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Opinion

Western universities are not prepared for engaging with China

Attempts to exert influence exploit schools' financial needs and individualism

The University of California, San Diego braved criticism from Chinese students and officials in inviting the Dalai Lama to deliver a commencement speech last June.   © Reuters

China is in the midst of a concerted campaign to expand its influence over institutions, public opinion and policymakers across the world. This campaign is sometimes called a "soft power" push, but this nebulous term masks what it really is: an old-fashioned play to establish leverage.

Doing so is neither inherently wrong nor uniquely Chinese. It is a simply a strategy to advance China's national interests. China believes, with some justification, but also a large dose of instrumentality, that the global narrative has long been skewed against it. Newly enriched, it has capacity to right this wrong. The determination and ability to push back against what it sees as Western hegemony is an underlying dynamic.

China is marshalling a diverse range of actors and tactics to redress attitudes it believes have led to suspicion and a lack of respect and support in international society. These tactics are underpinned by economic incentive, whether the lure of the Chinese market or the promise of financial investment, and Beijing likes to cast such interactions as fostering "win-win" scenarios.

While not denying the possibility of mutual benefits, China seldom does "pure economics." Indeed, Chinese official documents and discourses are explicit about using economic means to serve political ends. A sophisticated infrastructure of diverse institutions puts this into practice.

In China, the education and media systems have long been identified as major vehicles for inculcating political correctness. The authoritarian information regime is not simply about controlling adverse views: There is a fundamental pedagogical role, through which the party-state's understanding of facts, histories and discourses is taught. It is thus not surprising that in its external influence campaign, China would also target the media and education.

Telling stories

Ultimately the goal is to guide Western institutions and public discourse to become more consistent with China's preferences on issues like Taiwan and the South and East China Sea disputes and historical understandings of the Tiananmen Square incident and the Cultural Revolution. More support for China's favored self-narrative about its miraculous development story, rather than human rights abuses, censorship and authoritarian rule, is another aim.

In academia, the goal is ultimately to encourage research, teaching and outreach that accentuates positive framings of the Chinese development experience and its place in the world. This may come in the form of affirmations, like cooperating on joint education ventures in China or the conferral of honorary degrees on Chinese officials such as Ambassador Liu Xiaoming (University of Nottingham), Vice Premier Liu Yuandong (University of Edinburgh) or First Lady Peng Liyuan (Juilliard School). More prosaically, it is manifest in refusals to host talks by speakers that Beijing categorizes as persona non grata like the Dalai Lama.

Western academic institutions are prone to Chinese attempts to generate influence because they strike at our weakest point: finances. Universities need to recruit students, to fund libraries, institutes and programs, and scholars require funding for their research. As many public universities face an increasingly constrained financial environment due to public funding cuts and competition for students, many have become increasingly reliant on tuition from Chinese students.

If not for Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes for the teaching of the Chinese language, hundreds of universities globally would not be able to offer such courses. Over 100 Western universities have programs operating in China and several have full or partial campuses through joint ventures with Chinese partners. Academic presses have secured lucrative markets in China, leverage that the authorities have recently begun using to enforce the censorship of academic material.

In September, Cambridge University Press acceded to Chinese demands to remove academic articles from its website in the country, only reversing course after a backlash from academics. In November, Springer Nature, one of the biggest academic presses, announced it would pull over 1,000 articles from its website in China.

Weak points

Western countries lack sector-wide policies for guiding or protecting academic institutions engaging with China. This deficiency means that Chinese leverage can be exerted on individual institutions, or individual scholars, for example by denying visas to those working on topics deemed sensitive.

This is an asymmetrical relationship that benefits China and allows it to "divide and rule" and pick off weak links. There have been pockets of resistance in the form of closures of Confucius Institutes at schools such as the University of Chicago and Stockholm University as well as the Dalai Lama's commencement talk at the University of California, San Diego last June, but Western institutions have been weakened by acting alone.

The worrying thing is that beyond recruiting Chinese students, most Western academic institutions have not considered how to engage China. In the rush to recruit, many questions have gone unaddressed. How should we deal with investments traced to government sources? How do we deal with nationalist student societies? How do we respond to demands to censor content? What to do when students complain about course content that is unfair to China?

The question is complicated not only by economic influence but by a sensitive Chinese response repertoire based on a hardening posture of "if you're not with us, you're against us." When foreign organizations and individuals do something disagreeable, it is portrayed as hurting the feelings of the Chinese people, insulting China or eroding trust. Faced with such proclaimed sensitivities, it is easy to see Western institutions going down the slippery slope toward self-censorship.

We can and should make efforts to engage China. We should recognize China's contribution to the global economy after the global financial crisis, its increasing willingness to provide global public goods and its engagement with the developing world when the West appeared to have given up on it. We should also avoid falling into an old trap of inherent mistrust and suspicion.

However, we should also keep in mind that at some point our interactions with China may require uncomfortable trade-offs. It could mean accepting and acquiescing to things that compromise our values. In academia it already means censoring publications and refusing to host speakers who China finds unpalatable. In the future, it could easily mean modifying curricula or avoiding certain research topics.

It is therefore essential that in Western academia, and in Western societies more generally, we consider our own interests and values and formulate coherent guiding principles and policies for engaging China. The timing of this inquiry is apt, not solely because of pressures arising from China's intensifying global interests, but also because of the pressure on our values at home.

As a Western scholar of China, I have taught many cohorts of students about the importance of engaging with the country. But I also believe that we need to do so while acknowledging our differences and safeguarding the values that are important to us. That would be a win-win scenario.

Jonathan Sullivan is director of the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute and an associate professor in its School of Politics and International Relations.

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