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The real challenge we face from China is not that it will keep flooding us with cheap goods. It’s actually the opposite: China is moving up the value chain, and this could constitute the most significant new competition to the U.S. economy in the future.
For much of the past three decades, China focused its efforts on building up its physical infrastructure. It didn’t need to invest in its people; the country was aiming to produce mainly low-wage, low-margin goods. As long as its workers were cheap and worked hard, that was good enough. But the factories needed to be modern, the roads world-class, the ports vast and the airports efficient. All these were built with a speed and on a scale never before seen in human history.
Now China wants to get into higher-quality goods and services. That means the next phase of its economic development, clearly identified by government officials, requires it to invest in human capital with the same determination it used to build highways. Since 1998, Beijing has undertaken a massive expansion of education, nearly tripling the share of GDP devoted to it. In the decade since, the number of colleges in China has doubled and the number of students quintupled, going from 1 million in 1997 to 5.5 million in 2007. China has identified its nine top universities and singled them out as its version of the Ivy League. At a time when universities in Europe and state universities in the U.S. are crumbling from the impact of massive budget cuts, China is moving in exactly the opposite direction. In a speech earlier this year, Yale president Richard Levin pointed out, “This expansion in capacity is without precedent. China has built the largest higher-education sector in the world in merely a decade’s time. In fact, the increase in China’s postsecondary enrollment since the turn of the millennium exceeds the total postsecondary enrollment in the United States.”