The following is a guest post by Mark Jia, a Rhodes Scholar studying Chinese politics at the University of Oxford. His views do not reflect those of the Rhodes Trust.
When Cecil Rhodes created a set of eponymous scholarships to Oxford, his vision was to “render war impossible” through fostering mutual understanding between nations.
Last week Stephen Schwarzman, co-founder of the Blackstone Group, announced a set of international scholarships with the same basic objective. But instead of shipping college graduates to the dreaming spires of England, the scholarships will enroll 200 students in a specialized one-year master’s program at Tsinghua University in Beijing. The inaugural class will enter in 2016, drawing most recipients from the United States and China.
Assuming that the scholarship has been conceived in good faith — which I think it has been — the program now faces the daunting task of devising selection procedures that will adequately carry out Schwarzman’s vision. Of particular difficulty will be determining the process for selecting the annual class of 40 students from mainland China. What kinds of future Chinese leaders does Schwarzman have in mind? And how will he find them?
This may be one of the toughest decisions scholarship administrators face. Considerations in eligibility and selection procedures that may seem minor can greatly affect the types of candidates chosen.
Take, for instance, the question of endorsement. The Rhodes Scholarship requires universities to first nominate qualified applicants before they can compete in a wider pool, in part to ease the reading load of its selectors. Given the size of China’s university population, a similar kind of culling makes practical sense. But in light of the influence that internal Communist Party committees wield at most Chinese universities, how can administrators of the scholarship ensure that the program receives applications not only from students preselected for their ideological fealty? Might young liberal reformers, who are no less “Chinese” than their Marxist peers, also merit consideration?
In other words, if the goal is, in Schwarzman’s words, to create a “global network” of future leaders, it may be difficult to avoid making an implicit judgment call as to what that future might look like. An ardent believer in the longevity of the Communist Party might simply ask the party itself to endorse its 40 most talented young prospects, or its next generation of ascendant princelings, while a political reformer would search for students of a decidedly different stripe. Given China’s uncertain future, Schwarzman’s best bet — and he is no stranger to this — may be to hedge. It is probably as unacceptable for all 40 mainland scholars to be Communist Party members as it is for all 40 to be liberal activists. The selection process should focus on promoting a genuine diversity of viewpoints. To that end, if a senior education official wishes to serve on a selection panel, why not also ask a liberal law professor to join?
Ethnic diversity is equally important. At a time when educational attainment by Han Chinese greatly outstrips that of minority populations, the prospect of an exclusively Han presence in the scholarship looms as a real and serious possibility. Casual one-off tourists to China might be forgiven for not interacting with some of the 55 ethnic minority groups in China, but that shouldn’t be true of non-Chinese Schwarzman Scholars, who presumably will be expected to familiarize themselves with a vast and complex civilization.
Fortunately, there are ways to institutionalize diversity. The scholarship program could, for instance, reserve three spots every year for students from Minzu University in Beijing, China’s top school for ethnic minorities, or adopt, much like the Rhodes Scholarship, a system of regional quotas. The latter method could be designed so that minority-heavy regions like Tibet, Xinjiang, and Yunnan wouldn’t be paired with Shanghai, Beijing, or other high-performing provinces and municipalities.
In short, the devising of selection procedures cannot be based exclusively on abstract principles of meritocracy. Each seemingly minor decision — in areas like eligibility, allocation, and panel composition — could structurally bias outcomes in favor of certain types of students. Given the ambition of the Schwarzman Scholarship, and its potential to promote the kind of mutual understanding Cecil Rhodes envisioned a century ago, now is the time to think methodically about how to select and assemble the next generation of Chinese leaders.