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Tsinghua U. Helps Create A 21st Century Superpower

Tsinghua University is at the heart of China's plan to become a high-tech economic superpower early in the 21st century. Beijing's high-speed growth since launching market reforms nearly two decades ago has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, but the momentum is in danger of slowing.

"China wants to catch up to Japan and the US in technology exports within the next decades," says Feng Jun, a Tsinghua graduate who now owns a rapidly expanding computer firm in Beijing.

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"Yet to reach that goal, China needs to funnel much more money into the entire education system," he adds.

Indeed, ultramodern Tsinghua stands out like a lighthouse amid scattered flotillas of low-tech Chinese universities that have been battered by stagnant government budgets.

Forced to charge fees for the first time in Chinese communist history, colleges nationwide may be increasingly out of reach for hundreds of millions of peasants whose yearly income barely reaches tuition levels.

The World Bank, which has worked closely with Beijing in educational reforms, says the next phase of China's economic development will depend on a highly educated work force.

Yet less than 5 percent of Chinese citizens attend university, compared with 21 percent in Japan and 45 percent in the US, the bank said in a recent report.

Although China's population is more than four times as large as that of the US, it has one-third the number of research scientists and engineers.

And China spends less than 3 percent of its gross national product on education, one of the lowest levels in the world, the bank says.

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Tsinghua University, as advanced as it is, is a high-tech oasis in the vast desert of China's impoverished educational system and the country's 145 million illiterates. Without increased investment in schools nationwide, the bank suggests, China is likely to evolve into a pyramid society with educated elites at the peak and poorly trained workers at the base, forever behind in the race with the world's titans of technology.

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