What China Inc. Can Learn from American Universities

By James Fallows    //    Volume 20,  Number 3   //    May/June 2012

From afar, the boom in China’s higher education system seems to be one more indication of its ceaseless rise overall. Potentially it is the most significant sign, since a China that could rival the existing American and Western-democratic dominance of the world’s research and educational establishment might enjoy many other advantages as well. These could extend from the highly practical, such as the advanced-technology industries that through the past century have been fostered by world-leading research centers, to the “softer” but ultimately more important role of setting intellectual and cultural standards, and training future elites from around the world.

After many years of living outside the United States, I have concluded that America’s two truly crucial strategic advantages are the strength of its higher education system and its ability to attract and absorb an outsized share of the world’s talent. Clearly these two strengths are related, and if China were able to overtake other countries in this measure, too, it would have important ramifications for the United States.

The strengths and limitations of China’s higher education drive are of obvious importance to anyone involved in America’s university system, and they bear directly on questions of governance as well. The factors that will determine China’s evolution as a higher-ed power—intellectual openness and a culture of free inquiry and debate, transparent and trustworthy systems of accountability, stable relations between civil and academic authorities, a balance between independence for faculty members and students and a larger awareness of society’s needs—are bellwethers for its development more broadly. China’s ability to develop the right kind of university system, with the right governing structures, will tell us a lot about the role China will play in the world.

For now, these tasks look harder for China than most outsiders assume.

An Apparent Juggernaut

The news that the outside world receives about China’s output of cars, computers, buildings, and high-speed trains applies to China’s approach to higher education as well. Record amounts of money are being spent; classrooms and laboratories are being equipped at record speeds; record-large cohorts of graduates are being tested, trained, and prepared for their own success and their nation’s. The number of Chinese colleges and universities has doubled in the past decade, and the number of enrolled students has gone up fivefold since the late 1990s. Although the country still spends only 1.5 percent of its GDP on postsecondary education, about half as much as the United States, the figure is of course rising fast.

“In 25 years, only a generation’s time, these universities could rival the Ivy League,” Richard Levin, the president of Yale University, said in a speech at the Royal Society in London in 2010, referring to India’s ambitions as well as China’s. “This is an audacious agenda, but China, in particular, has the will and resources that make it feasible.” Levin fleshed out his analysis in an essay in Foreign Affairs (May/June 2010) called “Top of the Class.”

Soon thereafter, the Royal Society issued its own report on national trends in scientific research, which had a similarly cautionary and even awestruck tone. A BBC summary of the report said that “China is on course to overtake the United States in scientific output possibly as soon as 2013—far earlier than expected.” Later in 2010, a report in the Telegraph in England was headlined “China: The Ultimate Brain Drain?” It continued, “China’s Peking University is determined to become a seat of world-class learning to rival Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Yale.” (Yes, the official English name for Beijing Daxue is Peking University, although the city is now known as Beijing. It’s a traditionalist touch, since that was the university’s English name at its founding in 1898.)

During his time as leader of one of the world’s great universities, Levin has placed special emphasis on developing ties with students and institutions within China and has visited the country often. When I asked him in Beijing just before the 2008 Olympics whether it would be possible to create a first-rate academic system within a political and media environment as closed as China’s, his response was immediate and positive. “Sure,” he said. “The Soviet Union did it.” He went on to argue that a surprisingly large share of the curriculum of a leading international university could fit and flourish even within the confines of modern Chinese controls. Certainly in math and sciences, engineering, music, and some other liberal arts fields the universities of the Soviet era were strong, and today’s China is far less sweepingly totalitarian than was the Soviet system even in its reform era.

Yet by the time the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc nations were as short on the broader cultural and intellectual achievements that great universities both promote and symbolize as they were on high-tech consumer goods. Universities become great by attracting the best scholars and the best students from around the world. Few of the world’s most-sought-after candidates were competing for places at universities in Leningrad or Warsaw. Few ambitious graduate students or aspiring inventors who had a choice of where to live chose to live in or move to the Soviet bloc to realize their dreams.

China’s situation is obviously more promising than the Soviet Union’s, and it is already more attractive to students and teachers who want to be part of the excitement that is modern Chinese life. But the culture of China’s educational and research establishment symbolizes some of the country’s problems now, and a change in that culture would be significant.

Quantity, but Not Yet Quality

When the Royal Society in London emphasized the output of research papers from scientists at Chinese universities, it counted only the volume of the work, not its quality. This same Royal Society paper showed that while China had nearly matched the United States in total output of papers, it barely registered in international standings of cited work—papers significant enough to be refer- enced by scientists in other laboratories and other countries. The United States accounted for 30 percent of all citations between 2004 and 2008, followed by the United Kingdom at 8 percent, Germany at 7 percent, and Japan, France, and Canada with 5 percent apiece. China came after that, with 4 percent of world citations. China’s total output of papers was nearly three times larger than the United Kingdom’s, but was cited only half as often.

An increasing number of domestic Chinese and international reports have underscored what anyone teaching classes in Chinese universities has noticed: that Western complaints about “publish or perish” pressures are nothing compared with the imperative for industrial-scale output among many Chinese scholars. In 2010, a British scientific journal revoked 70 papers it had received from two scientists at the same university in China; the journal said that the laboratory “findings” had simply been faked. “Academic fraud, misconduct, and ethical violations are very common in China,” Rao Yi, a professor and dean of the life sciences school at Peking University, told the Associated Press after that episode. Another Chinese professor, Zhang Ming of Renmin University in Beijing, told the New York Times, “If we don’t change our ways, we will be excluded from the global academic community.”

A culture of copying shows up in many ways in China, as it has in other societies during periods of catch-up. As my Chinese friends who have studied American history frequently point out, through much of the 19th century, American “inventors” and industrialists went far by copying and stealing British and European designs. The most emotional note in Charles Dickens’s dispatches from America in the 1840s is his irritation about pirated U.S. copies of his works.

The United States outgrew this phase; the question for China is whether it will do so, too, and when. Thirty years after China’s opening to world commerce, more than a decade after its entry into the World Trade Organization, nearly all software and videos used in China are pirated. In 2011, Microsoft Corporation’s CEO Steve Ballmer pointed out that almost as many personal computers were sold in China as in the United States, but Chinese customers bought only one-twentieth as many licensed copies of the Windows operating system as Americans did. Nearly every day the foreign and local-Chinese press in China carries accounts of patients who suffer after taking faked medicines, or pilots who have flown for airlines with faked flight-training certificates.

In my experience, many Chinese students believe that sharing homework (or copying essays or “research” papers from the Internet) is not any sort of cheating but is perfectly standard behavior. Before its climactic showdown with the Chinese government in 2010 disrupted its mainland operations, Google had made arrangements with Chinese publishers to avoid copyright complaints about the books it indexed in its Google Books program. As it has done in other countries, Google scanned the book’s contents and allowed users to search for selected passages, but it did not make the entire contents available for bulk download. Meanwhile, its Chinese counterpart, Baidu, had uploaded complete versions of millions of Chinese books, and many non-Chinese works as well, and made them available in their entirety for free download, as if no copyright laws applied. They stopped only after the unusual intervention of a group of Chinese authors, who complained to Baidu’s founder and CEO, the billionaire Li Yonhang—known as Robin Li in his days as a computerscience grad student at the State University of New York at Buffalo and as an online developer for the Wall Street Journal in New York. In 2011 Li agreed to close the pirate book depository down.

“The reason Li and Baidu are in this public-relations mess now is because, for years, they behaved like many Chinese businesses, consumers, and government officials,” the Beijing correspondent for Forbes, Gady Epstein, wrote during the controversy. “They exhibited a casual disregard for piracy, in a culture and economy that did not value intellectual property…. Robin Li’s problem, in other words, is China’s problem.” Epstein also quoted the widespread Chinese crack that Baidu should take as its motto the reverse of Google’s, or simply “be evil.”

The Chinese system strains mightily toward ultimate recognition of its achievements through Nobel prizes, which was one reason the selection of Liu Xiaobo as the Peace Prize laureate two years ago was so galling. Clearly Chinese scientists are capable of worldleading work, and many Chinese-born or ethnically Chinese scientists have been recognized with Nobel prizes for their research. But all such awards have been for work conducted in America, British, French, or other foreign laboratories. No one of any ethnicity has won an award for scientific work within a Chinese institution.

The Infancy of Academic Freedom

In addition to these issues of personal and institutional integrity, and a culture of research, the governance of Chinese universities is coping with very basic questions of academic and intellectual freedom. These have intensified in the past year, as the Chinese authorities responded to the disruptions of the “Arab spring” with tighter internal controls.

Leading Chinese papers published editorials saying that, as China continued through a tough economic transition, people had to understand that political disagreements needed to be contained. The flagship Peking University announced that it would screen incoming students for “radical thoughts,” to prevent trouble before it happened. On a Friday in the spring of 2011, Beijing municipal authorities ordered the cancellation of a prestigious annual debate tournament among teams from 16 leading Chinese universities, one day before it was scheduled to begin the next day. The tournament had run every year since 2002, with no previous interference or problems. But the topic for the 2011 tournament, a retroactive assessment of the 1911 revolution led by Sun Yat-Sen, was deemed “too sensitive” for public discussion a century later.

In the world outside China, free use of the Internet is the closest thing that exists as a proxy for free inquiry more generally. Thus it is significant that Internet access within China is, if anything, growing more and more tightly controlled.

A prominent blogger in China sent out this Tweet in the summer of 2011: “Anyone bullish about China should come and try to use the Internet here.” (Because Twitter itself is generally blocked in China, along with Facebook, YouTube, and many other services, the blogger had to use a Virtual Private Network, or VPN, to escape the controls of the Chinese “Great Firewall.”) Or to put it as the head of an American Internet company did in an e-mail message to me while I was staying in Beijing in 2011, “Ultimately, if they want to take the country’s Internet connections ‘Third World,’ none of us can prevent that.”

Opinion polls in China, for what they are worth, suggest that many people were indeed comforted by the government’s role in shielding them from dangerous views. But I know many Chinese, especially at universities, who feel infantalized and diminished by this reminder that they’re not quite part of the modern world. Students at universities seemed dutiful rather than sincere in explaining that they didn’t really miss much by using Baidu, the dominant authorized Chinese search engine, instead of Google. “They are kind of embarrassed,” one tech expert said at a program in Beijing in 2011. “It suggests a kind of second-rateism for the country, even now.”

In an interview with a Chinese Web site in 2011, Richard Parris, an Australian Internet-technologist living in Beijing, pointed out that the number of Chinese people directly affected by Internet censorship was relatively small. But the small group directly inconvenienced constituted a large share of those Chinese with ambitions to operate at the highest level of scholarship, scientific research, technical innovation, and other elements of truly first-rate international activity. “This is a younger, more Internet-literate group, more likely to have a friend overseas with a Facebook account,” Parris said. “Or a new colleague who can’t believe that they can’t get on their Facebook account in China.”

Hip and worldly young Chinese might be embarrassed in front of their foreign friends by these remnants of backwardness, Parris said. But the real damage to the country was that in any line of work that depended on international communication—notably including scholarship or research at the first-tier level—“there was a sense that this could make China second-rate. If you’re an Internet professional”—or an ambitious scholar—“this is not the place you’ll want to work if you want to be competing with the best.”

As another correspondent suggested in an e-mail exchange, “What country ever rode to preeminence by fighting the reigning technology of the time? Did the Brits ban steam?”

Universities as Bellwethers

A system this vast has many areas of excellence, which will expand; it will certainly win prizes and continue to improve. And if funding and other inequalities drive Western systems into a tailspin, it is possible that the Chinese system will catch up because the outside one is declining so fast. But for now, its universities illustrate China’s impending limits more than its wide-open possibilities. And they dramatize the role of governance in maintaining the strengths of American higher education.

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