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Society & Culture

Are China and America Decoupling in Higher Education?

Sep 30, 2022
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

An increasingly popular narrative concerning Sino-American relations constitutes the assertion that the two countries are decoupling. Amongst the first to come under fire, of course, is people-to-people and unofficial exchanges, including academic and education-based exchanges between the two sides of the Pacific. 

On surface, the numbers and statistics seemingly add up to support a pessimistic view concerning bilateral education relations. A recent survey conducted by New Oriental Education and Technology Group found that out of the 8,610 respondents, interest in studying in the United States had dropped sharply compared to seven years ago: from 51% keen to pursue study abroad in the U.S. in 2015, to 30% in 2022. The declining interest was matched by corresponding increases in interest in overseas destinations such as the United Kingdom and Singapore. 

A symmetrically perturbing picture appears to be forming over international students in China. International students are compelled to endure an elaborate ordeal in order to get into China – whilst the travel situation had most certainly improved relative to the early days of the pandemic, China remains a quasi-impenetrable nation for American students seeking to make their way into the country, whether it be for exchange or more substantive study. International students had been steadily growing in population in China prior to the pandemic; the latter has certainly thrown a spanner into the works of China’s attempts to internationalize and diversify its higher education sector. 

But we must put things in perspective. Notwithstanding the U.S.’ seeming decline in popularity amongst select Chinese students, China remains the top source of international students in the U.S., with over 317,000 Chinese citizens enrolled in U.S. institutions in 2020-21. The effects of declining interest have been offset by China’s continually growing college student population – in turn a corollary of the country’s rapidly burgeoning middle class. 

Concurrently, whilst restrictions on travel and study on-campus have certainly been difficult to bear for many – recent relaxations in entry requirements for those with study residence permits, as well as touted further loosening of restrictions for China-oriented scholars, journalists, and educators, have raised hopes that Beijing is indeed seeking to transition away from the rigid routine it had implemented over the past few years concerning international visitors. Hope yet remains, that the difficulties that had surfaced during the pandemic would remain transitory – this, too, shall pass. 

With this, the facts do not stack up for the conclusion that China and America are decoupling in higher education – at least, not from the perspective of student enrollment and engagement. There has indeed been a setback in recent years, but provided that both countries work proactively to keep campuses and institutions as open and unfettered for students from the other as is possible, such concerns are very well overblown. 

For all the talk of ‘the East overtaking the West,’ American universities remain vastly popular to many in China, who enjoy the eclectic, rigorous, and open education offered on campus; on the other hand, institutions such as Tsinghua and Peking Universities provide international students with unrivalled insights rooted in top-class teaching steeped in Chinese traditions, as well as incomparable access to the focal points of contemporary governance in China. Rumors of decoupling have thus been grossly exaggerated. 

A more acute problem, perhaps, concerns the ability of Chinese and American universities and academics/researchers to pursue constructive, sensible collaboration with one another. The targeting of ethnic Chinese scholars such as Anming Hu and Gang Chen under nebulous, ostensibly national security-oriented initiatives, has instilled in select campuses a broader chilling effect amongst many who have been made by the law to feel unwelcome in a country that they have called – and still view – as home. On the other side of the pond, increasingly tense and all-encompassing regulations concerning curricula contents and classroom discussions have precipitously reduced the room for at-times raucous, but mostly fruitful debates over important matters. Neither paranoia nor homogeneity would serve higher education well – especially at an age where understanding nuance and tolerating disagreement have become rare traits on university campuses, it is imperative that both China and America set aside their wider political differences in carving out safer spaces and committing to principles of (more) academic freedoms for their researchers and academics. 

Additionally, there remains a broader worry that by typecasting and viewing any and all higher education exchanges through the lenses of national security, Beijing and Washington alike are stifling vital research on areas of critical importance to humanity. As Li Tang, Cong Cao, Zheng Wang, Zhuo Zhuo noted in an article published last year on Science and Public Policy, “deteriorating relations between the U.S.A. and China since 2018 have extended to education and scientific arenas.” The upshot? A world where both countries stand to lose from the stultified progress in areas ranging from climate change to quantum physics. We could ill-afford to cut off ties that facilitate high-calibre, win-win knowledge creation. 

Finally, I have oft been asked what I see to be the best means of repairing the deeply frayed relations between China and America. I have oft opted for the sanguine answer – that the answer rests with facilitating organic, open, unmonitored conversations between the Chinese and American peoples. As a junior academic and PhD candidate, I’d go one step further here: I’d in fact posit that academia, with their relatively robust norms encouraging disagreement, debate, and deliberation, is indeed the best arena where such conversations could take place. Yet in order to recreate this safe space for empathetic disagreement, olive branches from both China and America must be extended. Elsewise, higher education decoupling – whilst by no means reality just yet – looms right over the horizon. 

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