Column: Doesn’t take a genius to see that China’s catching up

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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SHANGHAI – Bill Gates has a question he likes to ask when he talks about globalization:

Twenty years ago, would you rather have been a B student in Poughkeepsie or a genius in Shanghai? And how about today?

(Texans can substitute Mesquite or Waco for Poughkeepsie, if it makes you feel more geographically comfortable.)

Twenty years ago, the B student in Poughkeepsie would have had little problem finding a good job, probably in middle management somewhere. He would have led a productive, happy existence, living in what 90 percent of the world’s population would consider luxury.

And the Shanghai genius would have been stuck in one of the poorest countries in the world, burdened by an autocratic state still recovering from Mao’s bizarre economic policies. It’s a no-brainer: The kid in Poughkeepsie would have led a better life.

But today? I just returned from 10 days in China, and I can tell you that the geniuses of Shanghai today are starting businesses, building skyscrapers and making more money than they can count.

The B students in Poughkeepsie – or, for that matter, Dallas – should be worried.

Since the early 1980s, when the “A Nation at Risk” report was released, Americans have worried about how their students compare with competitors overseas. (Of course, the concern goes back even further; witness the Sputnik-inspired emphasis on science education in the 1950s.)

As everyone knows by now, our test scores are nothing special when compared with the rest of the world. For a long time, though, that didn’t matter much; America’s other economic advantages – a free market, access to capital and relatively low levels of corruption – were big enough to keep our edge.

But the rest of the world is catching up. China’s development areas – like Shanghai’s Pudong area, and the Shenzhen area around Hong Kong – are swarming with money. New skyscrapers seem to go up every night.

(As a fellow journalist muttered when we drove into downtown Shanghai from the airport: “This place makes Manhattan look like Tulsa.” There are 2,800 buildings at least 14 stories tall in Shanghai, with plans for an additional 2,000.)

America has gotten into a lather in the last few years about offshoring – about all the good jobs we were losing to Mexico or China or India. The sunny-side-up interpretation was always that these were mostly low-skill jobs we were losing – the simpler end of manufacturing and such things as call centers.

The really good jobs, economists argued – the ones that take a college degree – were here to stay.

I’m not so sure. Want to hear some scary statistics?

In 2002, China graduated 460,000 new engineers. America graduated 73,000 – and 25,000 of those were foreign-born students attracted to the quality of American universities.

(In years past, those foreign students would have overwhelmingly stayed in the U.S. after graduation and added to the economy. But nowadays, many head back to the new opportunities available in China, India or wherever they came from.)

In 2000, only 17 percent of American college degrees were in engineering or the sciences; 52 percent of Chinese degrees were.

Which is why many American and Japanese companies are starting to open up research and development operations in China. It’s not just factories anymore: It’s the good jobs that are heading elsewhere.

I visited several university campuses during my trip, and I always asked students the same questions: How anxious are you for China to have democracy? Doesn’t it bother you that the government owns all the newspapers?

After all, college students are the traditional rabble-rousers in any country. And Tiananmen Square was only 16 years ago.

The responses were uniform: The government is doing a good job. Things are better now than they’ve ever been. Now’s not the time to rock the boat.

“I think there are plenty of opportunities here for young people who are dedicated and want to do great things,” said one of the students I spoke with at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, a young woman named Lenny Chen.

Lenny is ready to launch her career, graduate degree in hand. She’s obviously extremely bright and extroverted; it wasn’t a surprise to learn she was her school’s class president. Her English is probably better than mine. Some day soon she wants to start her own business that can compete with the big boys of the West.

Is she the sort of Shanghai genius Bill Gates was talking about?

I don’t know. But the B students of Poughkeepsie shouldn’t be surprised if they’re working for her in a few years.