International students must study language and culture

International students enrolled in universities in China will have to attend compulsory courses in Chinese language and culture beginning from next month, according to new rules announced by China’s ministry of education in conjunction with the ministries of foreign affairs and public security.

Higher education institutions, including foreign joint-venture universities in China, will also have to ensure international students are acquainted with Chinese laws, university discipline, as well as traditional Chinese culture and customs so that they can adapt better to the local environment, the new rules say.

The regulations also ban religious activities on campuses. International students can keep their beliefs and customs but institutions must not provide them venues for religious expression, the document says. It adds that proselytising, religious gatherings or religious activities are not permitted on campus.

Although Chinese language courses will be compulsory, foreign students will be allowed to write masters and PhD theses in languages other than Chinese.

In addition international students studying philosophy and political science will have to attend compulsory courses on political theory delivered by their university, according to the announcement published on the ministry of education’s website on 2 June.

The courses specially targeted for foreign students will take place during the first year of four-year degree programmes at the same time as Chinese students are attending compulsory courses in Marxist-Leninist thought, contemporary Chinese history and Socialism ‘with Chinese characteristics’.

Counselling foreign students

While the need for better preparation for foreign students studying in China has long been acknowledged, academics noted that it was unusual for announcements for the higher education sector to be coordinated with public security agencies.

A number of foreign joint-venture universities in China said they would be examining the new regulation closely to ensure “the correct measures” are in place but a number of them said they already had such courses available for foreign students.

“This new policy is not surprising,” said Willy Lam, adjunct professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Foreign students studying in Chinese universities will need to attend a certain number of classes. But I don’t think in practice this will impede foreign students going to China.”

For Chinese students the regulations “are already very tight”, says Lam, “if they were to write a masters or PhD thesis their advisors will ask them to steer clear of taboo areas, for example, extolling Western values.”

Other parts of the document are simply a reminder to universities that correct procedures need to be followed for foreign students and incoming students to be better prepared for life in China.

“They want to improve the administration of international students to make sure they don’t fall foul of the laws in China,” said Mike Gow, a lecturer at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou and a commentator on China’s higher education system.

“The document appears to be aimed at firming up administrative practices across Chinese universities as they experience phenomenal growth in international students,” Gow said.

According to the ministry of education, the number of foreign students has been growing at a rate of 35% year on year in recent years, and they currently number around 404,000.

“What the authorities want is a counselling system set up for foreign students,” said Gow. This would include advice on legal requirements for residing within the country.

The document states: “Institutes of higher education must demonstrate to foreign students, with Chinese law and regulations, school regulation, national spirit and school spirit, and traditional Chinese culture and custom and other elements in its education content.”

The document includes stipulations on strictly observing admissions standards for foreign students. Students failing to meet minimum requirements will not be admitted, it says. International students are permitted to undertake work-study internships but prohibited from employment or engaging in other business activities.


Several academics told University World News the authorities were not particularly targeting foreign students’ freedoms but there is believed to be growing concern within the Communist Party over the impact of an increasing number of foreign professors on campuses in China.

While the document has been issued to bring universities in line as the number of foreign students grows, “the big challenge for universities is that they have continued to hire foreign professors,” Lam said.

“For ordinary Chinese professors and for students there have been new rules under [President] Xi Jinping – professors are not supposed to discuss Western style political systems or civil society issues, freedom of the media and so forth,” Lam said. However, so far these do not apply to foreign professors at joint-venture campuses.

“We have seen an expansion in the number of joint programmes between Chinese universities and foreign universities. In a sense, there are no restrictions on foreign students, but the restrictions on Chinese professors and teachers have increased exponentially, just because of this government’s paranoia about infiltration of Western values,” Lam said.

Some private universities are installing Party chiefs to strengthen ideological education on campus, something which is common in public universities but had not previously extended to private universities.

Photo credit: Nottingham University Ningbo China