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CHINA: THE GIANT AWAKENS : Culture : A Teacher Turns Student : * Long ago, China was the model for Asians. Now the Communist titan's citizens eagerly learn from their capitalist neighbors.


SEOUL — In the beginning, centuries before David He was born in China and Moon Chang Won was born in South Korea, the mandarins and monks of the great Middle Kingdom brought a treasure of teachings to this East Asian peninsula.

He's Chinese ancestors taught Moon's forebears how to write in ideographic characters. They brought an ethical system proposed by a philosopher named Confucius.

The Chinese transmitted Buddhism from India, which not only affected religious life but also profoundly colored Korea's architecture, sculpture, music and dance. They introduced their systems of mathematics and of governance by elite bureaucrats selected through rigorous exams.

And the teachings of He's people spread beyond Korea, into Japan as well. For the people of East Asia looked to China as the center of world civilization, as the Great Teacher who would lift their comparatively primitive societies into more prosperous and culturally refined nations.

But now the tables are turned. As China determinedly moves to cast off its Communist legacy of stunted economic growth and intellectual stagnation, Asia's great teacher has become its most eager student.

Thirsting for knowledge that will propel their nation toward economic superstardom, Chinese are shuttling around the region by the thousands to learn how their Asian neighbors managed to develop so far, so fast. They are studying everything from Korean steelmaking and Japanese computer systems to Hong Kong financial networks and Singaporean manufacturing. They are also flocking to foreign firms investing in their own country to soak up new technology and to master modern management systems.

Now it is Moon Chang Won of South Korea who teaches David He of China. Moon is executive director of the East Asian division at Daewoo, one of South Korea's leading conglomerates, while He is a sales manager in Daewoo's office in Canton. On a recent trip, He joined a group of eight Chinese employees brought to South Korea to learn about Daewoo, take tours of modern steel and auto plants and listen to lectures on capitalist management, sales promotion and business development.

"China should learn technology from the West but management from Korea, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong," said He, a 27-year-old native of Hubei province in central China. "Since we all belong to the East Asian system, our cultures are almost the same and our business style is very different from the West."

Like He, many of the Chinese trainees are young, well-educated and personally convinced of capitalism's greater power to enrich their own lives and increase their nation's wealth. Their numbers have skyrocketed in the last decade. From 1978 to 1982, China sent 12,000 students abroad. Since 1990 it has sent more than 110,000, according to the New China News Agency.

Most students still go to the United States. But the numbers have been increasing rapidly in Japan, thanks to programs such as one sponsored by the Assn. for Overseas Technical Scholarship that offers participants technical training in everything from electronics and machinery to auto manufacturing, shipbuilding and steel. The course work is followed by a maximum two-year stint of practical work experience at a Japanese firm. (Shorter management courses are also offered.)

No Chinese were accepted into the program until 1979. Now they constitute its largest group--23.3% of the total, or 845 people in 1992. Because of the flood of applicants from China, Japanese officials have felt compelled to impose a guideline of 25% to 30%.

"If we accepted all applicants, the number could easily reach 40% to 50%," said a program official. "We have to control the number to let other countries in."

Computers seem to be the Chinese students' main interest.

"They are always asking us to teach them the most up-to-date technology," said Shiro Koike, design section chief for Sanki Engineering Co. The Tokyo-based firm, which plans air-conditioning and sanitary systems, currently has nine Chinese trainees who are learning about air-flow systems, blueprint drawings and computer-aided design techniques.

The trainees are not the least bit shy about their ambitions. "We are going around and learning technology all over the world to make China the strongest country in the world," declared Jing Peigong, a 29-year-old architect in Sanki's Beijing office who has spent nearly a year in Japan.

Daewoo's He said the Japanese and Korean ideal of the company as family, providing workers with not only jobs but also housing, meals and other benefits, is one of many cultural factors making Japan and South Korea better models for China than the West.

But some lessons are not always easy to learn--or give.

Lim Cheok Sin, managing director and part owner of Beijing C. S. Timber, a Singapore-Chinese joint-venture furniture firm on the rural outskirts of Beijing, had to train his 171 Chinese workers from scratch.

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