked inequality in access and quality” between prosperous urban areas and poor rural counties and villages, the report found. It added that “the problem was particularly marked in the western region.” 

China’s leaders are also wrestling with a more fundamental problem. Some observers argue that the traditional Chinese approach to education doesn’t encourage the kind of independent thought that fosters innovation and risk taking.

"The education system rewards hard work and memorizing things," said K.C. Kwok, an economist at the University of Hong Kong. "They reward politeness and humbleness. If you want to critically challenge your teacher, that’s considered impolite. "

Not long ago, challenging the party line could be hazardous to your health. For the past 30 years, China has been rebuilding a higher education system that all but collapsed during the Cultural Revolution, when professors and researchers deemed disloyal to the Communist Party were banished to collective work farms.

Since former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's "opening up" reforms of the 1980s, rebuilding higher education also has meant opening up to Western styles of teaching  and recruiting teachers trained in the West. Teachers with international experience are more open to students challenging their ideas, according to a student at the state-run University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, who did not give her name when she spoke at a recent meeting with U.S. journalists.

The move to overhaul China's education system to foster independent thinking and fresh ideas is critical to Beijing’s aspiration to develop world class “China brands” that attract the same kind of global demand that major western brands enjoy with Chinese consumers. The goal is to create products that are so innovative, well-designed or well-made that they can compete with foreign brands.

"China is looking to find that breakthrough — whether it’s in appliances or some other field — where they develop an international brand that when you hear the name, you think, 'China is really coming up,'" said Jim Thompson, head of a global shipping company based in Hong Kong. "It’s going to will take awhile but I think it will happen. They’re trying to get to that point.”

There are signs that China’s investment in higher education and research is paying off. China's global patent applications are growing five times more quickly than those of the U.S., and total patent volume is expected to top both the U.S. and Japan next year, according to a recent analysis by Thomson Reuters. Officials here proudly note that China publishes more papers in international journals than any country but the United States.

But the quality of some of those papers has been called into question. Last December, a British journal retracted 70 papers from a Chinese university, all by the same two scientists, saying the work had been fabricated.

"Academic fraud, misconduct and ethical violations are very common in China," professor Rao Yi, dean of the life sciences school at Peking University, told The Associated Press. "It is a big problem."

Opening China's higher education system to Western styles of teaching poses another risk to the ruling regime. Students exposed to teachers from the West may develop a taste for Western-style personal freedoms of thought and expression and could press for greater support for basic human rights and democratic rule of law. This month's awarding of the Nobel Peace prize to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo has stepped up pressure on the Chinese government, which has resisted calls to match economic reform with a more open political system.

To maintain the current political order, China's leaders will have to convince Dickens' generation that expanded educational opportunities will bring economic opportunity for people like him.

“I want a good family and a good career,” said Dickens. “If I get the chance I’d like to start a company that makes computer programs, or IT services.”

As the gap widens between the richest and poorest in China, that may be a difficult promise for China's leaders to keep.

Next: China's wealth gap strains social fabric

Reporting for this series was done as part of the first China-United States Journalists Exchange, a field-study trip sponsored jointly by the East West Center, the Better Hong Kong Foundation and the All China Journalists Association.  The two-week trip included dozens of meetings with government, business and academic leaders in Hong Kong, Beijing, Chengdu and  areas damaged by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Photos: China 2.0 - Economic transformation

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  1. China 2.0

    A guard stands sentry overlooking Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Three decades after the failed policies of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution brought economic collapse, China has caught up with Japan to become the world's second-largest economy. But as it enters a new phase of growth, the Chinese government faces a new set of challenges. (John Schoen / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. The way West

    The Great Wall, one of the greatest engineering projects ever built, stretches west. China has embarked on a massive new infrastructure program designed to spread the breakneck economic growth of its coastal cities to inland and western regions. (John Schoen / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Panda power

    A growing panda consumes between 15 to 30 kilograms of bamboo every day in the Wolong National Nature Reserve in western Sichuan, a popular tourist attraction. The government is encouraging newly wealthy Chinese to travel more as part of a plan to boost domestic spending. (John Schoen / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Wealth gap

    Shoppers search for low prices at a Wal-Mart store in the New World Shopping Center in Beijing. China's red-hot economy has raised the living standards of urban households. But hundreds of millions of rural workers earn roughly $2 a day. (John Schoen / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Building the New China

    A laborer in Chengdu works on a new sewer system, part of a multibillion-dollar investment in new roads, railways, power and water lines. China's rapid industrialization has created a long list of environmental hazards that will be costly to clean up. (John Schoen / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Property wealth

    A farmer in rural Sichuan province tends to the fall harvest. Rural households recently were granted long-term leases on their property. But land reform has been plagued by corruption. (John Schoen / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. The next generation

    Like many aspiring young Chinese, Gong Da Dian, 25, who goes by the English name "Dickens," moved to the city of Chengdu looking for a better life. But it hasn't been easy. He wants to go back to school and start a computer company "if I can get enough money.” (John Schoen / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Learning to innovate

    At Deyang Primary School No. 1, students assemble in light, airy rooms surrounding a quiet courtyard. Classes can include as many as 70 students. To create new technology and high-wage jobs, China is spending heavily on education. (John Schoen / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Designing their future

    A worker at an art company in western Sichuan province creates traditional Chinese paintings. The government is working to create jobs in rural areas, where employment opportunities are scarce. (John Schoen / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. On the move

    Three years ago, He Yue moved to Chengdu in Sichuan province to find "a better opportunity." She now works as a travel agent and business is brisk. "Chinese people used to travel once a year," she said. "Now they travel two or three times a year." (John Schoen / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Recovery and rebuilding

    A photo is left as a memorial to victims of the Sichaun earthquake of 2008, which killed nearly 70,000 people and left millions homeless. The government committed more than $400 million to the relief and rebuilding effort. (John Schoen / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Road to Somewhere

    Though China's coastal cities are choked with traffic, some new highways like this one in Sichuan province are virtually empty. China's leaders are hoping an expanded network of roads, high-speed railways, airports and data links will spur growth in western and inland regions, where economic gains have lagged coastal cities. (John Schoen / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Slow, steady recovery

    You Zhoubao was at home when the Sichuan earthquake struck in 2008, collapsing his home and severing his left leg above the knee. Two years after the disaster, victims are still being treated at a local clinic sponsored by the Hong Kong Red Cross. (John Schoen / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Growth takes a toll

    Stockbroker Zai Shasha helps her customers navigate the burgeoning Chinese stock market. Rapid urban development has helped boost investment returns for her customers. But growth also has created "some sorrows," she said. "The traffic is bad, and the air is terrible." (John Schoen / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Relaxing by the river

    Visitors to Chengdu's riverwalk enjoy a little relief from a hot September day. People in this provincial capital proudly say they enjoy a "more relaxed" lifestyle than friends and family in China's bustling coastal cities. (John Schoen / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Hazy outlook

    Air pollution is a serious problem for Chinese cities, including western provincial capitals like Chengdu. Only 1 percent of the country’s 560 million urban resident breathe air considered safe by the European Union, according to the World Bank. (John Schoen / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Hong Kong: the capitol of capital

    Shoppers flock to Hong Kong from mainland China to spend some of their new wealth. The city also draws investors hoping to profit from heavy investment in the next phase of China's economic development. (John Schoen / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
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