Oregon & China—Opportunity for the Rising Generation

By Rep. Dennis Richardson and David Porter

Wake up, Oregon. Consider the rise of China as a global power. Note its large and rapidly growing economy, its modernizing military, and its spreading cultural influence. Then ask the following questions: How is Oregon responding to China’s rise? Are we looking to the future? Are we preparing today’s students in Oregon for the challenges and opportunities that a rising China will pose over their lifetimes?

And the question is not just are we giving educational opportunities to individual students, but are we preparing the next generations as groups to have the language and cultural skills that can make our state, and our nation, successful in the developing international system? And of vital importance, will our future generations have the skills to minimize the chances of war with China?

Or, if conflict were to occur, would America’s understanding of Chinese culture and language enable it to be concluded successfully? Presently, the answers are a resounding, “No, not at all.” Oregon’s K-12, colleges and universities are failing to produce Chinese culture- and language-proficient students in significant numbers.

Currently, less than one percent of Oregon high school graduates have studied Mandarin, and most of those are far from proficient. At the university level, less than two percent of undergraduates now study Mandarin, and in the 2003-04 academic year only 35 of the 79,558 students (0.044%) in the Oregon University System studied abroad in China. These are not the statistics of an educational system preparing students for the twenty-first century or to engage a rising China constructively.

Oregon’s failure to offer and promote proficiency in Chinese language and cultural studies will have dire consequences in the decades ahead. For better or worse, China is destined to be America’s most important and pivotal economic and security relationship in the 21st century.

A National Bureau of Economic Research working paper recently (June 2007) forecast a Chinese economy three times the size of the U.S. economy by 2040. Its authors stated, “Indeed, the Chinese market in 2040 by itself will probably be larger than the combined markets of the U.S., the EU15, India, and Japan.” More recently in December, the World Bank revised downward by forty percent the current “purchasing-power parity” GDP of China. Even with this forty percent current devaluation, using the working paper’s economic growth rates, China would still have an estimated economy twice the size of the U.S. economy in 2040. If China can continue to sustain its high economic growth rates year after year, the Chinese economy will become enormous.

Strategically, the book China, the Balance Sheet, published jointly by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Institute for International Economics, sums up China’s importance to us by stating:

The direction that China and the U.S.-China relations take will define the strategic future of the world for years to come. No relationship matters more — for better of for worse — in resolving the enduring challenges of our time: maintaining stability among great powers, sustaining global economic growth, stemming dangerous weapons proliferation, countering terrorism, and confronting new transnational threats of infectious disease, environmental degradation, international crime, and failing states.

So what did the 2007 Oregon Legislative Session do to prepare Oregon students to compete in a world where China is the powerhouse? The House passed HR 3 which urged “Oregon universities, community colleges and secondary schools to encourage Oregon students to learn Mandarin Chinese and to explore opportunities to study in China.” The House Education Committee held one hearing on China and Higher Education and passed HB 2763, which would have allocated $350,000 to develop Mandarin programs in K-12 statewide. Unfortunately, HB 2763 was unfunded and died when the session ended.

Nevertheless, some progress in Chinese Immersion is being made. The University of Oregon and the Portland Public Schools are developing the national model K-16 Mandarin program. Its Mandarin immersion program starts with half-day Mandarin, half-day English program in kindergarten and progresses to some college study in China. Although limited, this is a meaningful start.

In sum, Oregon education has taken small steps toward preparing the rising generation to participate in a Chinese-dominated world market, but we must lengthen our stride. We know generally what to do. We know we need to start students as early as possible, immerse them as much as possible, and eventually provide opportunities for them to spend time in China. We should create incentives for school districts to offer Chinese language classes and to attract students to take them. With a bill like HB 2763 and some funds for immersion start-ups, Oregon could begin to build Mandarin programs all across the state. We could use real-time audio-visual distance learning technology to provide classes to smaller, rural school districts.

We could cut through “red tape” and provide graduate level exchange student scholarships for Chinese students to study part-time at Oregon universities while teaching Chinese part-time in Oregon public schools. Similar scholarships could be provided for Oregon graduate students to do the same in China. Chinese leaders in Fujian Province””Oregon’s sister-state””are ready, willing and able to join Oregon leaders in developing an Oregon-China student “teaching while learning” exchange program. Such an exchange program was informally discussed last November during the 2007 Oregon-China Legislative Trade Mission.

In conclusion, the growing dominance of China economically and in every other way is undeniable. Oregon has the opportunity and the challenge to prepare our next generation of business and government leaders to have the language and cultural skills necessary to understand and communicate with their Chinese counterparts. By making Chinese Immersion a top priority for Oregon education, we will extend a hand of friendship, understanding and invitation across the Pacific, and prepare Oregon’s rising generation to not only participate, but be leaders in the changing world of the 21st century.

Rep. Dennis Richardson (R-Central Point) serves Oregon’s Fourth District, has visited China numerous times, and co-chaired the recent 2007 Oregon-China Legislative Trade Mission. Dave Porter, a retired health administrator, lives in SE Portland and has promoted more Mandarin in Oregon public schools since the summer of 2006.