Losing my opinion: Contradictions in China’s higher education ambitions

China is investing big in its universities. It’s already the second largest R&D spender after the United States.

China is also making universities’ internationalisation a major part of its strategic thinking. In 2014, it sent more than 500,000 students abroad and received 377,054 international students. It has set an ambitious target to attract 500,000 foreign students by 2020.

Besides attracting students, it is enticing back Western-trained Chinese researchers with well-funded R&D projects. About 3000 have returned since 2008.

Another strategy involves allowing foreign branch campuses to set up. It already hosts 17 branches, helping make foreign education a more affordable alternative.

China’s investment and internationalisation efforts are showing in the rankings. Harvard Professor, William Kirby points that China’s research is growing in quantity and quality and its expansion and rise in rankings is unmatched anywhere.

As much as there are gains to China’s higher education system, there are also emerging tensions. Over the last few years, the clampdown of academic freedom has become more pronounced. In 2013, the government issues new guidelines to curtail academic freedom. Last year, education minister Yuan continued to warn against ideological risks for education in China.

Utercht University and Shanghai Jiatong University  professors, Marijk van der Wende and Jiabin Zhu points to the paradox and tension of internationalisation and safeguarding national educational sovereignty. In a paper published by the University of California, Wendt and Zhu argue that China’s aim to boost its global competitiveness and to develop international talent by means of sending millions of students abroad, stimulating international experience among its faculty, and encouraging Sino-foreign cooperation, is contradicted by persistent concerns about cultural colonialism or Western imperialism and infiltration of Western values via textbooks and the internet.”

While the opportunity to freely learn Western values during study abroad continues to grow, restrictions on the import of what is seen as subversive ideas seem to be growing. There are now academic “no go zones” in fields such as international relations, China foreign policy and human rights. Disruption of personal VPN connections as solutions for limited internet access is common. Even confiscation of Western textbooks at the Chinese border. Even concerns of foreign scholars blacklisted if their finding or even the focus of their research is seen as a threat to the party state are on the rise.

This has implications, the authors argue. It has serious effects on collaboration with Chinese universities and cause risks for foreign guest lecturers and international branch campuses operating in China.

Another implication is that it poses a problem to Chinese soft power. Harvard Professor Joseph Nye, who coined the term, Soft power in 2004, defines it as the ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce, use force or giver money (hard power). China is big on soft power, it Confucius Institutes around the world, its English version of CCTV and its aggressive launch of its New Silk Road – One Belt and One Road – as a few examples. Higher education offers an avenue for soft power. However, such avenues are undermined by the “national focus of the state-imposed political education”.

There is, therefore, a contradiction between China’s desire to be a leader in the global economy and its internal policies to restrict academic and internet freedom at the same time, argues Wendt and Zhu. In last New Yorker article, Evan Osnos points that “to Westerners, it seems very incongruous to be, on the one hand, so committed to fostering more competition and market-driven flexibility in the economy and, on the other hand, to be seeking more control in the political sphere, the media, and the internet. To maintain economic growth, China is straining to promote innovation, but by enforcing a political chill on Chinese campuses [President] Xi risks suppressing precisely the disruptive thinking that the country needs for the future”.

To access the full article:

China: A Follower or Leader in Global Higher Education? by Marijk van der Wende and Jiabin Zhu CSHE 1.16 (February 2016)



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