China's Premier Wen Jiabao (pictured) has paid a surprise visit to students and staff at the University of Nottingham Ningbo on China's east coast - a highly unusual move which analysts said showed that the issue of foreign branch campuses and international students was high on the leadership agenda.
But the seemingly 'apolitical' visit to the university, apparently at short notice during the premier's tour of Zhejiang province where the university is situated, is also being seen as an attempt by Wen to enhance his own image within China.
"I do not believe this university visit was unplanned," Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at Hong Kong's City University, told University World News.
"Premier Wen has been spreading the message of reform in China and has obviously encountered resistance from the leadership. The mainstream media in China have been downplaying his comments and so he does these university visits and makes 'impromptu' comments on issues related to China's reform."
Cheng pointed out that Wen had visited a Chinese research institution just days later where he said "For the government's policy to be...in line with people's wishes we must listen to people's opinions."
Other analysts said that with Wen promoting a reform agenda within China, including more democratic freedoms and freedom of speech, the greater freedoms enjoyed by overseas branch universities such as the UK's Nottingham University campus at Ningbo in Zhejiang province was being subtly highlighted.
At the same time the visit was seen as endorsing future collaborations with 'world class' overseas universities, with their greater culture of openness compared to China's institutions.
Less controversially, the Chinese leadership also believes that collaboration with overseas universities will enhance the country's research and innovation base.
Nottingham Ningbo Provost and Chief Executive Nick Miles said: "This is an important acknowledgement for us that we are contributing to educational change in China in a positive way. We are still a young university here in China and our graduates are already making an impact in the business world, science and research and their communities."
During the two-hour visit on 8 April, Wen spoke to business students about their research projects.
"He worked the crowd, he was very interested in the students," Miles told University World News. "He also took a range of questions from students, from technology to China's role in the world."
Wen told students: "I am very happy to be here to see international students and Chinese students learning together and developing together. This is like an international family. The location is here, but the university has a world view, so students also have a global perspective."
Wen is fond of visiting campuses. In November last year he squeezed in a special trip to the University of Macau during a visit to the former Portuguese territory, adjacent to Hong Kong. In 2009, during an official visit to the United Kingdom, he visited the University of Cambridge, speaking in English to students there.
Last May he reportedly had lunch with students at China's top institution Peking University and a few weeks later showed up unexpectedly at Zhejiang University, telling students in the university library they should be "bold in their quest for knowledge".
"We received notification just a few hours before that he was coming," Miles told University World News. "This was not planned. He made a decision to come. The context is that China has a 10-year education reform programme which talks about internationalisation, international mobility and attracting international students."
Miles said the Chinese government was concerned about graduate employment. "The Ministry of Education look at our statistics every month and see that we have 100% employment [for our graduates]. They have an interest in how we do this."
Cheng questioned the spontaneity of the visit and said it was highly political. "I really doubt that there is any such thing as an impromptu visit by a top Chinese leader. What it means in this situation is that there should be no pompous ceremonies."
Analysts say university visits are the closest Wen is able to get to appearing to be a 'man of the people' while being in a controlled environment.
"I believe he wants to create this image of being close to the people, listening to what they think and engaging in discussion," said Cheng, pointing out that this is being done at a time when the Chinese government is cracking down on dissidents, including bloggers and rights activists in the wake of anti-government uprisings in the Arab world.
While declining to comment on the political reasons behind the visit, Miles said. "He came to the campus and that is a fantastic signal. If the outcome is that we get more international students, that will be good."
The university, the first international branch campus to open in China in 2004, has just under 5,000 students taught in English. Degrees are awarded by the University of Nottingham. It was recently invited by the Shanghai municipal authorities to open another branch in Shanghai.
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