The next step in soft power

Amid the flurry of press coverage surrounding President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States in September, his gift of a dawn redwood tree to be planted on the campus of the Global Innovation Exchange, or GIX, programme in Seattle received little attention.

However, the GIX programme, a collaboration between China’s prestigious Tsinghua University and the University of Washington, reflects a next step in China’s soft power strategy.

Presenting a model for higher education has characterised global powers from 19th-century Germany to the present day United States, and China now seems to be making a bid to promote its own educational model abroad. While over the past two decades, American and other foreign universities have flocked to establish campuses and centres in China, GIX will be the first outpost of a Chinese university in the United States.

The GIX campus itself is still being built and designed, but when it opens in the fall of 2017, the institution will host the second year of a dual degree programme offering a master’s degree in technology innovation to approximately 30 students. There are plans to offer other programmes and by 2025 to enrol 3,000 students.

The initial programme will cover the legal, technological and entrepreneurial aspects of “Internet-connected devices”, playing to both Tsinghua’s strengths in business and computer science as well as the campus’s location in Seattle.

Courses will be taught in English by faculty from both universities and the two universities will play equal roles in curriculum design, university administration and admissions. GIX will be funded by a US$40 million contribution from Microsoft as well as contributions from both Chinese and American companies.

Chinese expansion

While GIX stands out as the first instance of a Chinese university establishing a physical presence in the United States, it fits into a pattern of recent initiatives to expand China’s global educational footprint.

China’s domestic higher education system has been growing rapidly in both quantity and quality, and thus it is perhaps natural that the growth would continue into foreign markets.

Affiliates of other Chinese universities have already been established in other nations, including a campus of Soochow University in Laos, a branch of Xiamen University under construction in Malaysia and a joint lab sponsored by Zhejiang University and Imperial College London in London.

Chinese higher education has also internationalised in other ways. Central to the educational dimension of Chinese soft power have been Confucius Institutes, government-sponsored centres that promote Chinese language and culture abroad. Already, more than 480 Confucius Institutes operate in more than 120 nations. Chinese universities also currently offer more than 100 online courses.

Tsinghua University alone provides more than 20 online courses on the edX platform for massive open online courses, or MOOCs. These courses include “China’s Perspective on Climate Change” and “Introduction to Mao Zedong Thought”, which has approximately 3,100 viewers. Courses such as these contribute both to the spread of Chinese views on certain topics and to raising the profile of Chinese institutions.

But initial efforts to spread aspects of the Chinese education system globally have met with resistance. Certain Confucius Institutes have triggered controversies surrounding academic freedom.

Several universities in Canada and the United States, including the University of Chicago, decided not to renew Confucius Institutes at their universities, and the American Association of University Professors has argued for the closure of all American Confucius Institutes, citing opaque contracts that lead universities to compromise their integrity.

Not all of the online courses have been popular either, as some American students likened Tsinghua’s edX class on Mao Zedong Thought to propaganda.

Similar controversies could also arise at GIX. While the leader of the project on the Chinese side, Zhang Tao, argues that one of the advantages of the collaboration is that Americans who hope to sell tech products in Asia will be exposed to Chinese preferences and business practices through courses with Chinese students and faculty, the programme’s emphasis on technology also raises potential concerns.

Particularly troubling are issues surrounding Internet censorship and intellectual property protection where practices in the two countries diverge sharply.

Nevertheless, given the Chinese government’s commitment to expanding soft power through education, collaborations between Chinese and American universities on this side of the Pacific seem poised to spread.

Rachel Brown is a research associate in Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, USA. The views expressed are her own. This post was originally published on the Council on Foreign Relations' Asia Unbound blog.