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Averting an education war: Universities in China and the west should combat suspicions

Growing concern about China’s rising status is spilling into the realm of international education, as allegations of Chinese influence and spying operations in Western universities gather currency in certain states.

Conversely, in China, authorities are moving to strengthen central oversight of the national education system, consolidating the control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its leader Xi Jinping, while closing down partnerships with foreign institutes and centres of learning.

Both trends are worrying in their own right and seem to signal that international education is becoming a new frontier in the evolving East-West tensions surrounding China’s rise.

Beijing’s expanding economy and the premium attached to quality education have made Chinese students one of the largest group of foreigners flocking to US, Australian and European universities, where they represent a significant source of revenue for such institutions.

Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping. File photo: S.Africa Gov’t.

In view of the conventional wisdom that has traditionally viewed education as a means to bridge divides and foster international understanding and cooperation, it is worrying to learn that over the past 12 months Beijing has terminated 234 jointly-managed partnerships with international universities in the West.

Officially linked to poor quality, low enrolment and financial mismanagement, the decision also reflects a rising trend of suspicion towards foreign programmes, curricula and ideology among Chinese authorities.

Meanwhile, 2017 also marked a new revision of the national education curriculum in China and a further tightening of the national campaign to promote a “patriotic striving spirit” among Chinese intellectuals.

The CCP has always maintained tight control on what is taught, and new standardised textbooks are now promoting the image of President Xi Jinping and the CCP as champions of the Chinese nation. Such efforts are not limited to the domestic scene.

Reports have emerged that Chinese officials are also involved in supporting “patriotic students” or student groups abroad, helping to spread China’s official narratives in foreign university classrooms, while monitoring and reporting on other Chinese students’ ideas and positions.

This trend has not gone unnoticed outside China, however. In late June, the Australian parliament passed a package of laws aimed at preventing foreign meddling in the country, targeting interference and espionage in politics and other domestic areas, including universities.

Renmin University

Renmin University. Photo: Renmin University.

The Australian document made no direct reference to China, and the country’s prime minister at the time justified the decision by referring to “unprecedented and increasingly sophisticated attempts to influence the political process” carried out by foreign powers. Yet, he later acknowledged that recent “disturbing reports about Chinese influence” also played a role in the approval.

In October, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) released a report alleging that, since 2007, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army has sponsored more than 2,500 military scientists and engineers to study abroad, and has developed relationships with researchers and institutions across the globe to improve its technological and military capabilities.

Similar concerns are also present in the United States, where the Wilson Center has published an extensive report on Chinese political influence and interference in US higher education.

Most recently, Cornell University has suspended two exchange programmes with Renmin University in China out of concerns for academic freedom. The decision was taken after exchange students complained they had been punished for their labour rights activism in the United States.

Cornell University

Cornell University from atop McGraw Tower looking southeast; Barnes Hall, Sage Hall. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/sach1tb/cc-by-sa 2.0.

While some cases of “classroom interference” have indeed been reported in Hong Kong, Australia and the United States, it is important to place these events in their appropriate context, avoiding broad generalizations. A blanket depiction of Chinese students acting as agents of the Chinese government is extremely worrying in this regard.

Such trends could transform university campuses into more closed and divided environments, fostering increased nationalist tendencies that can lead to a corrosive mistrust of diversity and a weakening of the principle of free speech and thought.

The labelling of foreign students coming from specific non-democratic countries as potential agents of a foreign state will not only discourage these from studying abroad – thereby depriving them of potential opportunities or a broadening of their horizons – it may also limit the mingling of students from different backgrounds within universities, undermining the benefits of international education by limiting the cross-fertilization of ideas and experiences.

A number of Australian scholars have indeed gone too far in promoting the image of Chinese students acting as a mini-fifth column, infiltrating Australian schools and universities and confronting academics and fellow students accused of being critical of China.

Associate Professor Sally Sargeson, Senior Fellow at the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, believes China’s surveillance of overseas students is “a problem not confined to ANU, or indeed all Australian universities. I know from conversations with U.S. academics and from having worked at the University of Nottingham [in the U.K.], that there is a significant effort by Chinese embassies, and CCP–linked companies and prominent citizens, to stifle expressions of opinion (not to mention dissent) among Chinese citizen students” in these locations. Chinese officials have strongly denounced these accusations.

Chinese Embassy Consulate Australia Canberra

Chinese Embassy in Canberra, Australia. File photo: Alpha via Wikimedia Commons.

With many Western universities increasingly starved for funds and eager to increase their intake of foreign, particularly Asian, students, it is growing harder to find an acceptable compromise between efforts to attract and satisfy requests by foreign students and their home government, while maintaining and resisting unwanted interference in local teaching or student life.

Efforts to find an adequate balance between the monitoring and reporting of unwanted interference or pressure on students and faculty, and the continued attachment to the principles of free speech, intellectual freedom and critical thinking will, therefore, need to be addressed.

Continuing to provide a safe haven for students – irrespective of nationality, religious creed or political colours – represents the best ingredient to combat mutual suspicions, xenophobia and parochial identity politics. While some will no doubt seek to take advantage of this system, these will always remain in the minority.

Clamping down on a whole nationality of foreign students or student groups out of fear and suspicion risks making matters worse, depriving both the host and guest nationalities of valuable opportunities to meet and exchange.

Ultimately, the fact that a number of western countries are growing increasingly concerned about a supposed expansion of Chinese covert influence operations in their countries may be more reflective of the West’s own fears of decline than a realistic appraisal of Chinese capabilities or intentions in these domains.

Engaging Chinese authorities, as well as students and student groups, and fostering interlinkages and exchanges with other expat communities and host nation citizens should represent the way forward.

Closure, suspicions and monitoring would instead represent a step backwards; potentially creating a slippery slope that could descend into a sort of “education war” between China and the West, a war in which both sides stand to lose.

Bio: Dr Claudia Astarita is a non-resident Fellow at the Asia Institute of the University of Melbourne. She is also Lecturer at SciencesPo, Le Havre Campus.


A previous version of this article was published by the Rome-based Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) in the IAI Commentaries series with the title: “A New Frontier of West-China Competition: Academia and International Education”

Averting an education war: Universities in China and the west should combat suspicions