SHANGHAI, Oct. 26 - When Andrew Chi-chih Yao, a Princeton professor who is recognized as one of the United States' top computer scientists, was approached by Qinghua University in Beijing last year to lead an advanced computer studies program, he did not hesitate.
It did not matter that he would be leaving one of America's top universities for one little known outside China. Or that after his birth in Shanghai, he was raised in Taiwan and spent his entire academic career in the United States. He felt he could contribute to his fast-rising homeland.
China wants to transform its top universities into the world's best within a decade, and it is spending billions of dollars to woo big-name scholars like Dr. Yao and build first-class research laboratories. The effort is China's latest bid to raise its profile as a great power.
China has already pulled off one of the most remarkable expansions of education in modern times, increasing the number of undergraduates and people who hold doctoral degrees fivefold in 10 years.
"First-class universities increasingly reflect a nation's overall power," Wu Bangguo, China's secondranking leader, said recently in a speech here marking the 100th anniversary of Fudan, the country's first modern university.
The model is simple: recruit top foreign-trained Chinese and Chinese-American specialists, set them up in well-equipped labs, surround them with the brightest students and give them tremendous leeway. In a minority of cases, they receive American-style pay; in others, they are lured by the cost of living, generous housing and the laboratories. How many have come is unclear.
China is focusing on science and technology, areas that reflect the country's development needs but also reflect the preferences of an authoritarian system that restricts speech. The liberal arts often involve critical thinking about politics, economics and history, and China's government, which strictly limits public debate, has placed relatively little emphasis on achieving international status in those subjects.
In fact, Chinese say - most often euphemistically and indirectly - that those very restrictions on academic debate could hamper efforts to create world-class universities.
"Right now, I don't think any university in China has an atmosphere comparable to the older Western universities - Harvard or Oxford - in terms of freedom of expression," said Lin Jianhua, Beijing University's executive vice president. "We are trying to give the students a better environment, but in order to do these things we need time. Not 10 years, but maybe one or two generations."
Nonetheless, the new confidence about entering the world's educational elite is heard among politicians and university administrators, students and professors.
"Maybe in 20 years M.I.T. will be studying Qinghua's example," says Rao Zihe, director of the Institute of Biophysics at Qinghua University, an institution renowned for its sciences and regarded by many as China's finest university. "How long it will take to catch up can't be predicted, but in some respects we are already better than the Harvards today."
In only a generation, China has sharply increased the proportion of its college-age population in higher education, to roughly 20 percent now from 1.4 percent in 1978. In engineering alone, China is producing 442,000 new undergraduates a year, along with 48,000 graduates with masters' degrees and 8,000 Ph.D's.
But only Beijing University and a few other institutions have been internationally recognized as superior. Since 1998, when Jiang Zemin, then China's leader, officially began the effort to transform Chinese universities, state financing for higher education has more than doubled, reaching $10.4 billion in 2003, the last year for which an official figure is available.
Xu Tian, a leading geneticist who was trained at Yale and still teaches there, runs a laboratory at Fudan University that performs innovative work on the transposition of genes. On Aug. 12 his breakthrough research was featured on the cover of the prestigious journal Cell, a first for a Chinese scientist.
Beijing University drew on the talents of Tian Gang, a leading mathematician from M.I.T., in setting up an international research center for advanced mathematics, among other high-level research centers. Officials at Beijing University estimate that as much as 40 percent of its faculty was trained overseas, most often in the United States.
The president of Yale University, Richard C. Levin, interviewed in Shanghai, where he was the featured guest at Fudan's centennial celebration in late September, also had high praise for China's students.
"China has 20 percent of the world's population, and it is safe to say it has more than 20 percent of the world's best students," he said. "They have the raw talent."
But Mr. Levin also noted that China's low labor costs simplified the effort to upgrade. He said he had been astounded by the new laboratories at Jiaotong University in Shanghai, which he said could be built in China for $50 a square foot, compared with $500 a square foot at Yale.
Some critics say that the country is trying to achieve excellence in too many areas at once and that the plans of the 30 or so universities selected for heavy state investment duplicate efforts, sacrificing excellence. Even Mr. Levin tempered his enthusiasm with a warning that the "top schools have expanded much too fast and are diluting quality."
In many cases, though, the toughest criticism comes from people who have worked in the system.
"It is important for different universities to have different qualities, just like a symphony," said Yang Fujia, a nuclear physicist and former president of Fudan. "But all Chinese universities want to be comprehensive. Everybody wants to be the piano, having a medical school and lots of graduate students."
Mr. Yang, who leads a small experimental university in Ningbo, also criticized the lack of autonomy given to many Chinese researchers.
"At Princeton one mathematician spent nine years without publishing a paper, and then solved a problem that had been around for 360 years," Mr. Yang said, a reference to Andrew J. Wiles and his solution to Fermat's last theorem in the early 1990's. "No one minded that, because they appreciate the dedication to hard work there. We don't have that spirit yet in China."
Similarly, Ge Jianxiong, a distinguished historical geographer at Fudan, said Chinese culture often demands speedy results, which could undermine research. "In China projects are always short-term, say three years," he said. "Then they want you to produce a book, a voluminous book. In real research you've got to give people the freedom to produce good results, and not just the results they want."
Mr. Ge added that education suffered here because "it has always been regarded as a tool of politics."
Dr. Yao said he had expected to concentrate on creating a world-class Ph.D. program but had found surprising weaknesses in undergraduate training and had decided to teach at that level. "You can't just say I'll only do the cutting-edge stuff," he said. "You've got to teach the basics really well first."
But the biggest weakness, many Chinese academics indicated, is the lack of academic freedom. Mr. Yang, the former president of Fudan University, warned that if the right atmosphere was not cultivated, great thinkers from overseas might come to China for a year or two, only to leave frustrated.
Gong Ke, a vice president of Qinghua University, said universities had "the duty to guarantee academic freedom."
"We have professors who teach here, foreigners, who teach very differently from the Chinese government's point of view," he added. "Some of them really criticize the economic policy of China."
Li Ao, a writer in Taiwan, visited Beijing University in September and gave a speech calling for greater academic freedom and independence from the government. The next day, after reportedly coming under heavy official pressure, he delivered a far tamer version elsewhere. .
The Chinese government also censors university online bulletin boards and discussion groups, and recently prevented students at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou from conversing freely with visiting elected officials from Hong Kong.
Students here are not encouraged to challenge authority or received wisdom. For some, that helps explain why China has never won a Nobel Prize. What is needed most now, some of China's best scholars say, are bold, original thinkers.
"The greatest thing we've done in the last 20 years is lift 200 million people out of poverty," said Dr. Xu. "What China has not realized yet, though, if it truly wants to go to the next level, is to understand that numbers are not enough."We need a new revolution to get us away from a culture that prizes becoming government officials. We must learn to reward real innovation, independent thought and genuine scholarly work."