China is much in the news these days—an article in The NY Times about China’s spectacular $250 billion investment in higher education; the announcement in Inside Higher Ed of $300 million for a Chinese Rhodes Scholarship at Tsinghua (covered also by The Wall Street Journal, NPR, Huffington Post, The Economist, Bloomberg, and more); an opinion piece in The Chronicle about the tensions between foreign-educated scholars and the home-grown variety; the seven words you cannot say in Chinese University classroom. Am I mistaken or is higher education in China covered more in the press than higher education in any other country outside of the US? Searching “China” on the Insider Higher Ed website brings up mentions in at least 60 articles and opinion pieces since January 1. That seems like a lot.
It is difficult to imagine a university today that does not have (or is not considering) a China strategy. What is our preoccupation with China about? Are we fascinated? Hopeful? Opportunistic? Nervous? Threatened? Probably all of the above.
China has certainly become a “major player” on the international higher education landscape in a very short time. Chinese universities are moving up in most international rankings. Chinese scholars are contributing in significant numbers to international journals. China has become a competitor for awards and prestige and likely to be a source of future innovation. How much of the future should we trust to China?
China is an important source of talent for universities throughout the world as well as an important source of revenue from the fees Chinese students pay to universities abroad. But China is also becoming a competitor in this arena as more international students see China as a destination for study. After all, if China’s economic power and influence is going to continue to grow, it is a good idea to leverage language, familiarity with culture and networks for personal opportunity.
Many foreign universities expect to earn revenue from joint programs and branch campuses set up within China’s borders. But China is not an easy partner. As the Chinese government continues to take aggressive measures to protect itself from disruptive ideas and behavior by controlling public discussion, Internet access and available publications, partners from more democratic countries can’t help but squirm.
China appears to be walking a tricky line. The economy needs the kind of innovative and creative thinking that flourishes more often in open, unhampered societies yet the government is not willing to relinquish control and create a comparable environment at home. Can the Chinese government host larger numbers of foreign scholars and institutions along with growing numbers of returning foreign-educated Chinese scholars and continue to hold everything it finds objectionable at bay? Foreign institutions walk a difficult line as well. Will foreign participants make concessions to government control in order to receive the benefits that this wealthy and complicated country promises? How accommodating can the foreign conscience be? And in the end, who will influence whom?
If we look to China hopefully and nervously, that’s about right.