PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - APRIL 2005 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 8
THE NEXT REVOLUTION - China has set its sights on becoming a world leader in engineering, and the college campus is the breeding ground for reform.

By Lucille Craft

ON THE COVER:  China's Next Revolution – And this time Engineering is at the center. - By Lucille Craft - Illustration by Stuart BradfordBEIJING—As the world's most populous nation transforms itself from a farming nation to factory behemoth, another drama is unfolding, far from the assembly lines, steel foundries and furiously rising skyscrapers that usually make the evening news. With less fanfare, but portending repercussions far more vast, a quiet revolution is being staged on—of all places—the college campus. This nation of 1.3 billion has resolved to become as much a powerhouse in engineering as it is in cut-rate textiles and appliances. And in the coming years, if Beijing's education mandarins have their way, China's engineering Ivy League will command as much respect as its counterparts in Boston, Pittsburgh, Westphalia and Oxford.

The campaign to make Chinese universities world-class is animated by a simple reality: To keep the growth engine primed, the economy must move into more sophisticated industries. So at China's elite institutions, old-style pedagogy and rote learning are out, progressive curricula, independent thinking and creativity are in. "We know that in the future the requirement for industry is R&D," says Shou-Wen Yu, who sits on the Chinese Academy of Engineering's educational committee. "Manufacturing must turn more toward innovation, so we must plan in advance."

The sober alternative is clear. Without upgrading the old Soviet-inspired polytechnic institutes and training engineers to lead instead of just follow cutting-edge technology, China faces certain stagnation and the prospect of social unrest as it produces millions of new graduates who can't find jobs. While only 8 percent of high school graduates enrolled in universities and colleges before 1998, now more than twice as many, or 19 percent, continue their studies. The developing Chinese economy isn't big enough to absorb them all. "If we don't develop a vibrant economy, China will do little more than continue to make shoes for Nike," a Chinese venture capitalist told author David Sheff in his 2002 chronicle, China Dawn.

Engineering schools are also feeling the heat nowadays, as China's best and brightest increasingly spurn science in favor of business and finance studies. A generation ago, 1 out of every 2 university students majored in science and technology; today the ratio is only 1 in 3. Engineering majors now account for about 3.7 million students, according to a recent account in the People's Daily Online.

Yet, a unique public consensus for investing heavily in engineering education already exists. In no other country does the engineering discipline so thoroughly dominate the public and private realms of society as here in China. President Jiang Zemin and every member of the nine-man central committee of the Communist Party of China—the Marxist state's most powerful institution—are engineers by profession, as are scores of other society pillars, from ministers and governors to CEOs and entrepreneurs.

"When I was in high school, the best students (gravitated) to science and technology rather than liberal arts," recalls Li Gong, 43, general manager for Sun Microsystems' China Engineering & Research Institute. Especially for youths like Gong, who came of age during the Cultural Revolution, the humanities were branded virtually worthless to the cause of nation-building.

Grounded in a culture that celebrates craftsmanship, the engineering profession enjoys strong patronage from the state. China has successfully retailed the idea that the very act of choosing an engineering or other scientific career is an expression of patriotism, potent incentive in a country where nationalism is as much a part of growing up as dozing through ideology sessions and mastering the brush strokes needed to be literate in a written language running to thousands of letters. "Government has promoted the notion of using science and technology to save China," says Gong.

Nearly 1,300 Chinese colleges and universities—over 80 percent of all institutions of higher education—offer engineering courses and programs. But the ambitious task of creating a core of world-class higher institutions of learning is concentrated on nine of the country's leading universities around the country, from Harbin Institute of Technology on the snowy northernmost border, to Fudan University, south of the capital, in Shanghai. Officials demur at setting a completion date for their ambitious program. But the master plan, known as "985" funnelled billions of RMB (Chinese dollars) toward university upgrades.

Zhongguancun corridor, a major artery in China's Most Prestigious

The lion's share of this largesse is being dispensed at a single suburban location in northwest Beijing, in an area known as Haidian, or China's Silicon Valley. Haidian is home of the prestigious Peking University, and its archrival, Tsinghua University. Wags like to joke that the Qing Dynasty is back: Half of the Communist Party's central committee are Tsinghua graduates. Peking University once gave Tsinghua a run for its money, but now, says Gong "it's no contest." As a Tsinghua alum himself, Gong is hardly impartial, but he argues that today, "Tsinghua is by far the most influential school. This university and its graduates hold sway in this country."

Tsinghua (Ching-wa), which was established in 1911, was built on the site of a former imperial garden. It served as a kind of prep school for students destined to study in the United States. Another joke is that Tsinghua nearly a century later has reverted to its original mission—training undergraduates to leave China behind in pursuit of masters and doctoral programs in far-better-equipped and -staffed American engineering schools. Gearing up for its centennial in 2011, Tsinghua is unique in its longevity; most engineering schools here were founded after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, decades or even centuries behind universities in the United States.

Teachers at Tsinghua's Practical Training Center of Electronics taking apart cellphones to study them.A Sino Silicon Valley

The immaculately manicured and postmodern walks traversing the eastern corner of Tsinghua University are unusually desolate by mid-January, when arid, freezing winds buffet the city, carrying a mantle of charcoal dust. The graceful and sprawling campus is silent except for the occasional low rumble of suitcase casters on pavement, or the creaky brakes on a ramshackle Forever bicycle, as stragglers head home for the Chinese New Year break. Classrooms and labs are deserted, save for a handful of workaholic graduate students and faculty. Teachers complain of not having enough time nowadays, in part because the hands-on component of their courses has burgeoned in recent years.

At the Practical Training Center of Electronics, half a dozen teachers huddle over disemboweled cellphones, scrutinizing the extracted bits of silicon like archaeologists pondering ancient hieroglyphs. The exercise—part of a contract with a private company—keeps the teachers current on the latest telecoms technology, while giving the company a pipeline to potential interns—and first dibs on future employees from the country's most prestigious university. "The way we teach students has changed a lot," says Li Hong Ru, vice director of the center, escorting a visitor around the one-year-old lab. "Students spend a lot more time on practical training, so they can adapt to the needs of society."

At the school's Fundamental Industrial Training Center, 14 million RMB ($1.8 million) has been spent on 16 new numerical control machines, forming and electric wire-cutting machines, and laser supersonic equipment. Students are given the chance to program the machines on their own, as well as design and produce small products. "We try to develop independent, creative thinking," says Fu Shuigen, the center's director.

Former Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang's old black limo is one of the many lab projects for Gongyao and other automotive engineering students.In the automotive engineering department, senior Gu Gongyao showed me around a warehouse full of French, Chinese and American cars—former Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang's old black limo among the lot—steel guinea pigs which are constantly dismantled and reassembled in labs.

And in another building, a dozen students and their teacher noodled with a pack of Aibo robotic dogs, whipping the pups' software into shape for an upcoming international Robocup competition set for later this year in Osaka. Tsinghua's "Team Hephaestsus" (for the god of fire) will be the first ever to compete in the four-legged division of the contest.

Until a few years ago, engineering classes in China involved punishing courseloads, narrowly defined specializations, rote note-taking in classes where students were literally seen and not heard. Teachers, regarded as infallible oracles, did all the talking. No more. Starting in 1996, the undergraduate engineering degree program was slashed from five years to four, and students are now allowed to transfer between departments. Half the courseload covers basics such as electronics and mechanics, another quarter is devoted to math and science. But in an abrupt departure from past practice, the remaining quarter of the required 140 credits for graduation is reserved for the once-disparaged humanities courses, as the school seeks to turn out more well-rounded students.

Celebrity professors such as Nobel laureate Chen Ning Yan have been recruited to teach freshman seminars. Even dorms have been spruced up: Four students now share a room, down from eight; Master's degree students share with only one roommate and Ph.D.'s get their own luxurious dorm room. University cafeterias still charge about 50 cents for a huge lunch, but the menu includes not only stir-fries and dim sum but also pizza and salad bars.

And students—no longer expected to remain passive recipients of learning—are urged to E-mail and talk back to their elders. "If you encourage students, they will raise their hands and say, ‘Professor Qian, I don't agree," says Qian Yi, 68, of the environmental science and engineering department, and the university's only female member of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Engineering.

Its lofty reputation notwithstanding, Tsinghua is painfully aware of its big-fish-in-a-small-pond status, that it is thin on the scholarly firepower and research depth of a Carnegie-Mellon or M.I.T. An often-repeated truism holds that "Tsinghua has first-rate students, second-rate faculty, and third-rate management." Students and professors say this charge is exaggerated and undeserved, especially in recent years. In fact, Tsinghua has raided some of the world's most famous universities for talent, including Andrew Chi-chih Yao, a Princeton computer scientist, and Gavriel Salvendy, of Purdue. But Tsinghua's main boosters—its proud alumni—are emphatic about the formidable obstacles standing between the university and its coveted world-class status.

I took a short cab ride from campus down the "Silicon Valley's" main artery, Zhongguancun, to Microsoft's Advanced Technology Center. It is headed by Hongjiang Zhang, a dapper man in his early 40s, who trained at the Technical University of Denmark before working at Hewlett Packard in the United States and teaching at the National University of Singapore. As a Tsinghua graduate who has gone back again and again, both to deliver seminars and to fill positions at his lab, Zhang's loyalties are unimpeachable. But he has no illusions that the road ahead for Tsinghua will be anything but long and arduous. "Students identify themselves their whole lives with Tsinghua, so there is no problem getting the best students. They have the best raw talent, but will these students be among the best engineers in the world? It has more to do with the faculty. So the failure or success of the university depends on its faculty." Zhang feels too much money has been lavished on landscaping and Philip Johnson-style architecture, not enough on staff. "I'd like to see more effort put into attracting the best faculty, be they from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia." So far, most of the new faculty at Tsinghua has drawn from the nearly half-million ethnic Chinese expatriot students abroad.

Engineering building in modernistic eastern section Tsinghua.However staggering the volume of investment going into Tsinghua, it still pales beside the endowment enjoyed by a top U.S. school, which is one reason Tsinghua's ambitions won't be realized quickly. It simply hasn't got the cash to go head to head with a Stanford or M.I.T. in the international sweepstakes for star professors. But Tsinghua's handicap goes beyond funding—the school is only starting to free itself from the grip of a 30-year-old centrally planned economy. Zhang was astounded to learn that top U.S. engineering schools may produce 100 Ph.D,'s a year with a faculty less than three-quarters as large. Like other Chinese universities, which are controlled by government, Tsinghua's faculty is bloated by U.S. standards, running into the hundreds. China's seniority-based system discourages hiring on merit, and the addition of new faculty creates a human-resources nightmare when it comes to calculating salary, promotion and rank. In a paper presented in January of this year at Singapore Management University, David Zweig noted that Beijing's concerted campaign to lure back expat Chinese scholars has ignited numerous conflicts between the returnees and the academics who have never left Chinese soil. Still, Tsinghua President Gu Binglin, who also did his graduate work in Denmark, "knows what Tsinghua is lacking," says Microsoft's Zhang. "The university's leadership is trying hard. It just takes time."

Out of the Mouths of Students

I was able to spend a day traipsing through labs with three seniors and a graduate student. While the university's ultraselectivity had been impressed on me in a variety of ways—the school tends to skim off nearly every top-scoring high school senior in the country, for instance—hanging out with these potential future presidents and corporate titans was a bit daunting. Poised, and English-fluent in a country where some rural schools are without desks and blackboards, the Tsinghua students literally pounced on my questions, talking over one another in a high-octane cacophony.

Ding Yu qing, a towering materials engineering major, and aspiring roboticist Cai Yixin, who gave me a lift on the back of his bike as we crisscrossed between buildings, are looking to continue their graduate work overseas. But Zhang Fenbo, a soft-spoken, petite chemical engineering major, said she wasn't convinced foreign schools had more to offer in her field than the fast-improving curriculum at Tsinghua, and despite an offer to study in Osaka, intended to stay put at Tsinghua for her graduate studies.

Unlike engineering schools in the West, Chinese universities expend no effort trying to recruit more women; in perception, at least, the field is already leveled. "Women hold up half the sky," says an ancient Chinese proverb. However, the numbers tell a different story at Tsinghua, where female enrollment in engineering programs mirrors the American average at about 20 percent.

Nationwide, more than one-third of all Chinese engineers are female, according to remarks delivered last fall during the World Engineers Convention 2004 & Female Engineers Forum in Shanghai. One of the most renowned, Xie Qihua, 62, runs China's largest iron and steel maker, Shanghai Baosteel Group. A civil engineer and graduate of Tsinghua, she regularly appears on rankings of the world's most powerful businesswomen.

I was particularly intrigued by Ding, who is so polished and businesslike he hands out his own calling card: President, Student Association of Entrepreneurs. The group—like so many others at the university—styles itself after a similar organization at M.I.T.

Just what kind of high-flying company, I wondered, was this Tsinghua wunderkind aching to get off the ground? But apparently China's Silicon Valley isn't yet ready for prime time. "I want to be the manager of a state-owned company," Ding replied, without a trace of irony.

I couldn't hide my astonishment. "In the West, we don't normally associate entrepreneurs with large corporations, particularly government companies," I said. "We usually think startups..." Ding explained that in the current climate of high-growth, restructuring and liberalization, many of China's nearly 200 state-owned enterprises—which include basic industries such as power, transport and resources—offered ample opportunity for flexing entrepreneurial muscle, not to mention serving their traditional roles as springboards to advancement in Chinese society and even onto the ladder of political leadership. In all fairness, some of the most dynamic companies in China today are state-owned. A prominent example is China Netcom Corp., one of the country's largest telecoms companies. It was created by the government in 2002.

Ding went on to admit there were a few other flies in his ointment: Not only did he not have any pipelines to potential venture capitalists—he also didn't have any ideas, either.

"The Chinese educational system creates really effective scientists and mathematicians, but the room for out-of-the-box thinking and risk-takers is not there," said Bev Crair, a gregarious American who settled in Beijing a year ago with her teenage daughter and serves as deputy general manager with Sun Microsystems. She could have just as easily have been describing engineers in Japan, another Asian country trying to shed its regimented educational system: "China builds what I call ‘think-share:' Students are focused on providing the answer that they think you want. They're much more comfortable when they're told what to do. If the boundaries are clear, they can achieve an enormous amount, so productivity can be quite high. On the other hand, it takes an enormous effort to learn to disagree in a way not damaging to a relationship."

Crair found this reticence about criticizing others particularly counterproductive when it came to debugging software. "If I'm afraid of making someone lose face because of pointing out some error—innovation doesn't happen in that environment."

Earlier in the day, over tea, I had asked the students about whether China could or would produce its own Bill Gates.

Cai Yixin, the grad student, then spoke up, and the nationalistic strain that drives so much of China's ambition –especially among Tsinghua students—became plain: "We need another kind of Bill Gates. Maybe he won't have a big company, won't make much money, maybe nobody will know him. But history will remember him and the country will be stronger."

Though the heavy hand of authoritarian control is little in evidence at engineering schools, China unquestionably remains light years from the kind of open, free-wheeling academic atmosphere taken for granted in the West. Recently, a student at Beijing Normal University was jailed after defending dissidents on the Internet.

But while reading the tea leaves in any country is a perilous occupation, observers here are confident the question isn't whether China will create world-class league universities but when. "It's ambitious," conceded Jun Li. "But doable."

Lucille Craft is a freelance writer based in Tokyo.


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