Can Biden help reset China-US HE and research relations?

The geopolitical, trade and technology tensions between the United States and China will continue to have an impact on higher education collaboration between academics and universities in the two countries under US President-Elect Joe Biden, higher education experts say, although they see a likely change of tone under Biden which could ease some current friction which is affecting student flows from China.

“The fact is that the good old days are over. The global economy is shifting, the unipolar world is gone and the geopolitical world order is evolving,” said Gerard Postiglione, emeritus professor at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), speaking during a HKU faculty of education online seminar on ‘the new age of Sino-US higher education relations’ this week.

“After 40 years of [US-China higher education] cooperation, the main challenge is going to be how universities operate in this new context,” said Postiglione.

“The disequilibrium will unfortunately continue; there will be no breakthroughs in the near future; there will be no reconciliation of interests,” Postiglione said.

But he said there was more hope that “China and the United States can come to an understanding of how to continue to be strategic rivals or continue to cooperate first in areas that are essential to human progress, universities and university research in cooperation”.

“The parameters have to be set and the red lines have to be clear, otherwise it’s going to be very difficult to manage US-China higher education relations,” he said, adding that Chinese and US universities would have to work on this together.

Philip Altbach, founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the US, pointed to a difference of approach and of rhetoric under a Biden administration and expected a “significant liberalisation in visas”, referring to US restrictions on visas for Chinese students, researchers and academics in the past two years.

“But overall, there is a consensus – maybe exaggerated – on all sides of the political spectrum in the United States that there is a problem with the US-China higher education relationship.”

Denis Simon, former executive vice-chancellor of Duke Kunshan University in China until earlier this year and now senior advisor to the president for China affairs at Duke University, said: “We are likely to see once again a more engaged dialogue between the two countries,” with Biden pursuing a more internationalist approach.

“We are likely to see that the [China-US] problems are still going to be there, but the way to address them is going to change in a more positive sense, on both the Chinese side and the US,” he said.

William Kirby, professor of China studies at Harvard University, referred to President Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ agenda, saying Biden would “reverse much of what you have seen towards this highly defensive posture internationally and not the least towards China”.

“The stakes are very high for American higher education and the internationalisation of American higher education and our influence in the world. US universities have become among the very best in the world because they seek the best talent from every part of the world, including and especially in recent years from China,” Kirby said.

Anything that diminishes that flow of talent and that interchange “will diminish the quality of our universities and of our [US] competitiveness, without question”, he said during the webinar on China and Europe on the New Silk Road, organised by Utrecht University on 5 November.

Others said that while there could be some easing of rhetoric, it would not amount to a reset.

Marijk van der Wende, professor of higher education and China expert at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, said the problems of recent years between the US and China “will require a lot of hard work to reverse”, adding that the tone of discourse “has become pretty antagonistic”.

China wants continued cooperation

Experts noted that there has been concern expressed by Chinese academics and even party officials about reduced cooperation in higher education with the US, and they were looking to replace it by bolstering research relations with Europe rather than waiting for any changes under a new Biden administration.

“Academics should continue all possible kinds of international collaboration despite these rising geopolitical tensions,” said Nian Cai Liu, dean of the Graduate School of Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China, speaking at the Utrecht webinar. But China was not just looking at the US.

Liu said more cooperation between Chinese and European universities “will happen and relatively less cooperation with US universities” regardless of who is the next US president.

Almost identical statements have been made by other academics in China.

Dukes’ Simon said: “The reality is that China realises that in its education advancement, particularly in its hope for creating world-class universities, it would not be possible unless there is global engagement. So, from the Chinese side we’re going to see continued efforts to maintain linkages and connections and cooperation.”

Pointing to recent statements by the Chinese government this year and by Chinese President Xi Jinping in September, “there is great clarity that China’s commitment to [international] openness is remaining in place, despite all the rhetoric about [Chinese] self-reliance,” which was prompted by the Trump administration’s ‘decoupling’ agenda, according to Simon.

The swift ‘decoupling’ or reducing of interdependence of US and China trade and technology ties had a bigger impact on research ties and other higher education relations than China and its universities were expecting or wanted, experts said.

These included US administration action to stem or scrutinise research ties with Chinese technology giant Huawei, the shuttering of many Confucius Institutes on US campuses, and major initiatives by the US authorities to root out university funding from China and other countries.

The US National Institutes of Health are examining some 189 cases in which scientists failed to disclose foreign funding or collaborations.

Chinese research espionage has been a major focus of the Trump administration in the past two years, with a number of arrests and cases announced, and increased enforcement of disclosure and compliance rules at universities and research establishments.

“China’s ambitions for research excellence and rising in the rankings depend on continued international collaboration. China is still cementing joint venture agreements with foreign universities, but Trump has done real damage to the relationship and it is hard to see it [US-China higher education relations] returning to what it was before,” said a US academic at a foreign joint venture university in Suzhou, Eastern China.


HKU’s Postiglione explained this week: “For China, it’s not so much decoupling as de-Americanising in order to address what has become for them an unworkable interdependency in technological development.” Around 48% of China’s international research collaborations were with the US and “decoupling would reverse this trend”, he noted.

Postiglione also referred to Xi’s speeches wanting scientists to come to China: “The emphasis is engage, engage, engage. China is a champion of globalisation and that includes higher education.”

But others have pointed out that China insists on research engagement on its terms rather than accepted international academic norms of transparency and reciprocity, which a Biden administration is expected to insist on.

Altbach noted that the issues that have caused tension in academia between the US and China have also surfaced with other major rich countries and will continue in future and were not dependent on a particular US administration. “Our colleagues in China and in the universities need to take this quite seriously,” Altbach said.

Simon outlined some of these issues and restrictions which would need to be tackled with China after Trump’s departure, including mutual respect for intellectual property, sharing of information “in a two-way sense” and equal access to research opportunities. He also pointed to the need for “fewer restrictions on scholars in terms of different sets of standards for access. Anyone who’s worked in China understands that environment is different.”