What is distinct about China’s development of higher education?

The recent spectacle of the Winter Olympics opening in Beijing was an opportunity to reflect on the change in China and its relationship with world society since the city hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics. Partly due to the pandemic, the opening ceremony appeared to be a much more restrained affair in comparison to the overtly triumphant tone of the previous ceremony, which seemed designed to stamp the country’s emergence on the world stage.

China’s current hosting of the Olympics is subject to a variety of issues, including diplomatic protests. But it is also marked by an approach that seems more confident about the country’s global role and position.

This confidence and increased assertiveness are not only evident in the field of sport, but also in many other fields, including China’s policies and practices in international higher education.

Is China unique?

The rapid economic and political rise of China, accentuated by events like the Olympics, contributes to the sense that China is unique – that its size and politics distinguish it from every other nation.

Chinese policies have also become much more ambitious in the field of higher education. For instance, it has set a target to be the host of the largest number of international students in Asia – and second in the world after the United States. This comes alongside China’s current position as the world’s largest source of international students.

But, while every nation is distinct, analyses based on national exceptionalism underestimate the value of previous frameworks and ideas that have been developed to explain the trajectories of other nations and their approaches to international partnerships.

One pattern was proposed by US political scientist Chalmers Johnson in 1982 to describe the path of the ‘developmental state’. In his book MITI and the Japanese Miracle: The growth of industrial policy, 1925-1975, Johnson catalogued the policies of the ‘late industrialisers’ – of which Japan was the primary example.

Johnson argued that Japan, as an archetype of the developmental state, placed a greater emphasis on the ‘developmental’ over regulatory orientation of policy-making, in contrast to the neoliberal and market policies adopted by the US, United Kingdom and certain other advanced economies at that time.

A related framework was developed by political economists Peter Hall and David Soskice. They proposed that “varieties of capitalism” explained the differences between how economic actors coordinated across market societies. They outlined two particular forms of coordination: liberal market economies (such as the US and the UK) and coordinated market economies (such as Germany and Japan).

Overall, these insights could be brought together to show how developmental states, given their limited resources, explicitly chose a small number of industrial champions to support – and protect – from international competition. This approach was arguably mirrored in the governance of the higher education sector, with the majority of resources concentrated on a small number of universities until a later stage of massification.

The success and failure of many of these states depended on the extent of the states’ ability to hold their industrial – and university – champions accountable for outputs and performance.

Johnson outlined a pattern of governance and economic development that was first implemented in Japan. Japan’s development, in turn, offered an economic uplift that led to this approach being adopted later on by the Four Asian Tigers (or Four Asian Dragons) – Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea.

Later on, it came to China to join, and even drive, the region’s emergence. If one is persuaded by the value of using this pattern to understand the Chinese higher education sector, we need to ask if there is anything new about China’s evolving approach to higher education governance and partnerships.

Similarities with the Asian Tigers

Generalisations about any country should be avoided, particularly so in a country of China’s scale. But there are many similarities in China’s approach to the development of its higher education sector with respect to the other Asian late-industrialisers.

These included the increasing scale of (1) inputs in terms of financial resources and the number of people participating in higher education and (2) a focus on outcomes, including research outputs and a more highly trained labour force.

There is also increasing evidence of China’s growing ‘intangible’ power, such as its universities’ rising visibility in international rankings, which mirror the earlier rise of universities in Japan.

The most complex question is the role of direct Chinese government intervention in research and teaching decisions and practice.

Apart from the debates around very contentious cases of apparent academic censorship, the role that the Chinese government plays is not completely different from that of governments in the other late industrialisers in the way that they directed resources and steered academic governance in a certain direction, for instance, to pursue certain forms of research or teaching that contribute to developmental ends.

Many Chinese researchers based in China maintain that they enjoy academic freedom and, in fact, reflect on their own increased opportunities brought about by the Chinese government’s higher education investments.

There are also potential distinctions in how academic freedom is exercised in Hong Kong and the mainland, although even here there is growing discussion about how much this ‘gap has shrunk’. The issue of academic freedom in China is clearly one that deserves much longer discussion than is available here.

China and all the ‘tiger’ nations appear to have pushed various excellence or ‘world-class university’ programmes to fund resources and drive up performance at the elite end. This has meant increasing attention to internationalisation and partnerships with what Chinese policy documents describe as ‘famous’ universities and their academics – mostly in the US and UK. This trend continues in China and the other late industrialisers.

Knowledge diplomacy

However, there are distinctions as well as similarities between China and its industrialised neighbours. China is also mobilising its higher education sector to support its international relations goals. Chinese universities play an increasing role in Chinese science and knowledge diplomacy, including its attempt to establish strategically important branch campuses.

While other countries have also adopted analogous approaches (to a varying extent), they are not on the scale of China’s current diplomatic strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI appears to have driven some important changes, including, as our own research shows, an increase in higher education partnerships with countries that have signed BRI agreements, such as Russia, Thailand and Belarus.

Furthermore, there is the situation of Hong Kong, whose position as a hub between East and West is also manifest in the university sector. Researchers have considered the careful balance that Hong Kong and its universities need to tread between increasing ‘mainland-isation’ and maintaining a position as China’s ‘global gateway’. The same research dilemma highlights both the challenges and opportunities for Hong Kong’s universities as cultural brokers.

The ‘yellow peril’

The similarities and distinctions between China and its neighbours are a product not only of their own policies but also of the perceptions of others. The anxiety over China as a rising Eastern power is not unprecedented. The post-war economic rise of Japan provoked a similar anxiety, which has since receded.

China joins a wider group that has been seen, using colonial terms, as a ‘yellow peril’ which threatens the ‘West’. Later commentators developed an understanding of this anxiety as being the result of a desire of authoritarian systems for apparent rapid economic progress. In these terms, China has become part of an East that is viewed both as an object of “desire and danger”.

All these factors point to the value of using previous understandings of wider East Asia to interpret – but not fully explain – the situation of China and its higher education sector. However, it is also a potential point of departure for further comparative thinking and research about how China’s development is distinct.

This article only touches the surface of many questions about Chinese higher education’s past, present and future. Indeed, it seems safe to assume that China’s higher education sector will be both a source and an object of research for many years to come.

Miguel Antonio Lim is a senior lecturer in education and international development at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom.