Growth Challenges

When China Thinks She’ll Shape The World

A Beijing university campus and the launch Science Popularisation day was chosen as the venue and occasion by expected next President of China, Xi Jinping, to return to the public stage after a two-week absence. His public promotion of science arises in the footsteps of a speech at this month’s Russia-hosted APEC Summit in Vladivostok by outgoing Chinese President Hu Jintao highlighting China’s determination to foster innovative growth.

Related goals within China’s 12th Five Year plan (2011-2015) include increasing state expenditure on R&D from 1.8% to 2.2%, with 2.5% the goal for 2020. The OECD average in 2011 was 2.3%, with the US accounting for 41% of OECD R&D spending last year, and Israel registering the highest rate, of 4%.[i]

The role of seven strategic sectors in GDP within this push is being emphasised. First announced in 2010, those seven sectors are: energy saving and environmental protection, new-generation information technology, biotechnology, high-end equipment manufacturing, new energy, new materials, and new-energy vehicles, from less than 4% in 2010, to 8% by 2015, and 15% by 2020.[ii] Saving energy and environmental protection among them are listed as priorities. While overall economic growth is expected to slow toward a “new normal” of between 7 and 9.5%, crucially, the growth target for these sectors is much higher.[iii]

The bedrock of these very industry-focused targets and that broader structural shift in China’s economy and growth orientation are policies aiming designed to improve the quality of China’s universities. This began in 1998 when former President Jiang Zemin’s announcement at the Peking University centenary celebrations announcement that “China must have a number of top-class universities at the international level”. His speech marked the launch of Project 985, a plan named after the month and year of its launch and that seeks to improve the standing and quality of elite Chinese universities. While some 40 universities are now part of Project 985, the original nine form China’s own concept of an Ivy League, the C9.

 The more recent policy document is the 2010 “National Outline for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development (2010-2020)” more broadly calls for the acceleration of the development of world-class Chinese universities, for improvements in the quality of teaching, and to diversify the range and skills of graduates.[iv] Greater funding for the sector, administrative reforms, and the encouragement of greater cooperation with foreign institutions are part of the plan.

 Apart from more general upward trend of elite Chinese universities in international education rankings, understanding the direction of China’s universities requires a visit to Shenzhen, a stone’s throw from Hong Kong and experimental ‘Special Economic Zone’ since 1979. With universities the training and research bedrock of a country’s innovative capacity, early insight into such reforms may shed light on the potential for tectonic shifts in innovation tomorrow. The zone may even almost be called a Special Education Zone

The first and most significant experimentation relates to the 2010 opening of what is now China’s first autonomous university. Opened ‘illegally’ in 2010, the South University of Science and Technology of China (SUSTC) is regarded as one of China’s more exciting educational experimentations. Initiated by a former president of C9 member University of Science and Technology of China, Professor Zhu Qingshi, the university is a watershed against the current undergraduate system for several reasons. At the point of entrance for example, students apply through personal application rather than exclusively through the famously competitively Gaokao entrance exam. While students attending the school are required to sit for Gaokao, this is more of a formality and their results are not published. The de-emphasis of Gaokao reflects a broader goal of less rigid learning and testing systems. It takes place alongside a move by six elite universities in 2011 that agreed to produce their own entrance exam as a supplement to Gaokao results. Among these, Peking University is reported to now admit 3% of its students on the basic of such supplementary recommendations.[v]

Additional innovative elements of SUTSC’s system include that the school trials small undergraduate classes more reflective of an Oxbridge teacher-student ratio than larger Chinese lecture halls. There is a cap of 400 students in any given year level. The inaugural 2011 intake had just 45 students. Greater flexibility in allowing students to decide more elements of course content and to tailor elements of their own graduation requirements. Different to existing universities, the school is also administered by academics rather than bureaucrats. Since receiving formal approval from the Ministry of Education in April 2012 as China’s first autonomously governed university the school has invited 70 professors from world-famous universities to teach the school’s students. The 2012 intake has reached 188 students.[vi]

An alternative experiment underway in Shenzhen relates to the Peking University HSBC School of Business, and Qinghua’s Shenzhen-based Graduate School. Different to Peking University’s Beijing-based Guanghua School of Management, the campus in Shenzhen is a graduate school only, offers dual masters degrees with Hong Kong University, involves a rotation of professors between Peking, Hong Kong (University) and Shenzhen, and finally that it necessitates proficiency in English to be accepted regardless for any course. In the footsteps of some of East’s Asia’s most highly ranked universities, including the National University of Singapore and the University of Hong Kong, the school intends ultimately to teach almost exclusively in English. Qinghua’s Graduate School in Shenzhen meantime is a joint enterprise with the Shenzhen Municipal Government, and was founded in 2003. It is focused on sciences, and similarly is a very bi-lingual learning environment at the graduate level only. 

What these experiments by China’s elite universities mean for the future of China’s education, and whether the Southern Institute of Technology one day is closer to being the peer of Hong Kong’s elite University of Science and Technology let alone Caltech, MIT, Cambridge or UCL remains to be seen. In light of what happened to global manufacturing over the first three decades since Shenzhen served as an early base for foreign invested manufacturing in China, one should not discount what seems unlikely today. China is already second to Japan and ahead of America in number (as distinct from quality) of patent applications. As columnist Thomas Friedman put it in a recent piece in the New York Times, “many of the things we thought could only be done in the West can now be done anywhere in the world, not only more cheaply but sometimes better.”[vii]

While the “new normal” may be slower overall growth, in key sectors the targeted growth rate remains in the double digits. “Let China sleep, for when she wakes she’ll shake the world”, goes the now almost cliché quote of Napoleon from over two hundred years ago. Shaking the world China now may be, but if China’s innovation goals are realised it is in the future when China is thinking, beyond merely shaking the world, she may rather more distinctively be shaping it. Policy makers and economists around the world may best keep one eye on tomorrow’s “new normal”, in Shenzhen.

All rights reserved by Sinograduate, 2012.

[i] OECD,










Lauren has worked in economic policy and research at the World Bank, World Economic Forum, EIU and for the governments of Sierra Leone and Guyana. She has learned Chinese since 1995, and lived in Beijing for almost six years, on and off since 1997. Lauren has a PhD in Economics from Peking University, an MSc in Development Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and a B.A/B.Com from the University of Melbourne.

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