With the passage of time, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has acquired potency to bolster China’s geo-intellect. By geo-intellect, I mean the expansion of a country’s frontiers of higher education and research in different geographies, which in China’s case is the subset of its global power project. This undertaking has its own woes and limitations, but the emerging trends cannot be glossed over.
First, the BRI Education Action Plan, released by the Chinese Ministry of Education in July 2016, articulates China’s determination to play an influential role in shaping the educational architecture in collaborative spirit, involving a big chunk of humanity. The Plan proposes a “three pronged framework of ground-laying, support-building, and forward-thinking actions,” and outlines three areas of China’s cooperation with the BRI countries: improvement of educational connectivity, cultivation and training of talent, and setting up concrete mechanisms of cooperation. Above all, it envisions the Chinese Education in Action, stating, “China calls for an educational community built by countries along the routes to pool our efforts on the [BRI]. This first of all requires that China’s education sector and actors from different sectors of Chinese society play a proactive and exemplary role.” The shared agenda is being implemented with a spurt in China’s transnational agreements on education and research cooperation.
Second, by instituting BRI scholarships, China has stepped up recruitment of international students in its drive to become a “hub” of international education, to give boost to education as a nation-branding resource, and to cultivate foreign youth as part of public diplomacy. In 2018-2019, over 1,000 Pakistanis received scholarships to study at Chinese universities, causing an uptick in the number of South Asian students in China. In the words of geologist Qasim Jan, president of the Pakistan Academy of Sciences, “My generation of scientists did our PhDs mostly in the UK and the USA and that is where many of us still have collaborations... The next generation will be different. After we are gone, most of their links will be with China.”
Third, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) is spearheading numerous projects in BRI participating countries, having also contributed USD 268 million since 2013, apart from training around 5,000 high-level sci-tech talent. Under the banner of BRI, the CAS has set up centers in South America, Africa, Central Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia in fields of astronomy, research and education, ecology and environment, drug development, space weather, biodiversity, and innovation cooperation. While the concrete outcomes of these initiatives for the host countries will determine their meaningfulness, China’s visibility has certainly increased amid its message of shared relevance of its scientific enterprise.
While the education and research activities are considered essential for building and supporting BRI projects, which require a massive supply of human capital, their by-product culminates in China’s enhanced profile in the knowledge domain. Importantly, the mission to become a global leader in higher education entails a long, tortuous process. For instance, Simon Marginson, a noted figure in the higher education discipline, argues that China has not yet come out with a “distinctive” university model based on Chinese characteristics. A persistent criticism is that in the absence of substantive university autonomy, academic freedom, and creativity, China’s model will not catch the fancy of the Western democratic world, offsetting Beijing’s global leadership ambition.
In May 2017, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) launched a think tank in Hungary — the China-CEE Institute (China-Central and Eastern Europe Institute) in order to promote academic exchanges between China and countries in central and eastern Europe.
Also, Chinese scholars such as Hu Xuyang and Song Shanming, teaching at Zhejiang University, have urged ridding Chinese higher education institutions of heavily bureaucratic management. But we can’t expect that the Chinese leadership will make any substantive changes to current practices just to silence criticism. Nevertheless, China is determined to erode Western, specifically American, hegemony in higher education and research, having some stellar accomplishments in quantitative terms.
First, China has emerged as Asia’s most popular destination for foreign students who numbered 489,200 in 2017, with students from BRI countries accounting for nearly 65 percent. Clearly, China is inching toward replacing the UK as the second ranking study destination. Second, Chinese universities have been consistently moving up in the Times Higher Education (THE) ranking. In 2019, Beijing’s Tsinghua University surpassed the National University of Singapore to clinch the 22nd slot, catapulting China to the first position in Asia. Third, according to the Web of Science database, between 2007 and 2017, China accounted for 19.35 million citations and occupied the second place after the United States whose researchers received 66.45 million citations. Fourth, the “going out” approach has prominently marked China’s internationalization of higher education.
Notably, in 2018 Peking University opened a branch of its HSBC Business School in Oxford’s Foxcombe Hall, a 19th century residence of the eighth earl of Berkeley, which it bought for nearly £9m. The university intends to draw students from both Europe and China, with the focus on “professional knowledge of China’s economy, financial market and corporate management.” While the HSBC campus will constitute a standalone presence, the Global Innovation Exchange (GIX), which awards master’s degree in technological innovation, is being touted as a global partnership between the University of Washington at Seattle in the United States and China’s Tsinghua University. As a matter of fact, Tsinghua University is China’s first research university to have a presence in the United States. In the words of its President Qiu Yong, “In the face of challenges related to the environment, resources and health, we need to cooperate across national boundaries to find solutions, GIX creates an innovative educational model that will facilitate international and interdisciplinary integration for technological innovation.”
Hence, China is swiftly enlarging the portfolio of its academic and research influence. It has a long way to go in catching up with the United States before actually overtaking it. However, with the launch of the BRI, China’s strategy is to catch the low-hanging fruit by making its impact felt in developing countries, including those of Europe. For instance, in May 2017, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) launched a think tank in Hungary — the China-CEE Institute (China-Central and Eastern Europe Institute) in order to promote academic exchanges between China and countries in central and eastern Europe.
As noted by the CASS Bureau of International Cooperation, “CASS has become China’s main channel for academic exchanges with major countries and regions across the world, driving Chinese-foreign cooperation in the fields of humanities and social sciences.” It may be noted here that Chinese social science research is often upbraided for being confined to the prism structured by the Communist regime, stifling its organic growth. In this context, the CASS’s proactive outreach is designed to communicate the relevance of Chinese social thought and “innovations” in overcoming common problems of humanity. It will be interesting to watch how high China’s geo-intellect rises up in the global spectrum, especially in view of the current regime’s reiterated commitment to shared benefits.