Canada and China’s legacy of cooperation

The final months of 2014 and the beginning of 2015 have been anything but peaceful. In Hong Kong and Missouri, student protests have kept our eyes locked on the news, while in Canada we waited anxiously for the release of Alexander Sodiqov.

Each of these conflicts makes us only too aware of the deep political and cultural divisions that shape our world. Amid the drama of 2014, China was repeatedly in the spotlight.

The recurring debate over Confucius Institutes was felt deeply as Toronto’s large public school board cancelled their involvement in the scheme.

And, perhaps most sobering last year, was the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre that was remembered by Chinese diaspora around the world. So 2014 was not an easy year.

Fortunately, though, it also saw the celebration of a very different anniversary, one of hope as it marked the 30th anniversary of university partnerships between Canada and China, a collaboration that has seen far-reaching and long-lasting change.

Started in challenging times – at the end of the Cultural Revolution – Canada and China’s commitment to academic partnership presents a very different story of how universities can join together and work towards progress when politics are in turmoil.

Canada-China collaboration

The formal agreement between the Canadian and Chinese governments, aimed at linking universities, was signed in 1983 as the Canada-China Management Education Program. Each country committed eight major universities to the programme, with more added as the years continued, with the Canadian International Development Agency, or CIDA, contributing CA$50 million (US$41 million) to the programme over 13 years.

A similar programme was launched in 1988 – the Canada-China University Linkage Project – which included national and local universities and ran until 1995. Following these schemes, the Special Universities Linkage Consolidation Project contributed CA$10 million and ran until 2001.

Perhaps most impressive was the range of disciplines that found common ground between Canada and China. Projects were started in law, medicine, agriculture, urban infrastructure, nursing, environment, education, engineering and minority cultures.

Many of these partnerships continued beyond 2001 as funding was made available from CIDA. In the field of environmental science, collaboration began in the 1980s and has been ongoing.

This demonstrates the capacity for joint university research to address the changing concerns of each era. In the 1980s, soil erosion was the main problem targeted by joint research projects and scientists from both countries were leaders in bringing computer use into the management of agricultural lands.

Land erosion projects were developed across China from Inner Mongolia to the southern Deqing county. By 2006, partnerships were still strong and the environmental movement was targeting the threats of global warming.

Solidifying knowledge: lessons learned

In March last year, Canada officially ceased its development aid to China, noting that China has successfully improved its economic situation. As this era in Canada and China’s more formal assistance draws to a close, there are several lessons that can be learned about the role of universities in forming mutually beneficial research partnerships.

From 2010-11 Dr Ruth Hayhoe at the University of Toronto and a team of researchers, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, interviewed 65 participants and leaders of these partnerships. Their findings offer four main factors contributing to the success of bi-lateral collaboration:
  • • Ongoing leadership on both sides of the partnership.
  • • Buy-in from local and national governments to solidify research results outside the universities.
  • • Acceptance of the research as valuable, cutting-edge and relevant to participants from both sides of the partnership.
  • • Long-term funding and relationships that foster a high degree of trust.
As we reflect on the tensions of 2014 and look back at the decade since the last of the formal university-partnership initiatives was funded by CIDA, the world has changed. Whether increased fiscal austerity or the post-9/11 tension, realists suggest that ongoing global conflict will define the next decades.

But the legacy of Canada and China’s university partnerships dismisses this pessimism and tells a different story. The strong partnerships that grew over the past 30 years did not exist in a politically neutral space. They began after the Cultural Revolution when Canada was the only foreign power to focus their aid money on higher education; and they overcame tragedies like Tiananmen Square.

In 2015, it is time to re-affirm our commitment to international research partnerships and forge trusting relationships that will last well into the next century.

Grace Karram Stephenson is a higher and international education specialist with the Comparative, International and Development Education Centre in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto in Canada.

Further information: In May 2014, the official celebration of these partnerships occurred at a conference at Tsinghua University in Beijing.