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« The global security system's latest "gap" | Main | Fmr US Ambassador to Mali: Why we must save country »
10:03AM

China's rising pool of college grads - and expectations

NYT story on the 8m college grads that China cranks each year at the cost of about $250B a year.

The comparison that comes to mind is the US post-WWII and the remaking of society and politics that ensued (think of all that change across the 1960s and 1970s).

Yet another reason why I stick with my prediction that China is democratized by 2030.  This article speaks more of economic strengths than challenges, but the real danger (which appears only when you get to the jump page) are the social expectations and - if they are met - the resulting political confidence that will be hard to manage on a mass basis.

When people make the effort and sacrifice for that degree, the same-old, same-old factory job won't do.  This forces China into a race up the production ladder alright, and that fits the nation's desire to base more future growth on domestic consumption.  But that desire forces a progressive agenda to fix their healthcare and pension problems, which are not all that different from the US in their ability to mess up economic growth.  In China's case, the two issues combine to depress consumption by forcing individuals to save mightily against fate's whims. So if the government wants all that domestic consumption-led growth to make all those white-collar jobs happen so all those college grads can be happy (and not too disruptive politically), then major government efforts along the "great society" trajectory will be forced by all these dynamics.

Even if China pulls all that off, and then suffers the natural slow-down in growth that occurs when you start better covering the needs of the left fortunate (Freudian slip, as I meant less unfortunate) in society (a costly proposition), then you move into the next tier of problems:  all those college grads now making it and living complex lives will bristle at being spoken down to regarding political debates and government transparency.  We saw this big time in South Korea roughly a generation ago.  China is now 10-15 years (at best) from confronting that fabulous problem.

All of this is to say that, if you imagine that China somehow becomes truly powerful down the road but will still look like today's single-party state, you'd be wrong by every experience of history that we know.  Once you embrace the markets and all the other great aspects of modern society, the politics must change in reponse - eventually.  Yes, the Chinese are adept at postponing that reality.  

But it will not be postponed forever.

A truly strategic thinker worries about handling a democratizing China down the road more than some single-party state.  A single-party state is inherently cautious; it cannot suffer a genuine overseas debacle because there is no throw-the-bums-out dynamic to stabilize the system.  But a democratizing China looks more like the rising US of the late 19th century.  I personally don't foresee that being an unmanageable problem, given all the domestic issues that China will still be finessing throughout that transition, but it will definitely be a new and different China "challenge."

References (2)

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Reader Comments (4)

I think most people in East Asia (and India) would prefer dull bureaucrats to a Chinese Putin.

And a Chinese Putin is the least you'd get from a democratic China.

January 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMaduka

Unfortunately too many Chinese want the same thing. They want to get a STEM college degree and ideally get a stable job working for a govt linked organization. Now there is a vast oversupply of low-quality college grads and not enough people to fill the needs of the workplace for unskilled workers or for technologist. The quality of college grads is low because the supply of capable educators is low (thanks to the culture revolution effect and low instructor pay.) Unfortunately, Chinese tend to be too much the same and want the same things which leads to an oversupply of people with similar training.

February 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Dunn

China has always been a nation that seems to be always determined to be on top. Everyone seems to expected to excel and especially when students graduate, they are expected to get high quality jobs. It should be that or fail so it is no surprise that each year, the bar continued to get higher.

February 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichaela

I believe chinese will dominance the global workforce like how they dominance their goods made in china

February 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterArister

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