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A report argues that a foreign power is seeking to sway schools and colleges; give money to companies and universities in order to influence them and get access to American know-how and research; send students and researchers to U.S. institutions to pick up knowledge; and in general to influence the American public. Which country is this bad actor? China? Russia?

No, the subject of this report is Japan. All of this is argued in Buying the American Mind: Japan’s Quest for U.S. Ideas in Science, Economic Policy and the Schools (Washington, D.C.: Center for Public Integrity, 1991). This report is indicative of the drumbeat of Japan bashing that was taking place during the 1980s and 1990s, when Japan’s economy was booming and its technology was innovative and world-class. Remember the Walkman, the first miniaturized tape player now relegated to technology museums? In its time it was cutting-edge technology. Japanese cars were flooding the American market because they were of higher quality than their American counterparts -- and had a price advantage as well. The Japanese were busy buying film studios, skyscrapers and other icons on the American landscape. As it turned out, many of these overpriced purchases proved to be quite bad deals. Japanese car makers learned that for political and economic reasons producing their cars in the U.S. was a good idea -- Toyota is now the largest “American” auto producer.

Eventually, the Japanese miracle ran out of steam for a variety of complex reasons relating to world markets and especially to conditions in Japan. Japan quickly vanished from the American media as a bad actor and threat to American prosperity.

China as the New “Great Threat”

China is the Japan of the 21st century, and today’s media and policy environment magnifies the “crisis.” China is now the world’s No. 2 economy after surpassing Japan in 2010. Of course, the realities of the current period are different; the challenges resulting from the “rise of China” for the rest of the world are arguably more fundamental. Globalization in all of its forms has intensified, and China, unlike Japan, is a strategic and military rival to the United States. As Thomas Friedman wrote in his article “World-Shaking News You Are Missing,” engagement with China is much better than confrontation, although China presents a variety of challenges to the United States and vice versa. Demonizing China, as America once did to Japan, is a mistake.

Higher Education and Research

A significant part of anti-China rhetoric, and to some extent action, has been in the area of higher education and research. U.S. government investigations of possible espionage by Chinese researchers and students in the United States, nonstop media coverage of purported malfeasance, and reports similar to the one concerning Japan mentioned here are having an effect on U.S.-China educational relations. Some Confucius Institutes at American universities have been closed and joint research projects scrutinized.

In the Japan case decades ago, higher education relations between the U.S. and Japan were affected by broader political and economic issues. A number of U.S. universities established branch campuses in Japan, usually with the assistance of Japanese local and regional governments. Eventually, all but one or two failed, affected by the rigid Japanese regulatory environment, local market forces and the somewhat acrimonious relations between the two countries. In fact, U.S.-Japan higher education relations never really recovered. Japan was one of the top countries sending students to the U.S. Numbers have steadily declined, and according to Open Doors, Japan is now the ninth sending country, with about 20,000 students in the U.S. Large numbers of Americans never chose to study in Japan, and numbers have remained relatively steady at around 5,000. The Japanese case shows that negativity along with economic and political realities can impact on higher education. In the 2000s, relations between the two countries improved, but it is fair to say that they are still not especially robust.

Are there lessons to be learned from the U.S. history with Japan that may be relevant to China? It is likely that China will be a larger global player in most every respect than Japan in this century -- but it is worth remembering that in the 1980s, Japan was the world’s No. 2 economy and in the 1940s, a military power. It is also the case that China is already a more significant scientific power than Japan was, even in its heyday. But it is difficult to predict future trends in China -- U.S.-China higher education and scientific relations have already taken a significant hit from growing tensions -- whether they will improve in the future is unclear.

Philip G. Altbach is research professor and founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.

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