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30 years after China’s reform, students have more opportunities

David Dollar's picture

Pictures with my students in the spring of 1986. The lives of college students in China have since changed tremendously.
This month marks the 30th anniversary of the launching of China's reform and opening up. China's open door policy is one of the signal events of our time and has brought about unimaginable changes in all aspects of life here. I was forcefully reminded of two of the changes last week when I went to the Capital University of Economics and Business to give a lecture on the global economic crisis and its effects on China.

The professor who invited me was my student 23 years ago when I was teaching for a semester at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences graduate school here in Beijing. So, it was natural to think about the changes in the lives of college students as a result of 30 years of opening up.

The elite graduate students I taught in the spring of 1986 were very smart and earnest, but they had very little exposure to the outside world. None had traveled abroad and their knowledge of the global economy and even basic conditions of life in the U.S. and other developed countries was extremely limited. In class students were rather timid about asking questions. But when I visited the student dorm in the evening we would have wide-ranging discussions – half in English, half in Chinese. The students had a vast thirst for knowledge about the outside world.

One topic in particular sticks in my mind. All of these students could only look forward to being placed in some job over which they had very little say. In fact, many of them were majoring in subjects that they had not chosen and for which they had little interest. They were fascinated with my description of the U.S. job market for economists: an annual meeting at which employers and new Ph.D.s would interview each other; "fly-outs" to a few employers who were seriously interested, followed by job offers; and then each candidate deciding which job to accept. Quite a few of my students thought that they would not want to have such a free and anxiety-producing labor market.

Fast-forward 23 years

With my former student, Professor Lang Lihua, at the Capital University of Economics and Business in Beijing.
About 4 million students will graduate from Chinese universities next spring. The ones I lectured to last week have a pretty sophisticated understanding of the global economy. I was amazed at how many students wanted to ask questions. In a hall with several hundred students, they confidently asked questions in English about prospects for China's exports, exchange rate policy, the U.S. financial system, South-South trade in a recessionary global environment, risks of corruption in China’s stimulus package and how to limit those risks, and so on. No offense to my former students, but this new generation has had much better opportunities to learn about the world through travel, study, and the Internet. 

This new generation will also go out onto a labor market that is not that different from the U.S. one. They will apply for a lot of different jobs, have interviews, hopefully get offers, and make their choices. The new generation takes for granted this kind of free labor market for people with higher education. However, at this moment in history, the free market also carries a lot of anxiety with it. China’s economy is slowing rapidly. Students who graduate next spring will face a very tough job market, and many of them will probably be happy to get entry-level jobs far below their skill levels. Others will remain unemployed for months. The opening of the labor market – at least at the high-skill end – has brought freedom and prosperity that was unimaginable 30 years ago. But it also brings more risks and uncertainties. Economists will be the first to tell you that there is no "free lunch."

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