“We cannot surpass the United States in the foreseeable future,” said Xiao, who has fashioned himself into a citizen journalist in Dongguan, regularly updating his account on Weibo with stories of local government corruption.
Xiao, who drives a Buick LaCrosse (extremely popular in China), wants to stick it out for now, with the hope that things will change for the better.
But Wu said he wants his son to grow up in the United States, in particular because of the schools. This may surprise Americans used to hearing politicians warn about Chinese educational prowess.
“The nation that educates its children the best will be the nation that leads the global economy in the 21st century,” Obama said in 2010, declaring that the United States is in an “educational arms race” with places like China and India.
The United States does look to be far behind China, according to some measures. Most famously, on a test given to 15-year-olds around the world by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Chinese students came in No. 1in all three categories: reading, science and math. The United States ranked 14th, 17th and 25th, respectively.
But Yong Zhao, an expert on China’s education system, said the PISA test, as it’s known, is a misleading measurement of the quality of a country’s schools. He said China’s schools don’t do well at teaching creative thinking and encouraging students who might one day found companies.
In the United States, “the glorification of China is rampant,” said Zhao, associate dean for global education at the University of Oregon’s College of Education. Zhao grew up in the Chinese education system and immigrated to the United States after college.
But in China, he said, officials worry about whether the schools can cultivate “the next Steve Jobs,” something that Zhao says is difficult because the curriculum is so test-based.
He said China is in the middle of reforming its education system to look more like — surprise! — the one in the United States. Meanwhile, the United States is increasing standardized testing, a shift that in a way moves this country’s approach closer to China’s.
As China becomes wealthier, more families can afford to send their children to college. People with some college education make up about 9 percent of China’s population, up from 3.6 percent in 2000. By comparison, more than one-third of Americans have some college education.
But in China, in another parallel with the United States, a college degree is no guarantee of success.
For the past few years, there has been a chronic unemployment problem among Chinese college graduates, who often live with their parents to save on housing costs — much like their American counterparts. While China has plenty of low-paying jobs in factories, there isn’t much high-skilled office work.
And now some of those factories have started leaving the country, migrating to lower-wage places such as Laos and Vietnam, which are becoming the “new Chinas” in manufacturing.
China is also in the middle of a massive overhaul of its health-care system, which veered from government-run to completely profit-driven during the free-market reforms of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The government is trying to lower costs and help the system cope with patients suffering from chronic diseases that are expensive to treat, such as diabetes and heart disease. Cancer is also on the rise. (Any of this sound familiar?)
Even as Americans and Chinese sometimes give each other’s countries too much credit, there’s also a sense of unease. In the Pew poll, about a quarter of Chinese said their country’s relationship with the United States is “one of hostility,” compared to only 8 percent in 2010. Nearly two-thirds of Americans now see China as a competitor.
They may be right, but they’re missing the point. The real threat posed by China will come if its leaders fail to solve its domestic problems. A weakened China isn’t good for U.S. firms hoping to grow there, and it’s not good for Chinese reformers who want to nudge their country closer to democracy. Americans are unsettled by the possibility that China’s economy will replace ours as the world’s largest, but if that happens, it will mainly be because of China’s massive population. In many ways, China is still a developing country.
Our eagerness to win a “global competition” only makes sense if we know whom we’re up against. The unstoppable China we’ve come to fear may not come to pass; indeed, it may never have existed.
Jia Lynn Yang is a financial reporter for The Washington Post.
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