China Plays Hardball

In an address to the Congress of Party Leaders last year, President Xi Jiping said “Higher education must adhere to the correct political orientation” and that universities should be transformed into “strongholds that adhere to party leadership.”

July 30, 2017

Just as in the US when the Dalai Lama was invited to give the commencement speech at UC-San Diego, there has been a bit of a kerfuffle in Australia recently about the degree of control of Chinese university students in Australia exercised by China’s Communist Party. With some 130,000 of its best and brightest subsidising the education of Australians and given that most intend to return to China after graduating, it was not surprising that the party leadership would be keen to ensure that its students remain aligned to the official program.

The CCP is hardly discreet in monitoring international students on home turf. Last month a document released jointly by the Chinese Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Public Security, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs caused little fuss in the international higher education community. On first read, it didn’t seem to warrant a great deal of comment because it mainly codified many of the processes and regulations already in practice for international students in China. For example, students will be allowed to write their theses in languages other than Chinese when that the work is of a professional or technical nature and after an abstract is been approved in Mandarin. But there are also a few issues that could raise some eyebrows, including the following.

First is Article 25, that states that institutes of higher education must make foreign students aware of “Chinese law and regulations, school regulations, national spirit and school spirit, traditional Chinese culture and customs and other elements in its education content”. Translation is an inexact art but the gist of Article 25 seems to be “Our bat, our rules”, which is fair enough – even though the reverse is not applicable to Chinese nationals in Australian universities, for whom it is more like “It may be their bat but it is still our rules.” When I asked one of my Chinese colleagues how he would translate Article 25, he came up with “Universities shall educate international students on Chinese laws and regulations, university rules and regulations, national conditions, Chinese traditional culture and customs, in order to help them to become familiar with and adapt to the learning and living environment as soon as possible.”

We might add Article 27, the one that instructs institutions to make provisions for all students, including internationals, to celebrate traditional Chinese holidays, but allow nothing that could promote “illegal public movements.” Given that the CCP is at best reluctant to allow religious practice, political protests or human rights demonstrations, “illegal public movement” covers a wide swathe of possible sins.

And if we throw in Article 29, “Institutes of higher education must respect the customs and religious beliefs of international students, but cannot provide places for religious activity. Proselytizing, religious gatherings, or religious activities are not permitted on campus,” we can see that international students are welcome but on the proviso that they comply with all conditions imposed by the State. Learn the rules and obey them!

Well, what of it? Does the tightening of rules have any real significance for countries like Australia, the UK and The USA?  The answer is yes. There are roughly half a million foreign students in China. There has been an increase of some 10 to 15% in overall numbers of international students over the past few years. The number of Australian students studying at Chines universities has risen from 2,000 in 2012 to 5,000 in 2016. China is now ranked fourth as the preferred international student destination, chasing the USA, the UK and Australia. That is pretty significant as an indicator of growing influence and stature.

And it’s not simply that China is seen simply as a place to do business. The country’s universities are racing up the ranking charts: Peking University comes in at 29th on the Times Higher Education list, higher than Australia’s best, the University of Melbourne that comes in at 33rd, one place above China’s Tsinghua University. But just as importantly, Peking is ranked 19th on the scale for reputation— a Peking University degree is globally significant. The QS ranking puts Peking second in the BRICS category, competing with the likes of Tokyo and Singapore, and right up there with the best in the region. The point here is that competition to get into Peking University and Tsinghua has increased exponentially because their graduates are in demand all over the world.

It comes as no surprise then, that President Xi Jiping, in a widely reported address to the Congress of Party Leaders in Beijing last year, said that “Higher education must adhere to the correct political orientation” and that universities should be transformed into “strongholds that adhere to party leadership.” Underneath the reining in of universities lies a belief that “Higher Education with Chinese characteristics” is the equal of any in the world and doesn’t need to emulate any other system to be successful. The trend and current statistics seem to prove that that is indeed the case.

In a further development, China has eased restrictions on obtaining a work visa for international students who graduate from the top universities. Like every other nation intent on retaining top talent whatever their country of origin, China seems to recognise that they now have access to a pool of potential high-flyers who, having graduated from tightly controlled Chinese institutions, have acquired language and cultural skills  and are unlikely to morph into dissenting activists. If any do, they can always be expelled or imprisoned. It seems that China is beginning to play hardball in an area of soft diplomacy— because it can. The road to international dominance is a long one but we’ve been told that it starts with a single step. It seems that a few have already been taken—quietly.



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