When trade war spills over into academic cooperation

As the United States and China were engaged in normalising relations in the late 1970s, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping became adamant that China should have “a thousand talented scientists” who would be recognised around the world. Deng wanted quick approval to send several hundred Chinese to study at top American universities.

Over the past 40 years, diplomatic relations between the United States and China have steadily grown, even considering periodic strains over economic, political and military issues. Expanded economic and financial interdependence, along with finely tuned statecraft, have ensured that cool heads prevailed in times of stress, and thus cooperation across a wide array of domains has seemingly kept expanding over the last several decades.

Unfortunately, those days of relative calm and foresight may be ending abruptly thanks to the Trump-initiated trade war, which Alibaba’s Jack Ma says “may last for 20 years if it’s unfortunate”. And there are emerging signs that US-China cooperation in higher education may be in for a serious jolt for the first time in four decades. Even the most optimistic observers must admit that we already have entered a somewhat “rough patch”.

Potential targets and increasing suspicion

China’s Thousand Talents Program, which has brought around 7,000 top-level scientists and researchers back to China over the past 10 years, the majority from the United States, may be the first target. That strategic programme is now viewed by the US National Intelligence Council as a potential means to transfer sensitive technologies to China from the United States.

China regards that view as an American effort to constrain China’s rise, especially its progress in science and technology, business and manufacturing.

Of particular concern to the United States is the Chinese ‘Made in China 2025’ programme, which aims to catapult the People’s Republic of China (PRC) into the ranks of the world’s top technological leaders.

The ubiquitous US news show ‘60 Minutes’ revealed proactive investigations of Chinese scholars in the United States, resulting in potential permanent career damage. US universities may not fire Thousand Talents Program scholars, but it could affect the federal funding of several of them.

China insists that the Thousand Talents Program is intended to recruit world-class scientists and not to grab critical American industrial know-how.

After decades of goodwill in academic exchanges between China and the United States, the Trump administration seems anxious to put a damper on the entire network of collaborative relationships.

In May, the Trump administration announced that the validity of visas issued to Chinese graduate students studying in STEM-related fields, especially robotics, aviation and high-tech manufacturing, would be limited to only one year.

Many Chinese scholars in the United States are beginning to feel that they are under suspicion. This sentiment is also increasing toward Chinese-American citizens more generally, according to Chi Wang, former head of the Library of Congress’s China section, who worked for the US government for 50 years.

A bonus for the EU, Russia, Canada, Australia and Israel

More Chinese scholars may be convinced to head to European universities instead of the United States. The United States’ withdrawal from several multilateral agreements, including trade pacts in Asia, has produced a vacuum at a time when China has become more outward looking with its new 60-plus country ‘Belt and Road Initiative’.

China is clearly willing to take advantage of the vacuum left by the United States. The so-called ‘post-American’ world will likely open significant new opportunities for expanding Europe’s cooperation in higher education and research with China.

The real worry is that the ongoing trade war between Beijing and Washington could slow down scholarly exchanges and collaboration between China and the United States – just at a time when Chinese scientific and technological progress offers more and more to American partners.

While such a slowdown could affect China’s science and technology ambitions as it strives to transform from a manufacturing-led to an innovation-driven economy, the Chinese will likely turn to new cooperative partners such as Israel and Russia as well as the European Union, Canada and Australia.

While US actions may increase PRC anxiety, we must remember that Chinese leaders have great patience and strong determination; they will adapt and find ways to strengthen university partnerships outside the US domain.

A hostile policy toward Chinese students and scholars by the US government may make for a good election strategy for the Trump administration, but it ignores the fact that the solution to almost every major global issue will require some form of close Sino-US consultation as well as cooperation.

Recalibrating for resilience and sustained cooperation

Fortunately, most US campuses in China are not encountering serious difficulties. One exception is the relationship between Cornell University and Renmin University of China in the field of industrial and labour relations. Cornell apparently has decided to withdraw from that relationship because of issues surrounding academic freedom.

Although recognising that exception, the consensus at a recent forum in Beijing co-sponsored by the China Education Association for International Exchange and Duke Kunshan University was that Sino-American cooperation in higher education within China remains quite steady and vibrant.

The degrees of major American university campuses in China still are accredited in the United States. However, if academic freedom on these campuses were seriously curtailed, it could end the authority of the US campuses in China to issue degrees that are equivalent to those at the home campuses. This would undermine the foundation of most cooperative education joint ventures.

At the US-China University Presidents Forum held at Columbia University on 27 September 2017, Henry Kissinger, the architect of US-China relations that led to normalisation in 1979, said that the only alternative to positive relations between Washington and Beijing was global disorder.

At that meeting, China’s then vice-premier Liu Yandong said that China and the United States should enhance people-to-people exchanges to build stronger ties where the two countries have the least disagreements and the most consensus.

Sino-US competition on the annual university international rankings may become more intense as PRC universities strive to attain world-class status, but that pales in comparison to what strong bilateral university relations mean for addressing global problems and maintaining geopolitical stability.

Before Trump, China-US ties clearly were more resilient and dynamic. The two countries could carry out strategic and forward-looking dialogues around critical issues for mutual benefit.

At present, universities in both countries may not be able to eliminate the trade distortions and confrontations that currently occupy the attention of the Trump and Xi Jinping administrations, but there is much they can do to keep US-China relations on an even keel as the relationship reconfigures itself to better reflect current political and economic realities.

Students from both countries will eventually become future leaders in government, business and academia; hopefully, greater mutual understanding developed through cooperative learning and cross-cultural exchange will help to soften some of the current mistrust and pave the way for more reasoned and balanced conversations in the years ahead.

Gerard A Postiglione is honorary professor and coordinator of the Consortium for Higher Education Research in Asia, University of Hong Kong, China. Email: Denis Simon is executive vice-chancellor of Duke Kunshan University, China, and professor of China business and technology at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, Durham, United States. Email: This article is also published in the current edition of International Higher Education.