The Next Revolution

Article excerpt

China has set its sights on becoming a world leader in engineering, and the college campus is the breeding ground for reform.

BEIJING-As the world's most populous nation transforms itself from a farming nation to factory behemoth, another drama is unfolding, far from the assembly lines, steel foundries and furiously rising skyscrapers that usually make the evening news. With less fanfare, but portending repercussions far more vast, a quiet revolution is being staged on-of all places-the college campus. This nation of 1.3 billion has resolved to become as much a powerhouse in engineering as it is in cut-rate textiles and appliances. And in the coming years, if Beijing's education mandarins have their way, China's engineering Ivy League will command as much respect as its counterparts in Boston, Pittsburgh, Westphalia and Oxford.

The campaign to make Chinese universities world-class is animated by a simple reality: To keep the growth engine primed, the economy must move into more sophisticated industries. So at China's elite institutions, old-style pedagogy and rote learning are out, progressive curricula, independent thinking and creativity are in. "We know that in the future the requirement for industry is R&D," says Shou-Wen Yu, who sits on the Chinese Academy of Engineering's educational committee. "Manufacturing must turn more toward innovation, so we must plan in advance."

The sober alternative is clear. Without upgrading the old Soviet-inspired polytechnic institutes and training engineers to lead instead of just follow cutting-edge technology, China faces certain stagnation and the prospect of social unrest as it produces millions of new graduates who can't find jobs. While only 8 percent of high school graduates enrolled in universities and colleges before 1998, now more than twice as many, or 19 percent, continue their studies. The developing Chinese economy isn't big enough to absorb them all. "If we don't develop a vibrant economy, China will do little more than continue to make shoes for Nike," a Chinese venture capitalist told author David Sheff in his 2002 chronicle, China Dawn.

Engineering schools are also feeling the heat nowadays, as China's best and brightest increasingly spurn science in favor of business and finance studies. A generation ago, 1 out of every 2 university students majored in science and technology; today the ratio is only 1 in 3. Engineering majors now account for about 3.7 million students, according to a recent account in the People's Daily Online.

Yet, a unique public consensus for investing heavily in engineering education already exists. In no other country-does the engineering discipline so thoroughly dominate the public and private realms of society as here in China. President Jiang Zemin and every member of the nine-man central committee of the Communist Party of China - the Marxist state's most powerful institution - are engineers by profession, as are scores of other society pillars, from ministers and governors to CEOs and entrepreneurs.

"When I was in high school, the best students (gravitated) to science and technology rather than liberal arts," recalls Li Gong, 43, general manager for Sun Microsystems' China Engineering & Research Institute. Especially for youths like Gong, who came of age during the Cultural Revolution, the humanities were branded virtually worthless to the cause of nation-building.

Grounded in a culture that celebrates craftsmanship, the engineering profession enjoys strong patronage from the state. China has successfully retailed the idea that the very act of choosing an engineering or other scientific career is an expression of patriotism, potent incentive in a country where nationalism is as much a part of growing up as dozing through ideology sessions and mastering the brush strokes needed to be literate in a written language running to thousands of letters. "Government has promoted the notion of using science and technology to save China," says Gong. …