When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

Already a subscriber? Log in .

You've reached your limit of one free article.

Get unlimited access to Worldcrunch

You can cancel anytime .


Exclusive International news coverage

Ad-free experience NEW

Weekly digital Magazine NEW

9 daily & weekly Newsletters

Access to Worldcrunch archives

Free trial

30-days free access, then $2.90
per month.

Annual Access BEST VALUE

$19.90 per year, save $14.90 compared to monthly billing.save $14.90.

Subscribe to Worldcrunch

The Chinese Pursuit Of The American Dream

In Flushing, Queens, New York
In Flushing, Queens, New York
Li Huafang


Whether a place can continue to attract immigrants relies fundamentally on institutional competition. Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson concluded in their book Why Nations Fail that countries with "inclusive institutions" will attract a diverse citizenry and adequate resources, and that this is advantageous for sustained economic progress. Instead, they argued, countries with more isolated, insular institutions won't enjoy the same kind of economic growth.

My own experience in the United States tells me that China is becoming increasingly important. First, there are more and more media reports about China. From culture to politics, a wide variety of subjects are being covered. Second, Washington, D.C."s think tanks are engaging in more discussions concerning Chinese issues. Two years ago, maybe one to two China-centric subjects a month would appear on Linktank, a service that specializes in publishing information about think tank events. But these days, there are at least two events a week related to China.

Some might think this suggests the "China model" is becoming more attractive globally. But this is very possibly an illusion, given that the increasing mentions of China more often involve criticism, not praise. There are, after all, also more Linktank mentions about North Korea and Iran. But among policymakers and the media, these two countries are regarded negatively.

So which is it: Is China becoming more or less attractive?

In 2010, my friend Jia Jia wrote an article entitled Becoming an American Dad in which he defined the American dream this way: "The idea that one can definitely achieve a better life through one's unremitting efforts." But I don't think this is much different from the Chinese dream. We all want to improve living standards and make the most of ourselves.

Jia Jia outlined two ways Chinese people can become American citizens. The first is through investment. He joked that "Beijing residents with property who live within the boundary of its Fourth Ring Road are all potential American citizens." Considering Beijing's sky-high real estate prices, this isn't really a joke. And the recent problems of smog-ridden Beijing and disease-carrying dead pigs in the river near Shanghai are probably responsible for another wave of Chinese immigrants in America.

The second way for Chinese to become American citizens is more complicated — to become American parents by giving birth to a child in the United States. Once the child confirms his or her status as a U.S. citizen, this fulfills the parents' wish.

Pursuit of knowledge

What Jia left out is the option to study in the U.S. and subsequently find a job, settle down and finally earn citizenship. This is really the Chinese-style American dream.

Since 1978, 1.06 million Chinese have gone abroad to study, and only 275,000 of those have returned home. Although not all of them end up in the U.S., the high quality of American higher education is very attractive to Chinese students.

Competition is extremely important, and if the Chinese elite and their offspring all long for America, then the ideal model of the Chinese dream seems to be the American dream. This is somehow ironic.

So do the Chinese elite indeed aspire to become American citizens? A glimpse of the data from the GRE, an admissions test for American graduate schools, offers a clue. Between 2011 and 2012, India and China are behind only the U.S. in representing the most candidates sitting for the GRE — 33,504 students from India, and 29,255 from China. Relative to the more than 1.6 million Chinese students who take exams to get into domestic graduate schools, this is a small percentage. But if it's truly representative of the number of elite Chinese students who pack up and go live in America, then there must be a problem somewhere.

According to the data, these Chinese students demonstrate a very high average academic level. This is important because it shows that though China's higher education system has been improving for years, it nevertheless fails to retain an important slice of the student population. Though some of these students may eventually choose to return and work in China, that may be because of intense competition within the U.S. rather than because Chinese institutions are attractive to them.

I mention this Chinese-style American dream to make the point that the Chinese elite class has clearly voted with their feet about which is the better system, or at least which has better higher education. And universities are probably the ultimate embodiment of a country's institutional competitiveness.

But the Chinese and American dreams share a lot in common. The principles of freedom of choice and opportunity are universal aspirations. The difference between the two is in the attractiveness of their various institutions. This is where the Chinese can learn from the American model.

To achieve China's institutional reforms, we need to use understand how and why the U.S. stands out globally. And this isn't just about education but also about the country's constitution, which helped give birth to this system. That is ultimately what nourishes the American dream.

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.


A Refuge From China's Rat Race: The Young People Flocking To Buddhist Monasteries

Unemployment, stress in the workplace, economic difficulties: more and more young Chinese graduates are flocking to monasteries to find "another school of life."

Photograph of a girl praying at a temple during Chinese Lunar New Year. She is burning incense.

Feb 20, 2015 - Huaibei, China - Chinese worshippers pray at a temple during the Lunar New Yeat

Frédéric Schaeffer

JIAXING — It's already dawn at Xianghai Temple when Lin, 26, goes to the Hall of 10,000 Buddhas for the 5:30 a.m. prayer.

Still half-asleep, the young woman joins the monks in chanting mantras and reciting sacred texts for an hour. Kneeling, she bows three times to Vairocana, also known as the Great Sun Buddha, who dominates the 42-meter-high hall representing the cosmos.

Before grabbing a vegetarian breakfast in the adjacent refectory, monks and devotees chant around the hall to the sound of drums and gongs.

"I resigned last October from the e-commerce company where I had been working for the past two years in Nanjing, and joined the temple in January, where I am now a volunteer in residence," explains the young woman, soberly dressed in black pants and a cream linen jacket.

Located in the city of Jiaxing, over a hundred kilometers from Shanghai, in eastern China, the Xianghai temple is home to some 20 permanent volunteers.

Unlike Lin, most of them only stay for a couple days or a few weeks. But for Lin, who spends most of her free time studying Buddhist texts in the temple library, the change in her life has been radical. "I used to do the same job every day, sometimes until very late at night, writing all kinds of reports for my boss. I was exhausted physically and mentally. I felt my life had no meaning," she says.

Keep reading...Show less

The latest