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What Do Chinese University Students Think About U.S.-China Tech Competition? China's elite youth not forget the past

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What Do Chinese University Students Think About U.S.-China Tech Competition?​

Christina Knight
Tuesday, August 22, 2023, 2:00 PM

A dispatch from Tsinghua University

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Tsinghua University Old Campus in Beijing, March 16, 2013.

Christina Knight

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With


“We have this saying, technological backwardness brings on beatings by others (落后就要挨打),” Xinyi*, an electrical engineering doctoral student at Tsinghua University, China’s leading technology school, told me over coffee. We sat at Eureka, a Greek-inspired cat cafe hidden behind a hot-pot canteen on Tsinghua’s campus in a rare leafy corner of Beijing. “We had no technology before, and we suffered. Now, China has learned from the past,” she said. In other words, technological inferiority leads to hardship. Xinyi wants to help China avoid repeating this mistake. But she is also realistic, and slightly disillusioned. Her main priorities are a house, a car, and—more than anything—to escape neijuan: the stress, anxiety, and competitiveness in Chinese society. China’s technological advancement excites her, yet her own future raises concerns.

Xinyi’s sentiment exemplifies the tension faced by most Tsinghua engineering students I interviewed for my global affairs master's thesis in Spring 2023. These students shared their thoughts on U.S. technology sanctions, China’s domestic innovation, and this strategic competition’s role in their lives. Their opinions come nowhere near encompassing all Chinese engineers or Tsinghua students. Yet, as members of the future Chinese political elite, producers of some of the most cited math and computing papers worldwide, and candidates for Beijing’s premium semiconductor workforce, these engineers provide a unique window into the defining strategic endeavor of our time: advanced technology competition between the U.S. and China.

Nestled between Beijing’s iconic Summer Palace and “China’s Silicon Valley” (Tsinghua University Science Park), the tall, glass buildings that house China’s latest quantum computing and artificial intelligence (AI) developments juxtapose crumbling Qing dynasty ruins. Students race handmade robots next to elderly workers peddling wooden carts filled with leaves. Professors practice the ancient art of Qi on fields where students run laps from dawn until midnight, fulfilling their smartphone-monitored graduation requirement of 5,000 steps a day. A nucleus of China’s rapid development since 1978, the torrent of kuai jiezou shenghuo (fast-paced life) floods the campus. Tsinghua University—like much of modern China—is a strange convergence of old and new.

Tsinghua University was founded in 1911, amid the so-called century of humiliation, and these historical roots still dominate student thought. For a quick history lesson, after the Boxer Rebellion, a protest against Western exploitation in the early 1900s, foreign powers forced the Qing dynasty to pay a $333 million indemnity, essentially bankrupting the empire. The U.S. government donated some of these reparations back to China to help revive the education system. The Qing dynasty emperor used this money to found Tsinghua—now, with no small irony, the vanguard of China’s technological transformation into the powerhouse that Washington now views as its “most consequential competitor.”

“We have this other saying, ‘Never forget national humiliation,’” Xinyi explained, sipping her latte. “Don’t forget the humiliation that our country has suffered.”

Many students noted that U.S. technology sanctions, such as the 2019 Huawei export ban and the addition of Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC) to the Entity List in 2020, evoked memories of historical injustices, like the First Opium War in 1839. Sanctions continue this trend. “It’s like the Japanese invasion of China in some ways,” one mechanical engineering doctoral student explained. “When a foreign country oppresses or sanctions China, Chinese people feel motivated to contribute.”

According to multiple students, the export bans increased many Chinese people’s “national consciousness” (minzurenzhigan). This national responsibility compelled them to study STEM and contribute to China’s technological development. “Many students, like me, choose to study electronic engineering or similar majors because the country needs us,” one engineer said. Another computer science student described his transition from acting to artificial intelligence the year before: “In such a crisis—and this is a crisis for China—we all should help. So I changed my career path.” Other graduate students in the School of Integrated Circuits (IC School), a specialized “chip college” established at Tsinghua in 2020, noted that sanctions increased their conviction to pursue careers in the semiconductor industry.

Xinyi also saw her role in this larger mission. “We have always been taught from a young age that we are the country's backbone,” she said. “We work hard so China doesn’t suffer from other countries in the future. Advancing technology is the best way to avoid that.”

We perched cross-legged at a windowsill table overlooking the main room. A friend showed me this bright haven during my first week on campus, and I began to return daily. Eureka, like many student hubs on campus, rippled with excitement. Students huddled around blueprints of electric vehicles, service robots, and smart-agriculture plans, sipping bubble tea or coconut milk lattes, a current favorite among Chinese youth.

As I observed students working together in groups, I was reminded how many noted that overcoming sanctions required collaboration between all Chinese—especially engineers. One student described their role as “screw in a larger machine that can help China.” A quote by Zhou Enlai, China’s first premier, encompasses this sentiment and was mentioned by multiple students: 为中华而读书 or “study for the rise of China.” But, while the comment captures the ambition, dedication, and national duty that ripples through Tsinghua, it’s an incomplete explanation for the rise in Chinese tech ambition. Economic burdens and societal pressures, such as a successful career and traditional family life, are also at play.

Students recognize their role in the larger mission to combat “Western bullying,” but are also pragmatic. The economic strain exacerbated by the three-year “zero-COVID” lockdown weighs them down. In 2023, youth unemployment reached 18.4 percent, the birth rate dropped to 1.1 births per woman (lower than the projected rate of 1.8 and one of the lowest in the world), and GDP per capita stagnated at $15,556 (compared to $70,248 in the United States). Even the most qualified Tsinghua students are not guaranteed high-paying jobs. As stated, ironically, by a graduate student in the School of Marxism: “Money talks.”

When asked whether they would choose a job that helped national technology innovation or one with a high income, many students said they would prioritize their own lives and choose the latter. “We need to care for our parents,” an electrical engineer told me. “If I’m offered a better job in the US, I would take it.” Another student admitted, “I’m utilitarian. I will first consider myself. For instance, if I’m offered a job with a $50,000 salary in China and a $150,000 salary in the U.S., I’d more likely choose the U.S.” One computer science student mentioned too many people and too few opportunities. “In this intense competition, I must first think about myself. I want to buy a house, buy a car, and get married.” He sighed. “First, I’ll work hard for myself. Then, if I can, I’ll work hard for my country.”

But this tension between national and self-interest may not exist much longer. Money indeed talks, and Tsinghua engineers listened: Many students drawn to emerging tech sectors noted their desire to enter the field completely or partially stemming from these increased fiscal opportunities. The Chinese Communist Party has invested billions into cultivating the “talent” of emerging technology sectors through programs like the Youth Thousands Talent Program and specialized schools, such as the School of Integrated Circuits. Entry-level salaries in the semiconductor industry have doubled since 2018. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, China’s total semiconductor research and development expenditures surpassed 3 trillion yuan ($413.5 billion) in 2022.

Students also mentioned the role of U.S. sanctions in this growth. A doctoral student noted that “the industry blew up” after the Huawei and SMIC bans because they “made everyone, including the government, finally pay attention.” Since 2020, Beijing has poured funding into emerging technologies sectors. When asked about the most significant impact of President Trump’s sanctions, a graduate student in the IC School mentioned nothing about Huawei’s lost earnings. Instead, he spoke about increased opportunities. “To be honest, [sanctions’] largest impact was that they raised my expectations for my future job salary.”

Whether motivated by money, ideology, or some combination, students flocked to study integrated circuits and electrical engineering in recent years. “My year (the first year), there were 40 students. Now, there are over 200. And that’s just at Tsinghua,” said one student in the IC School. Data from the national college entrance exam also reflect this increased chip interest.

As China becomes a more attractive place for Chinese engineers to work, the U.S. becomes a less attractive place to live. Many students cited concerns about U.S. visa rejections, discrimination, and gun violence as reasons to stay in China. One student said, “Why would we go? Tsinghua’s resources are improving, and there are tons of jobs.”

Ultimately, Tsinghua students are conflicted about the future of China’s emerging technology industry. On the one hand, many students felt optimistic, buoyed by inflated investments and government attention. “There is no doubt we can develop our domestic supply chain. It is just a matter of time,” one doctoral student said. Another integrated circuits engineer declared that in “two to three years,” China could domesticate the global supply chain. “Taiwan has done it,” he said. “Why can’t we?” An AI engineer mentioned that his field, computer vision, “took off” after sanctions in 2018. He said they made people realize the U.S. regarded China as a real opponent, providing people with a sense of responsibility and a confidence boost.

Multiple students mentioned that subsidies spurred a cohort of start-ups. In the first half of 2022, semiconductor start-ups in China raised 60 billion yuan ($8.78 billion). These fledgling companies specialize in third-generation semiconductors, sensors, GPU, and millimeter-wave radars—all cutting-edge, crucial technologies in the semiconductor space. One of these entrepreneurs even left Silicon Valley (where he studied at Stanford University) to return to China for entrepreneurship. He cited the “obvious” superiority of China’s chip start-up space for his move. Another engineer noted that the bans eradicated the “low-cost monopoly” of foreign chip design and fabrication in the domestic market. “It’s like Coke and Pepsi,” he declared. “No one could enter the space because they had already lowered the price. Now small companies can finally succeed.”

Students also acknowledged that China may be more technologically advanced than Chinese leadership suggests. One study by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) in March 2023 highlights China’s technological prowess. While different studies reveal inconclusive levels of advancement, ASPI found that China leads in 37 out of 44 strategic technologies, including defense, space, biotechnology, and energy, and spearheads synthetic biology, electric batteries, 5G, and nano-manufacturing industries.

China’s facade of technological weakness could stem partially from cultural factors, such as the desire to underplay capabilities and modesty. “It is also a mindset or cultural perspective where we tend to speak modestly about our capabilities,” a doctoral student mentioned. Another engineer said the media often encourages the public to maintain this demeanor. He noted that state media often mentioned taoguangyanghui, “to hide one’s capacities and bide one’s time,” and menshengfadacai, “to amass wealth while keeping a low profile.” He said these phrases urged Chinese nationals to help with technological development while downplaying Chinese capabilities publicly.

But other students doubted China’s ability to succeed independently. A chemistry engineer predicted that China’s chip industry needed no less than 50 years to catch up to global leaders. Another student said, “A generation or two? Who knows?” Someone else recognized that sanctions had taken a toll: “For me, sanctions are actually pretty good. They popularized our industry and increased our salaries.” He then noted, “[But] if I were the boss of Huawei, I wouldn’t be saying the same thing.” More fundamentally, engineers cite China’s lack of entrepreneurship and strict education system as reasons for the nation’s lack of innovation. They noted that the United States has developed more than China and that the U.S. fosters talent more effectively. Many students blamed this weakness on China’s strict examination system. Other students emphasized the necessity to access advanced machinery and their sustained hopes for global cooperation.

Tsinghua’s robust network of top-tier engineers provides unique insight into U.S.-China technology competition. Yet much uncertainty still exists: Do heightened salaries and increased job opportunities reflect actual industry growth or false inflation by national and local government stimuli? Once students graduate and enter the industry, does their optimism and determination disappear? What does the future of China’s domestic technology industry look like, and what role do U.S. sanctions have in molding this environment?

While China may have developed far past the decaying dynasty that Theodore Roosevelt once pitied, Tsinghua students have not forgotten their school’s—or nation’s—past. Spurred by a strong historical memory and ever-present neijuan, Tsinghua engineers are committed to China’s technological future and out-competing the United States. “We have been bullied,” one engineer said. “And we will work together to face this challenge.”

 
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According to the U.S.News Best Global Universities Rankings for Subject 2022, Tsinghua University has 14 subjects ranked within top 10: Engineering (1st), Computer Science (1st), Chemical Engineering (1st), Electrical and Electronic Engineering (1st), Energy and Fuels (1st), Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (2nd), Physical Chemistry (2nd), Civil Engineering (3rd), Materials Science (3rd), Condensed Matter Physics (3rd), Mechanical Engineering (4th), Chemistry (4th), Physics (9th) and Environment/Ecology (10th).

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New generation of Tsinghua students didn't forget their predessors almost 100 years ago, Tsing hua was one of the 3 universities consisted of the exile school of the National Southwestern Associated University during the Sino-Japanese war.


China's first atomic bomb, hydrogen bomb, first rocket and satelite all the creations of graduates from this exile school
All the founding fathers of China's modern science and technolog were the graduates of this war time exile school, in its existence of 8 years, it produced 172 Chinese academicians and two Nobel Prize winners


When the Sino-Japanese War broke out between China and Japan in 1937, Peking University, Tsinghua University and Nankai University merged to form Changsha Temporary University in Changsha and later National Southwestern Associated University (Lianda) in Kunming and Mengzi, in Southwest China's Yunnan Province.

By summer 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army had bombed Nankai University to the ground in Tianjin and occupied areas including the campuses of two of the country's leading universities in Beijing: Peking University and Tsinghua University.

These three universities, which were some of the country's most prestigious, modern institutions of higher learning and research, with the agreement of those who led the institutions — men of high standing who had been educated abroad — retreated to Changsha, the capital city of Hunan province (about 900 miles away from Beijing) to unite.

By the middle of December 1937, many students had to leave to fight the Japanese when the city of Nanjing fell to enemy forces. As the Japanese forces were gaining more territory, they bombed Changsha in February 1938. The 800 staff faculty and students who were left had to flee and made the 1,000 mile journey to Kunming, capital of Yunnan province in China's remote and mountainous southwest. It was here that the National Southwest Associated University (commonly known as 'Lianda') was formed.

In these extraordinary wartime circumstances for eight years, staff, professors and students had to survive and operate in makeshift quarters that were subjected to sporadic bombing campaigns by the Imperial Japanese forces. There were dire shortages of food, equipment, books, clothing and other essential needs, but they managed to conduct the running of a modern university.

Over those years of war (1937-1945), Lianda became famous nationwide for having and producing many of China's most prominent scientists and intellectuals, including 172 Chinese academicians and the Nobel Prize laureates Yang Chen-Ning and Tsung-Dao Lee.
 
Foreign degrees are increasingly becoming a stigma instead of a credential among Chinese college graduates.
 
Remember that whatever China has today is all handed down to them with $2 trillion FDI from 1995 to 2015. The Americans provided technology and money to build factories and opened its doors for duty free imports. On top of that offered a low Yuan- Dollar conversion rate to make Chinese made products perpetually cheaper. That us how China got to where it is today. Now they have control of West’s supply chain system.

Now the West is moving away from single source supply chain.
 
Remember that whatever China has today is all handed down to them with $2 trillion FDI from 1995 to 2015. The Americans provided technology and money to build factories and opened its doors for duty free imports. On top of that offered a low Yuan- Dollar conversion rate to make Chinese made products perpetually cheaper. That us how China got to where it is today. Now they have control of West’s supply chain system.

Now the West is moving away from single source supply chain.

It's always Chinese helping Chinese first, as for western countries investing in China, they did that for profit, not for charity, what stopped them from investing somewhere else?

Foreign investments into China till the end of 2014
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It's always Chinese helping Chinese first, as for western countries investing in China, they did that for profit, not for charity, what stopped them from investing somewhere else?

Foreign investments into China till the end of 2014
微信图片_20230113225018.png
Why US invested in China?

Good question!

It is purely that Chinese offered to back stab Soviets now Russia from the back. The US presidents like Reagan to Obama believed it and decided to build China as a counter weight. They did send money and technology to build China.

It was later realized that they have been deceived, but not much can be done about It. In fact the Chinese are ready to fight their benefactor, the US then their common enemy Russia. In the process they grabbed the the Western markets and again, until this market dominance is moved out, not much can be done about it.
 
and dirty commie feudal xi will keep getting china humiliated and be technologically backwards and get beatdown
 
Why US invested in China?

Good question!

It is purely that Chinese offered to back stab Soviets now Russia from the back. The US presidents like Reagan to Obama believed it and decided to build China as a counter weight. They did send money and technology to build China.

It was later realized that they have been deceived, but not much can be done about It. In fact the Chinese are ready to fight their benefactor, the US then their common enemy Russia. In the process they grabbed the the Western markets and again, until this market dominance is moved out, not much can be done about it.
China and Soviet Union became overt enemies since 1969 when there was border war between two countries. China and US established normal diplomatic relationship in 1970's. How come it was back stab to adopt hostile measures between two enemy countries?

You only emphasized what China got from US and completely ignored what US got from China.
 
Remember that whatever China has today is all handed down to them with $2 trillion FDI from 1995 to 2015. The Americans provided technology and money to build factories and opened its doors for duty free imports. On top of that offered a low Yuan- Dollar conversion rate to make Chinese made products perpetually cheaper. That us how China got to where it is today. Now they have control of West’s supply chain system.

Now the West is moving away from single source supply chain.
Lol, to you slave Indians, every Chinese achievement and success are due to the generosity of your white masters esp Yankees of course, why are they not doing to you their loyal slaves then ?
 
Lol, to you slave Indians, every Chinese achievement and success are due to the generosity of your white masters esp Yankees of course, why are they not doing to you their loyal slaves then ?
Chinese were slave too until 1948.
 
Why US invested in China?

Good question!

It is purely that Chinese offered to back stab Soviets now Russia from the back. The US presidents like Reagan to Obama believed it and decided to build China as a counter weight. They did send money and technology to build China.

It was later realized that they have been deceived, but not much can be done about It. In fact the Chinese are ready to fight their benefactor, the US then their common enemy Russia. In the process they grabbed the the Western markets and again, until this market dominance is moved out, not much can be done about it.
Who told you that crap? and China's biggest investors were not even the west, did you see the chart I posted? and was China the only country investable for the west in the world? why they didn't go to invest in India or Mexico? Do you think American businessmen and investors put American government's guidance before profits potentials? do you know how dumb you sound?
 
Who told you that crap? and China's biggest investors were not even the west, did you see the chart I posted? and was China the only country investable for the west in the world? why they didn't go to invest in India or Mexico? Do you think American businessmen and investors put American government's guidance before profits potentials? do you know how dumb you sound?
Brush up your international and general knowledge.
 
Brush up your international and general knowledge.

Before 1948, Chinese people were slaves? NO. Please learn some general history.

China was a permanent member of the United Nations in 1945. You think a permanent member of the UN is a slave?

After 1840, although China was defeated in wars fought against the West, it did not become a colony like India.

China has always been an independent country.

Do you know why the British gave up colonizing China? Because the "Sanyuanli incident" in May 1841 made the British understand that China could not be colonized and that the Chinese would not accept slavery. The "Sanyuanli incident" told the British colonizers that the Chinese and the Indians were not the same kind people, and that whenever there was a foreign enemy, the Chinese would abandon all internal conflicts and unite together to deal with the foreign enemy.

 
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