Xi Jinping

A reality check for the China Dream

Winston Mok says to stop the exodus of talented Chinese, the government must do more to make the pursuit of the 'China dream' possible - starting with reforms in education, the private sector and housing

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 July, 2013, 3:37am

Under the "China dream" envisioned by Xi Jinping , every Chinese is urged to pursue his or her dream, thus contributing to nation-building and leading to the resurgence of China. In a recent government-sponsored survey among Guangdong residents, for the most part, their "dream" is understandably quite simple: a good job and a decent home. Yet, these basic aspirations are becoming out of reach for the younger generation.

For the seven million young people graduating from university this year, most will struggle to find an acceptable job, let alone clinch a dream one. A modest home in Beijing or Shanghai, starting at US$500,000, is also just a distant dream.

Most of China's youth are more materialistic than idealistic. For example, it's commonly said that a man will need to own a downtown apartment before he has any chance of marrying a Shanghai girl. Meanwhile, graduates would choose, above all others, a job in the public sector, with its decent pay, good benefits and high job security. The draw is personal gain, rather than any noble calling to serve the public.

While admonishing people to take the initiative, the government must also do its part

That was not the case for earlier generations, many of whom had idealistic dreams for a better China. In the more than half a century leading to the founding of the People's Republic, there were periods of high idealism. At the turn of the 20th century, China's youth threw their lives at reform and revolution. In the 1919 May Fourth Movement, they embraced science and democracy as the foundations to strengthen China.

At the founding of the People's Republic, many elite gave up better economic prospects overseas to participate in building a new China. Most subsequently languished and their talent was wasted in circumstances too painful to detail.

China now has arguably more talent than ever. Beyond the new graduates, many are attending, and teaching at, the best universities around the world. However, many are staying overseas. An increasing number of China's elites are emigrating. China's best and brightest are pursuing their dreams elsewhere.

So how can China provide an environment for its best talent to pursue their dreams? While the issues are complex, it could start tackling problems in three areas.

First, education reform. Admission to China's elite universities, the ticket to a good career, is very unequal. Universities in Beijing give strong preferences to local residents in a system of regional quotas. As a start, there should be uniform admission standards nationwide for nationally funded universities, blind to candidates' place of origin.

While some secondary schools in Shanghai and Beijing are world class, their rural counterparts are vastly inferior. Rural education should be significantly upgraded. Graduates could be given strong economic incentives to teach in rural areas, such as hardship allowances and credits for subsequent applications for public- sector jobs.

Further, if China wants to develop world-class universities, their governance must be free from bureaucratic control.

Second, productive private-sector growth. At a recent summit organised by the government think thank China Centre for International Economic Exchanges, it was observed that a new engine of growth is needed, as the old formula of investment-driven growth is running out of steam.

The private sector is an engine for job creation. However, its growth has been impeded by unfavourable access to financing compared to the state sector. In the longer term, significant financial sector reforms are needed to facilitate a more efficient allocation of capital away from wasteful local government projects to productive private enterprises that can create jobs.

Third, affordable social housing. Housing is so expensive in the major cities that significant government intervention is needed not only for the poor but also for recent graduates. Shenzhen has been a pioneer in developing social housing for skilled professionals. Other cities could consider a similar scheme for young professionals, although measures are needed to prevent abuse. For example, 10 to 20 per cent of the 36 million flats of affordable housing to be built by 2015 could be set aside for professionals whose skills are needed locally.

For cities to draw talent and create jobs, housing must be accessible not only to the affluent, but also to talented and ambitious youth.

While admonishing people to take the initiative, the government must also do its part to make the "China dream" possible. Job creation and affordable homes are the main pillars for the "China dream".

Therefore, the government should look to shape economic growth and deliver social justice. There is a long way to go to achieve the "China dream". But as Lao Tzu wrote: "A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step."

Winston Mok is a private investor, a former private equity investor and McKinsey consultant. An MIT alum, he studied under three Nobel laureates in economics