‘China’ has become the elephant in the room that we, in the field of international higher education, can no longer ignore. What exactly this elephant looks like is still in dispute between those who prefer to ‘engage’ with the rising superpower in the East and those who propose to ‘contain’ an emerging adversary that challenges established Western norms.
The debate about engagement versus containment has been going on for, at least, 20 years in the United States, since the time when I was an exchange student in Washington DC and felt at first hand the impact of Sino-US geopolitical conflict on international students.
The ‘China Threat’ school is not new. What is new is that the China Threat is not just a fear promulgated by the so-called China bashers or alarmists, but by all those threatened for criticising China or interfering with the internal affairs of the ‘One Country’ (Taiwan and Hong Kong included).
The ‘peaceful rise of China’ globally has come 27 years earlier than expected if we take 2047 as the year that the United Kingdom imagined Hong Kong and China would be harmoniously unified as One Country in the wake of the ‘superior’ Western system demonstrated in the case of Hong Kong.
China is rising much more quickly than expected in terms of international trade, technological advancement and political influence, but in its own way and in a direction that serves foremost the ‘national interests’ of China.
Patriotism, or more specifically loyalty to the Communist Party led by Xi Jinping, has been openly propagated both domestically and internationally in order to strengthen one-party rule in China over the past five years.
Western terminology such as human rights, law and order, freedom of speech and assembly, international cooperation, diversity, multilateralism, etc, in official rhetoric, all these terms have been adopted and redefined in Beijing’s doublespeak. It may sound the same to Western ears, but it carries an almost completely opposite meaning when it comes to domestic application.
How much does the West know about China?
It is against this new context that cooperation with China is becoming a challenge for Western academia. Suddenly, Western universities find themselves at the centre of geopolitical conflicts between China and their own respective governments. Suddenly, policy-makers and university leaders alike realise how little they know about China and what it has been doing within their borders and institutions.
This uncertainty breeds fear and has led to a wave of Sinophobia rooted in weak foundations of trust and mutual understanding despite decades of cooperation with China after its re-opening in the late 1970s.
In the face of such risks, decoupling from China appears to be a convenient solution, but it could be costly for universities that are traditionally or potentially dependent on income or supply of talent from China in post-COVID times.
The Chinese government today knows very well the value of the Chinese student market and has no hesitation in leveraging it to influence the decisions of foreign governments, such as the Australian government which led an international call to investigate the origins of COVID-19.
Out of economic or diplomatic considerations about keeping communication channels open to avoid military confrontation, cooperation with China remains the preferred option of internationalists in our field.
The question is rather ‘how’ to cooperate with China and whether caution is the best policy, given changing circumstances?
Universities that are experienced and successful in cooperating with China may already be familiar with the term ‘China-specific circumstances’, either through practice or training programmes offered by the Chinese government over the years.
With some help from locals from China, it is also not difficult to acquire China-specific skills to navigate the obstacles of cooperation, such as the widely known Great Firewall of China that marketing and recruitment staff have to circumvent in order to access the China market.
In COVID times, it was also quickly accepted that Zoom is the officially endorsed way to access Chinese students who were unable to attend on-campus classes abroad. Respect for local cultures and circumstances is a virtue of internationalisation. Being able to differentiate individuals from the state is another, especially when cooperating with countries which are under the rule of authoritarian governments.
Blurring the boundaries
What makes it difficult for cooperation with Chinese academia now is the blurring of boundaries between the state, the one and only one party allowed to govern, public institutions such as universities and ‘patriotic’ individuals who must publicly swear loyalty to the Party before being given important positions in publicly funded institutions.
There is no way to circumvent the control of the Communist Party, especially in academic cooperation on an institutional level. Communist Party membership is no longer a taboo that academics must conceal but rather the opposite, a badge of merits publicly displayed on university websites or even at international conferences.
The breadth and depth of ideological and political control of the Communist Party have also extended beyond China’s own borders with the aid of information technology and a network of ‘Little Pink’ young patriots in the reporting system.
The extraterritorial jurisdiction of Hong Kong’s National Security Law is another concrete example.
Universities abroad are not spared from this organic surveillance network which combines technology and patriots who may be politically motivated or genuinely believe that they must defend the image of China abroad in collaboration with the Chinese government.
Again, the patriotism of the Chinese diaspora is nothing new. Many of the early reformers in modern China were returnees who studied abroad, including Deng Xiaoping, the engineer of Hong Kong’s ‘One Country, Two Systems’ model which resembles a federal system.
What is different is that these new patriots of China (or Chinese Communist Party loyalists, to be precise) are much more confident about China’s technological and economic advancement today and less appreciative of Western democratic values as they have seen how the West has failed to govern effectively as compared to the visible advancement in China.
Western appreciation of China’s development and now its handling of the COVID crisis boosts such confidence and pride in Communist-ruled China at home and abroad. In this sense, international academic cooperation plays a double role in helping China advance economically and technologically and in endorsing the Communist-ruled China.
A policy of rational engagement
Some internationalists in Western democracies still hope to change China through cautious engagement by adopting a less naïve and more rational approach. Detailed guidelines for academic cooperation with difficult countries, not named specifically, have been issued to guide universities on how to balance openness in international engagement with caution around defending national security.
Such guidelines, if too abstract, do little to help academics or administrators who have little knowledge about a big and complex country such as China. But if they are too concrete, they may fall foul of Western values of academic freedom and institutional autonomy or may even risk accusations of xenophobia or racism.
The Chinese government and Chinese students today can be very outspoken about perceived injustice outside their national borders. Advising academics on academic cooperation with China is therefore a tricky business, even if they themselves ask for guidance.
It remains to be seen how effective such guidance, as developed in the UK, Australia and Germany, will be and whether it might discourage or slow down academic cooperation
A zero sum game
The imbalance of academic mobility and data flows between the European Union and China has been a topic of high-level higher education discussion for years. Little has changed despite continuous annual dialogue events, including one that the Academic Cooperation Association organised in 2014.
The obstacles for mobility from Europe to China have not reduced but increased with the tightening grip of the Party on academic freedom and institutional autonomy.
An increasingly Communist Party-controlled Chinese higher education system is not going to be more attractive to European students or academic staff.
The Great Firewall of China is not going to be demolished any time soon to allow unrestrained virtual intellectual exchanges between European and Chinese students or scholars.
To keep the doors of European higher education open appears to be the only way to engage Chinese students and scholars, be they Party-endorsed or free movers. However, the insecurity felt on the European side doesn’t bode well for resolving this long-standing imbalance of exchanges.
The moment that a guideline is needed for cooperation with China indicates broken trust at a national and institutional level. Without resolving the trust issue at these higher levels, cooperation with China will be even more concentrated on a few established links or restricted to an even more superficial level.
China is a complex country. One China is an oversimplification in the representation of this gigantic country. There are also different shades of Chineseness. Cooperation with China has never been an easy topic.
The China challenge may now sound bigger than it was, but the issue of trust has been at the core of the challenge. This was originally mainly an issue for the Chinese side when it came to partnership building, but it is now also an issue for the Western side.
We could call this the reciprocity of distrust. To overcome this, reciprocity in openness and transparency when it comes to information and knowledge sharing may be the only way out.