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New York University Shanghai: What Is the Deal?

By Yaxue Cao, published: February 5, 2015



Photo credit: Online.


A recent event prompted me to look into New York University Shanghai. I was rather surprised by what I found. This article pieces together my findings which include information available through the media as well as websites, in the spirit of “tossing out a brick hoping to attract a gem  (抛砖引玉).” If it can help deepen inquiries and debate about the host of issues that can arise from setting up university campuses in China, as more American universities are set to do, it will have more than served its purpose.

“A Testing Field to Demonstrate Reform on International Cooperation in Chinese Higher Education”

NYU Shanghai is a joint venture between East China Normal University (ECNU) and New York University, “the first Sino-US joint venture university” according to NYU Shanghai’s website, whose first undergraduate class was inaugurated in the fall of 2013. According to the Chinese state media China News, the joint enterprise was approved by the Ministry of Education of China on January 17, 2011, and construction began on March 28 the same year in Lujiazui, the heart of Shanghai’s newly-developed Pudong District (上海浦东陆家嘴). A vice president of ECNU headed the team that oversaw the construction of and preparation for NYU Shanghai. Given that China’s universities, ECNU included, are owned and run by the government, it is fair to say that NYU Shanghai is a joint venture between NYU and the Chinese government.

The Chancellor of NYU Shanghai, Yu Lizhong (俞立中), “joined NYU Shanghai from ECNU, where he served as president from 2006 – 2012,” and the vice chancellor is Jeffrey Lehman, a former president of Cornell University. On the “Leadership” page of NYU Shanghai website, no information about its Board is listed; the only disclosure made is that Chancellor Yu Lizhong doubles as the Chairman of the Board of Directors.

Yu Lizhong told Beijing News that “in January, 2006, in search of a cooperation partner, NYU chose ECNU and launched the NYU Shanghai Center. In 2008, NYU president John Sexton asked whether NYU could move a step forward to establish a campus in Shanghai. We told him that it was impossible under the current circumstances, and that if he wanted to open a campus in China, it had to be a joint venture.”

China’s Regulations of Chinese-Foreign Cooperation in Running Academic Institutions (《中外合作办学条例》), effective since September 1, 2003, stipulates that “the president or the principal administrator of a Chinese-foreign cooperatively-run school shall be a person with the nationality of the People’s Republic of China, domiciles in the territory of China, loves the motherland, possesses moral integrity, and has work experience in the field of education and teaching as well as compatible professional expertise,” and “shall be subject to the examination and approval by the approving authorities.”

As a joint business, China has 51% share in NYU Shanghai and is the controlling party, and NYU has 49% share. Correspondingly, 51 percent of each entering class must be Chinese nationals, while the remaining 49 percent come from around the world, but mostly from the U. S.

This arrangement of ownership is similar to the model with which China has attracted foreign companies over the last three decades, gaining intellectual properties and learning know-how from its western partners. Now it looks like China is trying to reproduce this model in higher education.

A Chinese official’s description of the negotiations between NYU and its partner suggests that this arrangement was not what NYU first envisioned, but a result of yielding to a considerably different vision held by the Chinese side. The former deputy chief of Pudong District, who oversaw the district’s education affairs and took part in the entire process of building NYU Shanghai, said the two sides had gone through “difficult negotiations” about the size of the campus, the scale of the school, and the property rights of the university. “We faced a series of challenges during the project preparation process, and the negotiations were extraordinarily arduous. But we persevered, holding our ground and overcoming one difficulty after another to defend the interest of the Chinese side.”

A delegation of Shanghai Municipal People’s Congress visited campus in March, 2014.

A delegation of Shanghai Municipal People’s Congress visited campus in March, 2014. Photo credit: NYU Shanghai website.

That China in the end is the controlling party of NYU Shanghai should surprise no one, because NYU Shanghai was to be the vehicle to test its vision and achieve its goals. According to the same official, the Chinese Ministry of Education designated NYU Shanghai as the No. 1 pilot project in implementing China’s Outline of the National Plan for Medium and Long-Term Education Reform and Development (2010 – 2020) (more elaboration later). Moreover, the mayor of Shanghai instructed in October, 2010, that “introducing New York University is a landmark project to internationalize higher education in Shanghai. ….With the full support of the Ministry of Education, the synergy between all parties will accelerate the first-phase work and propel the signing the agreement as soon as possible.” On March 29, 2011, Liu Yandong (刘延东), a member of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo and a vice premier of the State Council who oversees education and culture affairs, told NYU president John Sexton and his delegation that she “encourages all parties involved in the preparation work to deepen their cooperation and make NYU Shanghai a testing field to demonstrate reform on international cooperation in Chinese higher education.”

This was also confirmed by a delegation of Shanghai Municipal People’s Congress during a campus visit on March 27, 2014. During a meeting that seemed to have been attended by Chinese administrators only, including the Chancellor, the Chairwoman of the municipal NPC iterated that “NYU Shanghai is a national education reform pilot project” and “the success of NYU Shanghai will help other universities…in their continued innovation and education reform.”

“NYU Shanghai is not a branch of NYU”

NYU Shanghai’s inaugural class admitted 295 students in the fall of 2013, 150 of whom were Chinese nationals and 145 were international students that are mostly from the United States, according to Tyra K. Liebmann, then Dean of Students, in an interview with a Chinese paper. Its apparently outdated FAQ page says “NYU Shanghai will be admitting 300 student for class of 2014, …and the enrollment scale for class of 2015 will remain the same.” But as of October 2014, NYU Shanghai campus has 750 students, including exchange students from other NYU campuses, according to a Chinese media report.  NYU Shanghai says its “undergraduate student population will ultimately be in the range of 1,600 to 2,400.” All classes are taught in English.

NYU Shanghai acknowledges that “Ever since Cicero, the Roman statesman, coined the phrase ‘artes liberales,’ the liberal arts and sciences have been the touchstone of excellence in education for all individuals, regardless of their professional aspirations.” The question is, do “liberal arts” mean the same thing at NYU Shanghai as at NYU Manhattan, given CCP’s intense and persistent objection to freedom of thought and freedom of expression that are the very source of the liberal arts as we know it?

The humanities component of NYU Shanghai’s “liberal arts education” is packed into two compulsory courses: Social Fundations and Cultural Foundations. Each student takes two Global Perspectives on Society (GPS) courses and one China course. While I am curious how these GPS courses are designed and taught (little information is available on NYU Shanghai website), the China courses are geared toward a goal: “the crucial role that China plays in that global community will be emphasized throughout the curriculum.”

New York University Shanghai launches inaugural class; Not a reproduction of the American education model is the title of a Xinhua News Agency’s report on NYU Shanghai in September, 2013. Indeed, it is not. How much a role NYU plays to design and shape the curriculum at NYU Shanghai remains a question, but of one thing I am quite certain: NYU Shanghai’s curriculum will have to be approved, if not guided, by the Chinese government.

The Guangzhou-based South Metropolis Weekly (《南都周刊》) noted the difference between Chinese students and foreign students. Chinese students are required not only to take Gaokao, China’s national college entrance exams, but also fulfill the required military training, implemented after the Tiananmen Movement in 1989 to “rectify” incoming college students and install discipline in them. Chinese students at NYU Shanghai receive military training alongside undergraduate students at ECNU, the paper says.

What about the four “thought and political education” courses (思想政治教育) required of all college students in China? They are “Maoism and Theories of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” “Thoughts and Morality,” “Marxist Philosophy” (otherwise known as Marxist Materialist Dialectics), and “Modern Chinese History” (when I was in college in the 1980s, it was the History of Chinese Communist Party). Are Chinese students at NYU Shanghai required to take them? During a recent congressional hearing that probed whether China’s influence is infringing on academic freedom in American universities, Congressman Chris Smith asked the same question and did not know the answer.

If I have to take a guess, it would be “Yes” because, as Mr. Yu pointed out, as Chinese students at NYU Shanghai receive two separate degrees from NYU and ECNU, they must meet what is required of all Chinese college students. Furthermore, if they are not spared military training, why would they be spared the ideology courses? Just like the case with the military training, my guess is that they take these courses alongside ECNU students. However, whether on the NYU Shanghai website or in Chinese media, I have not found any mention of these courses. It seems to me that this simple yes or no question has been carefully tucked away.

Chancellor Yu Lizhong told Nanfang TV that, at NYU Shanghai, there are communist party members among faculty and students, and they participate in CCP activities at ECNU. Is there a CCP branch at NYU Shanghai? We don’t know. But according to the CCP bylaws, only three party members are needed to form a party branch. And I have come across articles about how the communist party should conduct its work in Sino-foreign universities (here and here).

If you are a foreign student at NYU Shanghai majoring in humanities, there are two majors to choose from: Global China Studies (required courses include “The Concept of China”, “Frontiers of China”), and Integrated Humanities. The first seems a thinly disguised version of the Party-state’s propagandist narrative about China, while the second one, only abstractly outlined, merits a closer look.

Photo credit: NYU Shanghai website.

Photo credit: NYU Shanghai website.

I should point out that China Studies have been popping up in Chinese universities in the last two years or so, mainly to attract foreign students as China sets to promote “Chinese culture” as a competing system of values against what the world recognizes as universal values, so as to gain the power to reshape the political discourse in the international arena. Ultimately, the goal is to redefine power, justice and freedom on the Party’s own terms. Leading the charge, Peking University launched The Yenching Academy in May, 2013, in the midst of strong student and faculty opposition, with the mission “to equip outstanding young scholars with a broad, interdisciplinary knowledge of China that reflects both Chinese and international perspectives, and to cultivate leaders who will advocate for global progress and cultural understanding.”

What are the incentives for American students to attend NYU Shanghai? I can easily imagine high school graduates being excited about getting a NYU degree in Shanghai, a vibrant city in a vibrant country. But the biggest incentive is probably money. Stephanie Ulan, from Queens, N.Y. was offered a deal worth $ $228,000: tuition, room, board and even reimbursement for her plane ticket to Shanghai, according to a NPR report in 2013. “The half a dozen others with whom NPR spoke said they got either huge discounts or free tuition.”

Ideally, one would want to take a look at the syllabi and textbooks, and talk to faculty and students. Since none of these materials are made public, as they routinely are in American universities, I settled for a crude, non-scientific experiment. I searched the NYU Shanghai website for the words “democracy” and “freedom” respectively. “Democracy” yielded two results that appeared in names of courses offered in study-abroad arrangements outside China, while “freedom” yielded three results, one in a bioscience paper, and two in descriptions of student life. “Human rights?” No. “Rule of law?” No. “Liberty?” No.

In 2013, NYU’s president was criticized by the university’s faculty for setting up the NYU Abu Dhabi campus and, among other things, straining faculty resources and diluting NYU degrees. But if you compare the vision of NYU AD and that of NYU Shanghai, the former at least states that it “is a residential research university and a branch of NYU New York, operated consistent with NYU New York’s academic quality and practices.” NYU Shanghai does not say anything like that in its mission statement, even though NYU President Sexton told the New York Times that “We’re comfortable that we will be able to offer an N.Y.U. education in Shanghai the way we offer it in Abu Dhabi or New York City.”

“NYU Shanghai is not a branch of NYU,” said Chancellor Yu Lizhong. “Instead, it is an exploration and demonstration how two sides complement each other with their respective strength to have a brand-new university.”

What Is the Deal?

Chancellor Yu Lizhong told the Beijing News that, in the initial stage when NYU Shanghai was constructed and set up, neither ECNU nor NYU invested any funds except for human resources and other intangible resources, while the Chinese government provided “a lot of support.” (ECNU is a state-run public institution, so any ECNU investment would be a government investment anyway.) In the same interview, Mr. Yu characterized NYU Shanghai as a new model of schools that are neither public nor private, because it receives “government support” for its founding as well as its future development and operation.

Mr. Yu said government support is one of the three sources of funding for NYU Shanghai, the other two being public fundraising and tuition. No specific number is publicly available as how much the Chinese government funds NYU Shanghai, I would venture a preliminary guess that tuition income is insignificant at most, since generous scholarships are provided to foreign students, and even if all Chinese students pay the full tuition of RMB 100,000 per school year, that total would still be rather modest.

Jeff Lehman, vice chancellor of NYU Shanghai and a former president of Cornell, told NPR when NYU Shanghai inaugurated its first class in the fall of 2013: “We’ve benefited from tremendous philanthropic support…. As we prove ourselves, I very much hope that kind of support will translate into the creation of a great endowment.”

Three months ago on October 30, 2014, a Shanghai local paper reported that NYU Shanghai’s Education Development Foundation has received USD12.5 million donation pledges “from various sectors of the society,” and “raised USD 25 million from NYU’s global fundraising platforms.” The fund, according to the report, “will mainly be used to support student financial aid, teaching and researching,” “hire top-notch visiting professors from around the world, and spend on some hardware construction per donors’ requests.”

Days later on November 4, 2014, NYU president John Sexton announced, in Shanghai, a $1 billion endowment for NYU Shanghai. “Three very significant people have formed a foundation for the benefit of NYU, which will have the purpose of raising money for financial aid,” he said. “These three donors, he claimed, will contribute $1 billion to NYU Shanghai over the course of five years.”

He went on to predict that the NYU Shanghai endowment would grow more rapidly than that of NYU in New York. “Because the NYU Shanghai ‘pilot’—as they call it—is seen as so important in the friendship between America and China,” Sexton said, “a lot of successful Chinese have stepped forward.” (

One of these “three very significant people,” according to the same Chinese report, is Liu Yungeng (刘云耕) who, until February 2013, was the head of Shanghai Municipal People’s Congress and, before that, Party Deputy Secretary of Shanghai, chairman of the Party’s Politics and Law Committee in Shanghai, and Party Secretary of municipal Public Security, as well as an alternate member of the 16th CCP Central Committee. Another is Teng Yilong (滕一龙), who until June 2013 was chairman of Shanghai Industrial Holdings Limited, a state-owned investment company. Before that, he held other senior government positions, including the head of Shanghai municipal Superior Court, and Party Secretary of China State Shipbuilding Corporation. The report quoted Chancellor Yu Lizhong as saying that these non-paid board members of the Foundation raised funds with their prestige.

NYU President John Sexton. Photo credit: NYU Shanghai website.

NYU President John Sexton. Photo credit: NYU Shanghai website.

For an American university, endowment from Chinese sources can be fraught with problems that western university administrators are often not fully aware of. To avoid scrutiny, the Chinese government may mask its money through philanthropy, and donors can be little more than representatives or middlemen of the Party. An endowment from Wen Ruchun, daughter of the then Premier Wen Jiabao, to Cambridge University in 2012, can serve as a warning.

The endowment, supposedly from a charity run by Ms. Wen, appointed a professor whose most recent book Is China Buying the World?, “accuses Western commentators of scaremongering over China’s rise and failing to make a ‘balanced presentation’ on China’s role in the world economy.” According to a more recent update on the story in the UK paper Telegraph, the arrival of money from one of China’s most powerful political families might have something to do with the abrupt departure of Professor Zhang Wei (张炜).  Zhang, until 2011, had headed Cambridge’s Greater China Economics Research Institute, and was a high-ranking official in China’s Youth League system in the 1980s, and a peer of Li Keqiang (李克强). Unlike the vast majority of his peers, however, Zhang resigned following the June 4th massacre in protest and pursued a distinguished academic career overseas.

Privately I have heard about a couple of cases where Chinese donations to prestigious American universities, at least indirectly, changed the behavior of university administrators, and led to interference in academic events. While I am in no position to discuss these cases, others may be able to. There are ample grounds for concern about Chinese money corrupting the integrity and academic independence here in American universities.

Back to NYU Shanghai. One is bound to ask: What is NYU’s contribution in this joint-venture?

According to its website (faculty page in Chinese), NYU Shanghai has about 109 or so faculty members, and they are divided into 5 categories. Nineteen are “Senior Professors” who are mostly NYU professors and eight of them members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Twenty-one are Affiliated Professors (or “联聘教授” – jointly-hired professors) who are also mostly NYU professors and most of whom are in Shanghai for only a semester to teach one course. Fifteen are “Middle-aged and Young Professors.” Seventeen are “Other Professors” who teach lab and other auxiliary courses. For the 2014-2015 school year, there are thirty-seven “Visiting Professors” from around the world to teach a variety of courses.

When asked how faculty are hired at NYU Shanghai, Chancellor Yu told the Beijing News that “we hire faculty through New York University, and our hiring standard is very clear: it has to be higher than the average level of NYU.” He said 40% of NYU Shanghai faculty would come from the NYU Manhattan campus, 40% will be top-notch professors hired from around the world, and 20% would be guest professors from ECNU or other Chinese universities.

NYU Shanghai offers 13 majors (biology, business & finance, chemistry, computer engineering, computer science, economics, electrical engineering, global China studies, integrated humanities, interactive media arts, mathematics, neural science, physics, and self-designed honors major) and has five research institutes currently: NYU-ECNU Institute of Mathematical Sciences, NYU-ECNU Center for Computational Chemistry, NYU-ECNU Institute of Brain and Cognitive Science, NYU-ECNU Institute for Social Development, and, the latest addition, Volatility Institute.

NYU Shanghai only posts job openings in the English version of its website where the school is described rather differently than in its Chinese version. While the Chinese version describes it more accurately as a joint-venture that aims to become a world-class research university, the English version states that “NYU Shanghai is a highly selective world-class research university and the first American university with independent legal registration in mainland China,” leaving you with the impression that NYU Shanghai is a branch of NYU.

It is important to note that setting up joint-venture universities in China, foreign universities can count their intellectual properties toward their contribution, even though it is unclear whether this is the case with NYU:

Article 10 of China’s Regulations of Chinese-Foreign Cooperation in Running Schools (《中外合作办学条例》) stipulates:

A Chinese or foreign cooperator in running a school may contribute with funds, in kind or in forms of land-use right, intellectual property rights or other assets to establish the school.

Contribution of intellectual property rights by a Chinese or foreign cooperator in running a school shall not exceed one-third of its total contribution. However, for a foreign educational institution that comes to China for cooperation in running a school at the invitation of the education administrative department or the labor administrative department of the State Council or at the invitation of the people’s government of a province, an autonomous region or a municipality directly under the Central Government, its contribution in the form of intellectual property rights may exceed one-third of its total contribution.

Article 11 of Implementation Measures for the Regulation of Chinese-Foreign Cooperation in Running Schools (《中外合作办学条例实施办法》) stipulates:

Where a Chinese or foreign cooperator uses intellectual property as its educational investment, it shall submit the pertinent materials of intellectual property, including a photocopy of the intellectual property certificate, valid status, practical value, basis for the price computation and the pricing agreement concluded between both parties, etc.

Summing up the deal, I am tempted to say that, in this joint-venture, it looks like the Chinese government/ECNU:

  • Bankrolls NYU Shanghai;
  • Grows a first-rate research university with NYU professors and professors/researchers hired in the name of NYU;
  • Provides Chinese students who covet a US degree with a NYU degree while keeping the ideology program of the CCP intact;
  • Indoctrinates a continuous stream of foreign students, mostly Americans, who benefit handsomely from government scholarships, with the “Chinese perspective;” and
  • Possibly exerts influence on academic independence at NYU through real or pledged “endowment.”

In this joint-venture, it looks like NYU:

  • Provides key faculty;
  • Lends its brand and prestige to hire faculty from around the world and to attract students while ceding dominant control of the brand, in China, to the Communist government;
  • Gets a share of the Chinese education market; and
  • Solicits endowment; and builds what President Sexton describes as a “global network.”

I do not for a minute assume I have made a comprehensive assessment, given the scant information available. NYU professors want to know more. The Congress wants to know more. And the general public should know more. But that desire has been met with obstruction.

Prominent NYU neuroscientist Paul Glimcher lectures. Photo credit: NYU SH website.

Prominent NYU neuroscientist Paul Glimcher lectures. Photo credit: NYU SH website.

In September, 2013, the five elected officers of NYU-American Association of University Professors wrote a letter to NYU Board of Trustees to “record some grave concerns expressed by our members about the prospects for academic freedom in China and at the new campus.” Well-informed about ideological crusade and academic restrictions in China, which have gotten steadily and significant worse since 2013, the professors acknowledge that “it is difficult for us to imagine the campus can subsist as a bubble on an information landscape that is so severely constrained.”

The letter, which was entered into the Congressional record during the December 2014 hearing, pointed out that “the Shanghai initiative was conceived and shaped with minimal faculty consultation and with few faculty concerns about freedoms permitted to enter the discussions. Even now, we have not been given any formal evidence of the kind of agreement signed between our NYU Administration and the Chinese authorities (national, municipal or district).”

The professors worried about NYU’s name being sullied. “Accepting vast sums of money from foreign governments puts NYU and every scholar affiliated with the University in a morally compromising situation, and academic freedom is usually the first casualty.”  [I can’t seem to find a link to the letter; I’m quoting from a hard copy I picked up at the hearing.]

During the Congressional hearing “Is Academic Freedom Threatened by China’s Influence on American Universities?”, Rep. Chris Smith expressed similar concerns about the moral cost of this transaction. He said “we have repeatedly invited NYU’s President and faculty to testify before this committee [the House Foreign Affairs Committee], without success. On five separate occasions, we gave NYU 15 dates to appear.”

Smith said “American colleges and universities should not be outsourcing academic control, faculty and student oversight, or curriculum to a foreign government.” He said he will be asking for a GAO study to review the agreements of both satellite campuses in China and of Confucius Institutes in the U. S.” “I will also ask the GAO to study whether U. S. satellite campuses in China operate differently from Chinese universities and whether there is a two-tier system in place, where Chinese students and faculty have more restrictions placed on their activities and research than U. S students and faculty. I will also ask whether Communist Party committees operate on campus, whether fundamental freedoms are protected for both Chinese and U. S. students and faculty.”

I must point out that, the concerns of NYU professors and Congressman Smith arise from the assumption that NYU Shanghai is a campus of NYU, when essentially it is not. So, in addition to the questions they have raised, another set of questions must be asked and probed in the interest of the well-being of American higher education, as more American universities are in the process of setting up “campuses” or programs in China and as Chinese endowments slip into campuses here in the U. S.

China’s Ten-Year Plan, the Hefei Statement, and China’s Quest for World-Class Universities

China promulgated Regulations of Chinese-Foreign Cooperation in Running Schools (《中外合作办学条例》) in 2003 to set rules for foreign education institutions seeking access to China, as China was bound by its promise of opening China’s education market when it was admitted into the WTO in 2001. According to Chinese Ministry of Education, over the last decade or so, about 1,780 programs or projects have been set up between Chinese universities and foreign universities, most of which are confined to particular majors and areas within the existing Chinese universities, such as this one and this one. The first joint-venture university with independent legal status is the University of Nottingham Ningbo (UNNC) and it was founded in 2004.  Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University was the second;a joint venture between Xi’an Jiaotong University in China and the University of Liverpool UK that was launched in 2006 in Suzhou. NYU Shanghai seems to represent a model somewhat different from UNNC and XJTLU. Duke Kunshan University is a joint-venture of Duke University and Wuhan University “to create a world-class liberal arts and research university” that welcomed its inaugural class of students in the fall of 2014. Wenzhou-Kean University also went into operation in 2014.

A financial forum held in NYU Shanghai. Photo credit: NYU SH website.

A financial forum held in NYU Shanghai. Photo credit: NYU SH website.

China’s Outline of the National Plan for Medium and Long-Term Education Reform and Development (2010-2020) (《国家中长期教育改革和发展规划纲要 2010-2020年》), issued in July, 2010, devotes a chapter to “Expanding Education Openness” (Chapter 16) and the goals include:

  • Strengthening international exchange and cooperation;
  • Attracting more world-class experts and scholars to China to engage in teaching, researching and management, and introducing top-notch talent and academic teams from overseas according to plans;
  • Strengthening cooperation with top universities around the world, establishing cooperative platforms for teaching and researching, and jointly advancing high-level research on basic sciences and high-tech;
  • Improving the quality and level of achievement at Confucius Institutes;
  • Increasing the number of Chinese government scholarships given to foreign students studying in China with emphasis on students from developing countries.

Three years into the issuance of this ten-year Outline, the Chinese Ministry of Education issued a briefing on the implementation of joint-venture higher education programs in 2013, making three mentions of NYU Shanghai. The core purpose of these joint-ventures, it states, is to “introduce quality education resources from overseas,” and the key areas for this effort to take place are science, engineering, agriculture, and medicine, especially engineering. 37% of the current joint programs are in the engineering fields (工科), and only 2% of them are in law, literature, and history.

Ideological indoctrination in schools like NYU Shanghai apparently is a big concern of the Chinese government, and the briefing makes a special evaluation of it. “Joint-venture institutions and programs have focused on cultivating a scientific world view and positive outlook and values,” says the Briefing. “They have engaged in thought and moral education as well as patriotic education based on the characteristics of students in these schools and programs, and have achieved remarkable results. Sino-foreign joint-venture universities, such as the University of Nottingham Ningbo, have insisted on establishing Communist Party committees so that there would be Party’s work wherever the mass is and there would be Party organization wherever there are party members, achieving the party’s no-blind-spot coverage on the grassroots level. Some universities have also established overseas party branches to ensure that the party’s work keeps synchronized steps with its work at home when students of these joint-venture institutions and programs study abroad.”

China’s drive to take advantage of the best and most advanced educational resources around the world seems multi-pronged. In October 2013, nine top Chinese research universities (Peking U., Tsinghua U, Fudan U, Ha’erbin Institute of Technology, Nanjing U., Shanghai Jiaotong U., U of Science and Technology of China, Xi’an Jiaotong U., and Zhejiang U.) signed the Hefei Statement with three world university leagues (Association of American Universities, the League of European Research Universities, and the Group of Eight in Australia), and, in early 2014, the Russell Group of 24 leading universities in UK also signed the Statement. The purpose of the statement is “to identify the key characteristics that make research universities effective; and to promote a policy environment which protects, nurtures and cultivates the values, standards and behaviors which underlie these characteristics and which facilitates their development if they do not already exist.”

In signing the Statement, AAU, LERU, G8 and the Russell Group might have intended to “promote the fundamental principles of world-class research universities across the world, and to influence the development of higher education and research policy,” as the head of the RG puts it. The question I want to ask is this: What really motivates the nine Chinese universities to sign the Statement, or more precisely, what motivates the Chinese government to sign such a document, given that no Chinese university has the autonomy to act on its own, and to do so without government planning and approval, at a time when the Communist Party in China has been banning the teaching, and indeed any mentioning, of values that are the very foundation of western universities, expelling or punishing free thinking scholars, reinforcing its ideological indoctrination, further tightening Internet censorship, and conducting complicated surveillance on faculty and students alike?

“[The signing of Hefei Statement] coincides with Chinese government’s desire to quickly elevate the standing of Chinese universities in the world,” Chu Zhaohui (储朝晖), a research fellow at the National Institute of Education Sciences in China, pointed out. “Support from government [for the signing of Hefei Statement] is merely a stance which does not change the long-standing managerial system of government running the universities, nor can it change the relationship between the Chinese government and universities from a legal perspective.”

Is China signing the Hefei Statement, or similar documents, to merely help further its exchanges with top universities around the world, without intending to commit to the principles of academic independence and freedom? This is a familiar game that China has played again and again to great success. For example, to gain entrance to the WTO, China signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1998 but has never ratified it. Activists have been tried and imprisoned for advocating its ratification. Even when China ratifies some human right covenants, it does not necessarily mean these obligations would be implemented in good faith.

The Hefei Statement deplores instrumentalist approaches to research universities, and the harms they do to the well-being of these institutions. But cynically, China’s varying approaches to working with the best universities in the world probably represent the worst kind of instrumentalist approaches one can possibly imagine, and the well-being of these universities should weigh heavily on our minds as many of them are jumping on the bandwagon to China, convinced that they must be there and be there fast.



Yaxue Cao (曹雅学) is the founder and editor of this website.



Duke Kunshan University delayed again, following communication and funding problems, The Chronicle, Duke University, February 8, 2013.