China’s meteoric rise has alarmed some observers, say Yang Fujia and Colin Campbell. Joint education projects will help ensure that it is peaceful

The rise of China is a reality. The Chinese economy has grown at an astonishing 9% or so a year since the late 1970s. In 2004, China’s national income reached Rmb12.5 trillion ($1.6 trillion). The World Bank ranked China as the world’s sixth-largest economy by nominal national income last year, and some think its position may be even higher. However, in terms of purchasing power parity, a method that reflects low prices in China, the Chinese economy is already the world’s second-largest after America’s.

Open door

China has Deng Xiaoping, its late leader and statesman, to thank for his ingenuity, especially in pushing for reforms and the open-door policy. These two mutually-reinforcing policies have eroded the highly-centralized planning system to produce sweeping changes. The rationale is simple. When people are given the right incentives, sand will turn into gold. China’s reform policy has provided all social groups with powerful incentives to pursue personal wealth. “To get rich is glorious” (zhifu guangrong) is the motto of the Chinese.
In 1979, fewer than five families of professors at Fudan University, one of the leading, large universities in China, had refrigerators. A refrigerator then cost 15 times a professor’s monthly salary. Now, however, durable commodities like fridges are enjoyed by almost all families in Shanghai. Once the people have tasted the fruits of development, they have an even greater incentive to go further down the same track. Continuous reform is thus reinforced, and rapid development should persist.

Globalization has played an ever-greater role in turning this into reality. By gearing (jiegui) itself to the world economic system, China has, since the early 1990s, been one of the world’s favourite destinations for foreign direct investment. By early 2005, the country had attracted investments totalling $580 billion. More than 80% of Fortune-500 companies and the world’s top 100 information technology firms have set up shop in the People’s Republic.

Along with these investments, China is fast becoming the world’s foremost manufacturing base. Its exports have grown rapidly, by an average of 16% a year for the past two decades. The country has become one of the most successful export-oriented economies in East Asia, emulating the economic miracles of the “four little dragons” (Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore). It is now the world’s third-largest exporter after Germany and the US.

By mid-2005, on account of its strong external balance, China’s total foreign exchange reserves soared to $710 billion, overtaking Japan’s. This, in turn, led to mounting international pressures on China to revalue its currency. The long-expected revaluation took place on July 22, 2005, when the renminbi (Rmb) was allowed to appreciate by 2% against the dollar.

A menacing power?

China’s rise has been interpreted in different ways. Some regard it as a threat while others see it as an opportunity.

With its growing domestic demands, the People’s Republic has become the world’s top consumer of a wide variety of natural resources and primary commodities. Chinese companies have emerged as new players in global business. The acquisition in December 2004 of IBM’s personal computer division by Lenovo, a Chinese computer giant, and the more recent attempt by China’s China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) to acquire America’s Unocal have generated controversy. There are fears in the US about China’s sudden economic might. Some in Asia are concerned that China’s low wages, and huge and continuing supply of labour from the rural hinterlands, might take away their manufacturing businesses.

Commenting on these developments, others have arrived at different conclusions. Speaking at a forum in Tokyo last May, Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, warned that it would be “futile to resist China’s growing economic clout”. Lee echoed the views of the majority in Asia. In many parts of Asia, China’s rise is seen as a new source of growth, especially following the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Sensing the competition brought about by China’s growing high-tech sector, many of these countries seized the opportunity to upgrade their own industrial sectors.

Zuo chuqu

By the turn of this century, China found itself moving away from capital shortage and, instead, wielding enormous capital surpluses. Chinese capital has begun to venture into the outside world. In 2001, Hu Jintao, then vice-state president, called for Chinese enterprises to “go outside” (zuo chuqu) when he visited Malaysia. The momentum has accelerated since Hu became state president in 2003. Both state and non-state sectors are energetically looking outward.

China has also become one of the world’s most attractive markets. Its consumer market, despite its size and potential, has yet to be fully exploited. Although China is still a developing country, its nouveaux riches have become big consumers of branded and designer products. In other areas, the scale of Chinese demand has taken people by surprise. Recently, China ordered 150 Airbus A320 jets and 70 Boeing 737 jets over a two-month period and is negotiating with Boeing to buy 80 more passenger aircraft. With its rapid and accelerating development, demand in China will grow exponentially in the years ahead.

China’s rise as a commercial power has far-reaching effects. Trade and commerce, embedded within the comprehensive strategy of a “peaceful rise”, are the answers provided by the Chinese leadership to concerns about the country’s growing wealth.

In tandem with this development, there has been a revolution in China’s attitudes towards multilateralism over the years. Since the 1990s, China has been an active player in multilateral bodies, joining almost all important multilateral organizations. In doing so, China is expressing its willingness to respect their existing norms and to accept the corollary constraints that come with membership.

While we should not take for granted the prospects of living harmoniously with a rising China, neither should we be distracted by fears of the unknown.

After years of isolation, the People’s Republic found itself lagging far behind the rest of the world. It has since exhibited a keen appetite to learn from other countries. Along with its increasingly-open economy and society, the country needs new ideas and new forms of governance. Moreover, its rapid economic development is associated with significant problems. The old inefficient model was not successful, caused environmental degradation on a colossal scale and was not open to industrial innovation. These factors detracted from the sustainability of China’s development.

The role of education

Education can and will play a unique role in making China’s development sustainable and managing China’s globalization. As the country’s premier, Wen Jiabao, has emphasized, developing the economy is the priority for now, promoting education is the priority for the future.

According to him, student exchanges are “more important than the purchase of 150 Airbus aircraft… if economic cooperation between our countries represents the present, cultural cooperation is the future”.

China has made great progress in education. The proportion of its college-age population has increased to nearly 20% now from 1.4% in 1978. The number of students enrolling in college each year increased from 1.1 million in 1998 to 4.5 million in 2004. The country now has 20 million students in college, the highest number in any country in the world in absolute terms.

We at the University of Nottingham believe that working with the nascent “new China” is fundamentally important. We see China’s rise as a golden opportunity for all, and have established a profound strategy for engaging with China. As part of our overall policies of internationalization, we have recently established a campus in Ningbo. With this new campus, we became the first overseas university licensed by the Chinese government to confer degrees in China.

The Ningbo campus is a vehicle for us to introduce the best practices of a leading international university. Through our presence, we hope to introduce meaningful changes into China’s outmoded educational practices. New educational philosophies, new teaching practices and pedagogy will be articulated and applied. Small classes, with 16 students each, will be conducted to encourage interaction between students and their tutors. All our teaching will be research-led and we are making sure that new research institutes concentrate on such areas as energy, environmental issues and finance, which are critical to China’s sustainable development.

International outlook

We also believe in the internationalization of education. In line with our student-centred outlook, we offer all our students comprehensive tertiary education fused with the opportunity to familiarize themselves with different cultures and practices. Thus, the China campus not only provides the opportunity for Chinese students to receive western education. It also provides the chance for British students to travel to, and learn more about, China. A British student has been elected president of the Students’ Union by all the students in the Ningbo campus. This is absolutely unique in China.

In this age of globalization, friction between cultures is not inevitable. Education is the key. It can facilitate understanding, cooperation and partnerships. By providing opportunities for different peoples to learn about each other, we aim to produce individuals who understand and are adaptable to both Chinese and British cultures. We believe that this will help to promote mutual understanding and mutual trust. It is our ideal and ambition that the Ningbo campus serve as a bridge connecting China to the rest of the world. This will be our contribution to promoting a more peaceful and harmonious world.

CV Yang Fujia and Colin Campbell

Professor Yang Fujia is chancellor of the University of Nottingham and Sir Colin Campbell is its vice-chancellor.