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As Germany retools and revives its universities, and as America disinvests, at least from its public institutions, China has shown an unmatched ambition to build more of the best “world class” universities than anyone else. To this effort it has mobilized both state and private resources, and it has at hand more of the best human capital — Chinese scholars at home or in the diaspora — than any university system in the world. Chinese universities continue to rise in the various rankings tables, and two of them, Tsinghua and Peking, will surely be among the world’s top 10 in short order.
The rise of China and its modern universities has been coterminous with periods of openness and internationalization. Germany, the United States, and the Soviet Union have at different times all played the role of partner. The very short period of Chinese “self-reliance” during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, on the other hand, was a near-death experience for Chinese universities. In 2022 Chinese universities remain open to the world, but they are also open to official redefinition. President Xi Jinping aspires to build Chinese universities that are singular and distinctive from their international partners: not China’s Harvard, but China’s Tsinghua, China’s Nanjing. And Chinese universities have been mobilized for a new national goal: China going abroad along the “New Silk Road,” presumably to provide Chinese models for higher education in Central Asia, Africa, and even Europe. (President Xi Jinping announced in 2015 that higher education was to be an important element of the NSR, suggesting the initiative might make the New Silk Road a conduit for ideas.)
What are the implications of the rise and internationalization of Chinese higher education for the NSR, also known by a less metaphorical name, the Belt and Road Initiative? This ambitious concept of multilayered cooperation between China and Eurasian, African, and Latin American countries is predicated on Chinese institutions “going out” into the world to make their mark, be it in business, infrastructure, or education. By deploying the Silk Road metaphor and legacy to support the initiative, the NSR seems to redirect, at least rhetorically, the trajectory of Chinese higher education’s historically Western-focused internationalization.
Chinese universities are expanding abroad, some along a generous interpretation of the Silk Road: Soochow University in Laos took in its first students in 2012; the Yunnan University of Finance and Economics set up the YUFE Business School in Bangkok in 2014; and Xiamen University established its Malaysia campus in 2015.
Larger efforts still have gone toward established centers of higher education. The Beijing Language and Culture University partnered with Japan’s ISI Corporation to establish BLCU Tokyo College in 2015. In 2016 the first wholly owned Chinese tertiary institute in Australia, the Global Business College of Australia, welcomed its first class of students. In 2019 Beijing Normal University and Cardiff University, in Wales, agreed to build the BNU-CU Chinese College in Cardiff. The Peking University HSBC Business School claims to be the “first Chinese campus in the developed world,” in Oxfordshire, England, in a neo-Gothic and modern campus inherited from Britain’s Open University. Tsinghua University and the University of Washington, both partnering with Microsoft, founded a dual-degree program known as the Global Innovation Exchange in 2015 and have completed the first Chinese university-research facility in the United States. Its home is the new, 100,000-square-foot Steve Ballmer Building. In June 2021, Fudan University, in Shanghai, announced plans to construct a campus in Budapest.
Chinese students, who have long “gone out” to seek education abroad (more than 700,000 in 2019), have largely flown over neighboring countries to seek their education in North America, Australia, Britain, or the European Union. Students from NSR countries have indeed come to China to study in increasing numbers, and scientists from NSR countries have been recruited to newly established “Belt and Road” laboratories. But at the moment, this is a one-way road. Precious few Chinese find their way to graduate programs in Karachi or Almaty.
Aiding China’s rise as a destination for international students is the recent surge of nationalism in the United States and Britain, long the top destinations for international students, which has led students to increasingly consider alternative locations. This development may “internationalize” Chinese universities in new ways. As of 2021 the rhetoric and propaganda of the NSR has outpaced the development of a coherent strategy on the Chinese side. Higher-education cooperation along the New Silk Road can make Chinese universities more “international” in their posture, but the nature of such institutional exchanges may do little to aid Chinese universities’ pursuit of “world-class status.”
So, is there a “Chinese model” for universities that may be exported, along the New Silk Road or anywhere else? Is there such a thing as “a university with Chinese characteristics”? The answer is basically no. What distinguishes leading Chinese universities today is how they have grown as part of an international system, now buttressed by enviable financial support from the Chinese state. Like the Americans, who developed universities of a high reputation by plagiarizing the norms of German and British institutions, Chinese universities have learned from other global leaders over the past century, be they European, American, or Soviet. In university governance, for example, the “Chinese model” of the role of party secretaries is hardly a Chinese invention. One can find the same in every “socialist brother country,” as at Humboldt University in East German times. This is not a readily exportable model at present, unless your export market is North Korea.
The greatest challenge confronting Chinese universities today is not the competition they face abroad but the obstruction they encounter at home. In many private conversations with Chinese educational leaders, past and present, I have asked this question: What is your greatest problem? The answer, invariably, is “the party.” The founding ideals of great institutions such as Peking University and Tsinghua University remain in tension with a powerful — and powerfully insecure — Chinese Communist Party, which limits debate in multiple realms of the humanities and social sciences, even as Chinese researchers become recognized as global leaders in the pure and applied sciences. There is enduring anxiety in the party that universities can be — as they have been throughout modern Chinese history — powerful centers of dissent.
When the founder of China’s first modern university, Governor-General Zhang Zhidong, wrote his Exhortation to Study in 1898, he stressed that “Chinese learning” (by which he meant education in the classics) had to remain the foundation, while “Western learning” was for “practical matters.” In Chinese educational policy today, a new version of “Chinese learning” is often given official pride of place over “Western learning.” In Zhang Zhidong’s day, Chinese learning meant a deep education in the classical canon — today it means “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and the “guiding role of Marxism in ideology,” according to the former minister of education, Yuan Guiren, who suggested that to arm themselves against “Western values,” students should study the theories of President Xi Jinping. Compared with the Four Books and Five Classics of the traditional canon, this is thin gruel indeed.
In the realm of politics and history, the distance between what Chinese students have to learn in order to graduate and what they know to be true grows greater every year.
Can “world class” universities — however they are defined — exist in a politically illiberal system? Say, in a country where there are “seven topics” that must never be broached? The answer is yes, if we recall the German university of the 19th century, where political orthodoxy was seldom questioned. Yet Wilhelmine Germany was no match for contemporary China in its control of political and historical narratives. German universities in the 19th century had many political pressures, but they valued traditions of institutional and intellectual freedom. China’s universities today boast many advantages, but in recent ideological campaigns, its students are forced to sit through required courses in party ideology, and they learn a comic-book version of the history of their own nation.
Despite excellent new programs of general education, in the realm of politics and history the distance between what students have to learn in order to graduate and what they know to be true grows greater every year. In this environment, China’s great universities face the prospect of graduating two kinds of students: cynics and opportunists. These students know, as do the eminent scholars who teach them, that world-class universities are places where there is not a single topic that cannot be addressed, let alone seven.
Chinese universities were founded in the late Qing dynasty, they flourished in the early republic, and several became internationally renowned under the Nationalist government. They educated young leaders from the backcountry of Free China during World War II. They survived war, civil war, sovietization, and the Cultural Revolution. They have outlived an empire, several republics, and various incarnations of the People’s Republic of China. They have seen political campaigns, such as the current ones, come and go. They take the long view. So should we.
The most compelling statement of the principles and values of contemporary research universities was announced at the 2013 annual meeting of China’s C9 universities in the city of Hefei (the C9 League is an alliance of nine top Chinese universities). The “Hefei Statement on the 10 Characteristics of Contemporary Research Universities” was drawn up in concert with the Association of American Universities, the League of European Research Universities, and Australia’s Group of Eight universities. In its commitment to research integrity, academic freedom, and institutional autonomy, the Hefei Statement is a powerful, 21st-century articulation of Humboldtian values. For the leaders of Chinese universities today, several of its principles may seem more aspirational than achieved, but they set out, accurately in my view, the shared ambitions of great universities the world over.
Can Chinese universities set global standards in the 21st century? Yes, of course. But not alone. Chinese universities have grown and flourished on international models and in partnership with the great institutions of Europe and North America. It is that company that they wish to keep, to compete in, and to lead.
This essay is adapted from Empires of Ideas: Creating the Modern University from Germany to America to China (Harvard University Press).