In May 2016, I was invited to a university conference in one of southern China’s coastal cities about the country’s new “One Belt, One Road” initiative. This is a strategy proposed by President Xi Jinping to increase Chinese presence across Eurasia through partnerships and trade.
The specific focus of the conference I was attending was on establishing overseas university campuses under the One Belt, One Road plan. We were there to discuss the feasibility of taking Chinese education programs abroad.
In the last several decades China has been mainly on the receiving end of globalizing higher education institutions. A number of Western universities have set up joint programs in China, the best-known of which are the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, the Xian Jiaotong-Liverpool University, and New York University Shanghai.
In 2011, Soochow University became the first Chinese university to establish a presence overseas. Renting buildings in Laos, the institution offers four undergraduate programs, and has recruited more than 1,200 students. The Xiamen University Malaysia Campus is even more ambitious. Begun in 2013, the school has an investment of about 1.26 billion yuan (roughly $188.6 million), and aims to enroll 5,000 students by 2020.
Both of these universities had been in the works long before the One Belt, One Road initiative — in fact, the idea for Xiamen’s branch campus actually came from the Malaysian side. In March 2011, Hou Kok Chung — the Malaysian deputy minister of higher education at the time — expressed interest in having a Chinese university set up a branch campus in Malaysia during a meeting with China’s vice minister of education. The Chinese Ministry of Education chose Xiamen University specifically since it was established in 1921 by Tan Kah Kee — a Chinese businessman who featured prominently in the development of Chinese communities across Southeast Asia.
The launching of Xi’s initiative should accelerate the establishment of Chinese branch universities and increase the country’s soft power. However, the participants of the conference I attended voiced several concerns — most notably, where would the money from, and would the private sector be involved?
Hundreds of private colleges and universities have opened in the mainland in the past decade as higher education increasingly offers desirable investment opportunities. Most of these institutions have a strong incentive to make profits, and often charge higher tuition fees than public schools while offering lower quality programs.
If these institutions go abroad, the conference delegates argued, they will do more damage than good to China’s international image.
Construction of the Xiamen University Malaysia Campus was funded by donations from Malaysia’s Chinese community and soft loans from the China Development Bank. Tan Sri Robert Kuok, a Malaysian Chinese billionaire, contributed 200 million yuan toward construction of the school’s library. I have no doubt that the numerous Chinese communities around the world will be an important support base in the future for newly established universities overseas.
But there remains one issue of concern. Most overseas Chinese communities are wealthy, and their funding of schools may cause conflicts in local communities. In the words of Amy Chua — a celebrity professor and writer on overseas Chinese communities — Chinese groups constitute a “market dominant minority” in many countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia. Their business success sometimes incurs jealousy, even hatred, from other indigenous ethnic groups.
Consequently, will overseas universities, funded and supported by local communities, be viewed as the ultimate physical manifestations of Chinese chauvinism? Communal tensions are definitely a risk that these universities must take into consideration.
Another dilemma faced by the schools is which courses to offer. If one important function of setting up overseas campuses is to boost China’s soft power, then schools should offer programs in the humanities and social sciences.
But the Chinese take on topics like history and political science can come into conflict with local perspectives and learning styles. The natural sciences and engineering, although less controversial, can only play an indirect role in improving students’ understanding of China.
I received my master’s degree from a British university, which cost my parents a fortune. Emotionally, I am glad to hear that the higher education institutions of my home country are becoming increasingly attractive to students abroad. However, we must keep a cool head and take all of these issues into account before moving forward.
(Header image: XiXinXing/VCG)