Do you recall the pressure you felt when you took the SAT? It was probably sharp and crushing. However, you may have taken comfort in knowing that your college prospects were only partially dependent on the achievement tests. If you stumbled on those, you could always bolster your grades and extracurricular activities. However, imagine if that test was the only thing that mattered for college entrance.
This is the type of pressure students in China face in their high school senior year. They must either perform well on the college entrance exam in order to get into a good university or stay home. However, many manage the pressure and perform very well.
I will call the mainland Chinese, in their 20s and 30s, the Ambitious Generation. This is in part because their merit can land them lucrative opportunities in fields like engineering and business. Nowadays, those who are very talented can study abroad in major universities or work in large companies, whereas before they would succumb to life as soldiers or industrial workers.
To maintain its rule, China’s Communist Party (CCP) has abandoned the policies of Mao Zedong that led to equality of poverty in favor of a more capitalist policy that has increased economic opportunities. In the past, the CCP effectively told its population not to think. That has since changed to thinking about everything related to finance and science and nothing about government and politics.
The Ambitious Generation is driven to succeed not only because they are able to, but because they have to. Factors that influence this need include the low pay for manufacturing and construction jobs, China’s high unemployment rate (around 10 percent according to “The Economist”), the lack of a social security system, the mandatory retirement age of 60 for public sector workers (due to the large labor force) and the One Child policy implemented in the late 1970s that limits most families to one child. These factors all push students to go to the best educational institutions and get more lucrative jobs.
This generation has helped spearhead and is emblematic of China’s growing economic, military and political strength—one of the most important historical developments in decades. Although China is not currently a superpower, it has the potential to become one, as admitted by Prime Minister Wen Jiabo in a recent interview. Its economic growth rate is projected to remain high for years to come.
Meanwhile, the country’s military spending continues to increase. It’s currently around $104 billion, high but still at a level that is nearly a fifth lower than the United States. China is beginning to undertake manned missions into space. Many countries in Southeast Asia have seen China supplant America as their main trading partner, giving China the ability to project considerable influence in that region. In addition, the amount of American debt they hold is over $500 billion and growing.
China has been a major power in the world before, such as during parts of the Han (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), Tang (A.D. 618-A.D. 907) and Qing (A.D. 1644-A.D. 1911) dynasties. The culture emphasizes hard work, knowledge, education, accountability and responsibility. However, unlike other countries, such as Iran and Russia, which can be viewed as threats to our safety and strategic interests, China is a competitor. They compete with us, and rightfully so.
China has its share of problems, including its education system. As stated by a student in a recent documentary on the PBS series “Wide Angle,” its educational system rewards those who can memorize large amounts of information in short periods of time, but not those who are creative and innovative. This is shown by less noticeable statistics, such as the low amount of patents and Nobel Prize winners coming out of China. Other major problems include poor graduate schools, pollution, regional disparities in development and widespread corruption. If China wishes to go further, it will need to make major changes.
Nevertheless, the statistics show that there are emerging countries that can eventually compete with the U.S. as major global players. China isn’t the only example. India is also growing quickly, albeit its population is smaller, its gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is over 10 years behind China’s and its growth rates are smaller.
The U.S. was at the top politically, militarily, economically and diplomatically partly because many large countries chose the wrong ideology, mainly communism or one of its variations. Before the late 1970s, countries that modernized their economies with a more capitalist direction were small in population and size, so even if their GDP per capita was very large they still had little influence. Now that more countries have adopted capitalism, it is taking time for many economies, including China’s, to develop from low levels, especially when they are very large and populous.
In the near future, it is probable that what will distinguish countries is their ability to innovate and reform their societies, often by overcoming opposition from entrenched lobbies and factions. For the U.S., the areas currently requiring such alteration include energy and education. We may not like it, but soon we will probably have countries competing with us as rival superpowers. The sooner we recognize this, the better. Otherwise, our country risks becoming like a student left behind, not necessarily from going backwards, but by standing still.
Wesley Oliphant is a third-year economics graduate student. He can be reached at