ZHONGGUANCUN, Beijing — In this fluorescent-lit classroom in northwest Beijing, a bespectacled Chinese man who calls himself Shrek is doing his part to haul China’s economy into the 21st century. He is the founder of a coding boot camp and online education platform that trains thousands of young Chinese to program Apple Watches, maintain Oracle databases and build Android apps — the very skills that China’s leaders hope will vault the country toward a high-income economy.
The country’s traditional sources of growth, cheap exports and massive infrastructure spending, are sputtering — and economists warn that if China doesn’t move up the value chain, it could fall into the notorious “middle-income trap.” Transitioning away from these mainstays of economic growth will be wrenching for China’s industrial rustbelt, but Chinese leaders are banking on “mass innovation“ to pick up the slack. China’s Premier Li Keqiang has spent two years exhorting the country’s youth toward “mass entrepreneurship,” frequently rhapsodizing on the power of innovation to provide high-paying tech jobs and to upgrade traditional industries.
Government-orchestrated mass mobilizations are part of the Maoist DNA of modern China. But how can an education system that rewards rote memorization and a government that prizes stability above all else train a new generation of innovative coders intent on disruption? That’s where Shrek comes in. (His real name is Qie Xiaoye. He chose “Shrek” because his wife’s English name is Fiona and his personality matches the gentle green ogre.)
“The biggest advantage is that the government doesn’t understand this industry, so they don’t strangle it,” Shrek told The WorldPost. “If the government starts getting involved, it will just suck the life out of it.”
Standing outside the official education apparatus, coding schools like Shrek’s aren’t burdened by tightly-controlled curriculums, stodgy ideology, or high-stakes testing regimens. The goal is simple: teach the students the skills they need to get a job in China’s new tech boom.
That includes students like Wang Ruyi, an insatiably curious 22-year-old who hails from China’s poorest province, Guizhou. Wang grew up in a remote village where ownership of a water buffalo signaled a family’s economic standing. His father dropped out in third grade and his mother never attended a day of school.
But after earning a bachelors degree in computer science from a local university, Wang enrolled in an iOS development course at Shrek’s Beijing coding academy, Uplooking. Wang speaks quickly, riffing on topics ranging from Chinese philosophy to the power of code to unlock deep human mysteries.
“What if we found the code that created the world? Of course this is super far away, but it’s this kind of thought [that inspires me],” Wang said. “I’m curious about the whole world, and it’s this curiosity that drew me into this industry.”
That kind of curiosity is often squashed in the rat race that is China’s public education system. Chinese students devote their middle and high school years to preparing for gaokao, the country’s grueling college entrance exam. Preparation for the test can be all-consuming, and robs many students of both a social life and a passion for learning.
“You grind it out for 12 years,” Wang told The WorldPost. “Lots of people get to college and if they don’t have their own goals they just let themselves go. … The guys just play video games all day, the girls just get made up and go out.”
Wang spent his undergrad years skipping class to travel or work side jobs, and he emerged with a degree in computer science but few practical skills. He says virtually no one in his home province of Guizhou could teach him iOS, and so he made the journey to the capital and enrolled at Uplooking.
The crash course in iOS development had him in class all day, and sometimes writing code into the wee hours of the morning. For his final project, he built a reading app for military news.
Alongside him in the class is Li Feifei, a former nurse in search of a career change. At nursing school, there were virtually no boys in her classes — at Uplooking she was the only girl in her course. Li said the world of coders is a welcome change from the social pressures on appearance that Chinese women face in most industries.
“Programmers are different: they’re really practical,” Li said. “They could be making a few hundred or a few thousand dollars a month, and they’ll still tell you if you short-changed them a few cents when they’re buying instant noodles.”
That practical streak is part of what drew Shrek to the industry. Growing up in the early 1980s, Shrek’s parents worked as teachers of Marxist and Maoist theory, and he felt his college education was largely wasted.
Working at a Beijing auto factory after graduation, Shrek enrolled in a training course that certified him as a Linux and Microsoft systems administrator. The course was a revelation.
“I learned more in those months of professional training than in four years of college,” he said.
Shrek was quickly making more than double his old mentor at the factory, and this sparked his passion for combining technology and education. After opening nine Uplooking academies around the country, Shrek founded the online platform WYZC in 2013. Despite receiving funding from one of China’s most prestigious angel investors, Shrek says he worries about both government interference and widespread fraud.
“The whole industry has a bad reputation,” he said. “Put simply, there are too many swindlers.”
That fraud has been fueled by a sudden surge of hype around the tech industry. China is in the throws of start up fever, one spurred forward by China’s own breakout Internet success stories and constant government exhortations to innovate.
But Shrek is wary of the sudden influx of cash and the growing cult of the entrepreneur.
“Almost anybody with a little bit of talent wants to start their own thing,” Shrek said. “In reality they’re wasting their energy and money, and they’re not really getting anything done.”
Graduates of coding schools may harbor start up dreams, but realistically a three-month course is just enough to get their foot in the door for a coding career. Two months after finishing the Uplooking’s iOS course, Wang has already been through the start up ringer. He quickly landed a job at a start up so new that it didn’t have a name. But after a month building a social network for Japanese anime fans, the company folded and Wang never got his paycheck.
Shortly afterward, Wang retreated to his hometown to recover from an illness induced by Beijing’s suffocating smog. But that hasn’t dampened his spirits: Wang said after Chinese New Year, he’ll be back in the capital — or maybe Shanghai — to give it another go.