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The folly of ignoring China's challenge

Christopher Nordlinger says America's emerging economic rival has lessons to teach.

In the midst of hypergrowth, an ascendant China is eating all the physical resources it can get to feed its industrial machine. This great capitalist sponge seems to understand better than the U.S. that a key input for economic growth is human as well as physical: a trained population of knowledge workers.

We need to change that American indifference into action.

China's trade surplus with the United States was $162 billion in 2004, a 30.6 percent increase over the previous year. It also constituted this country's largest bilateral deficit, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Suffice it to say, China has emerged as our greatest economic threat.

With a population of well over a billion, China has enough arms and legs to lay brick and bang hammers. But as they transition from souvenirs to semiconductors, the Chinese know the importance of having workers who can contribute important value-added labor to this effort: knowledge-worker proficiency built upon a keen math and science foundational training.

If we're going to win this battle, we need to make robotics hotter than Paris Hilton and genetics more fun than "American Idol."

For decades, some of the best Chinese students have been sucked out as the brain drain lured them into U.S. higher education and then into rewarding jobs in the U.S. science and tech economy. India, another growth marvel and U.S. competitor, has also lost a significant number of its youth to education and careers in the West.

However, in an unlucky coincidence of history, the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks brought barriers to foreign students' easy access to U.S. undergraduate and graduate technology programs in everything from engineering to mathematics. Our security concerns about foreign students studying in the U.S. understandably trumped our desire to have foreign students fill our engineering schools, stay here and contribute to our world-leading economic machine. That needs to be fixed.

As a result, for the first time in history, U.S. engineering programs saw a significant decrease in applications to doctoral programs--a full 22 percent drop in 2004. Non-U.S. students dominate these engineering programs, and Indian students' applications dropped by 36 percent that year while Chinese students' applications dropped by more than 45 percent.

In the easy flow of labor, capital and information across national borders, this is a very disturbing trend. Unless we soon turn this cruise ship to oblivion around, the nation will become as dependent on foreign technology workers to fuel our economy as it is on foreign oil--with even more devastating consequences.

Ironically, at a time when the U.S. government has started limiting American companies' ability to distribute employee stock options--the incentives that have helped spur the technology growth of the past 30 years--the Chinese have started providing their employees with stock options. Take that, Chairman Mao!

Despite their grievous lack of both democracy and respect for intellectual property, the Chinese deserve our congratulations for what they have done in education. China has pulled off one of the most remarkable expansions of education in modern times. In just 10 years, it has focused its resources and increased the number of undergraduate- and graduate-degreed individuals enormously--a fivefold increase in one decade.

Since the U.S. federal government refuses to prioritize this issue, we need to get the U.S. business community to step up its leadership.

U.S. businesses, led by the tech community, should implement a technology education initiative. I propose that a multibillion-dollar K-12 philanthropic initiative focus on improving science and math curricula, creating model tech-teaching programs and delivering student tutoring via the Internet. In addition, it should provide lifetime stipends to college grads who choose to teach tech subjects in public schools located in low-income urban and rural communities.

However, it's not enough to create first-class K-12 tech training in science and math. We also need to create a huge increase in student interest in these "difficult" subjects. If we're going to win this battle, we need to make robotics hotter than Paris Hilton and genetics more fun than "American Idol."

Maybe then the federal government will step in with the kind of funding that ensures success. And maybe then we will join our economic competition in realizing that building a robust public education system, with a serious emphasis on technology, may be our most patriotic act.