Thousands of teenagers swarmed out of the towering front gate of Maotanchang High School. Many of them wore identical black-and-white Windbreakers emblazoned with the slogan, in English, “I believe it, I can do it.” It was lunchtime at one of China’s most secretive “cram schools” — a memorization factory where 20,000 students, or four times the town’s official population, train round the clock for China’s national college-entrance examination, known as the gaokao. The grueling test, which is administered every June over two or three days (depending on the province), is the lone criterion for admission to Chinese universities. For the students at Maotanchang, most of whom come from rural areas, it offers the promise of a life beyond the fields and the factories, of families’ fortunes transformed by hard work and high scores. ... Nothing consumes the lives of Chinese families more than the ever-looming prospect of the gaokao. The exam — there are two versions, one focused on science, the other on humanities — is the modern incarnation of the imperial keju, generally regarded as the world’s first standardized test. For more than 1,300 years, into the early 20th century, the keju funneled young men into China’s civil service. Today, more than nine million students take the gaokao each year (fewer than 3.5 million, combined, take the SAT and the ACT). But the pressure to start memorizing and regurgitating facts weighs on Chinese students from the moment they enter elementary school. ... Even as cram schools have proliferated across urban areas, Maotanchang is a world apart, a remote one-industry town that produces test-taking machines with the same single-minded commitment that other Chinese towns devote to making socks or Christmas ornaments.
Even as U.S.-China relations have slipped toward mutual antagonism, the flood of Chinese students coming to the United States has continued to rise. Roughly 370,000 students from the mainland are enrolled in American high schools and universities, six times more than a decade ago. Their financial impact — $11.4 billion was contributed to the American economy in 2015, according to the Department of Commerce — has turned education into one of America’s top “exports” to China. ... It is a strange historical moment when the elites of a rising power send their only sons and daughters, products of China’s former one-child policy, to the schools of a geopolitical rival. Yet the idea of a liberal Western education exerts an almost talismanic hold over China’s ruling classes. While the country’s educational emphasis on rote memorization churns out some of the world’s best test-takers, many Chinese families harbor worries that diverge sharply from those of the tiger parents of popular conception. They fret about the toll competition exacts from their coddled offspring; they wonder if their child’s creativity is being stifled. ... In 2005, only 641 Chinese students were enrolled in American high schools. By 2014, that student population approached 40,000 — a 60-fold increase in a single decade
Driven by economics (a hunger for resources and new markets) and politics (a longing for strategic allies), Chinese companies and workers have rushed into all parts of the world. In 2000, only five countries counted China as their largest trading partner; today, more than 100 countries do, from Australia to the United States. The drumbeat of proposed projects never stops: a military operating base, China’s first overseas, in Djibouti; an $8 billion high-speed railway through Nigeria; an almost-fantastical canal across Nicaragua expected to cost $50 billion. Even as China’s boom slows down, its most ambitious scheme is still ramping up: With the “One Belt, One Road” initiative — its name a reference to trade routes — President Xi Jinping has spoken of putting $1.6 trillion over the next decade into infrastructure and development throughout Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The scheme would dwarf the United States’ post-World War II Marshall Plan for Europe. ... China’s relationship with Africa goes back to the 1960s, when Chairman Mao Zedong promoted solidarity with the developing world — “Ya Fei La,” as he called it, using the first syllables for Asia, Africa and Latin America. Though it was poor and mired in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, China won new allies in Africa by finishing, in 1976, a 1,156-mile railroad through the bush from Tanzania to Zambia. Aid continued to trickle in, but there were no other big projects for nearly 30 years