Why you should care

Because China is embracing foreign students, even as it bans foreign books.

Magdalena Gonzalez knows her way around the world of international education. While an undergrad at Sciences Po in Paris, the 26-year-old Chilean made pit stops at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma in Mexico City to participate in a law and economics exchange program and at Columbia University in New York for a brief stint as a research assistant at the Institute of Latin American Studies. After she completed her master’s in international security at Sciences Po in 2013, she was lured east by the nouveau riche recruiter of international students — China. “I had only been to China once as a tourist,” Gonzalez says. “I didn’t really know what I was going to find, but I came as an adventure.”

The rise in China of the foreign student, or liuxuesheng, has paralleled the expansion of the Middle Kingdom’s homegrown student body. While higher education is shrinking in neighboring Japan and South Korea, it is expanding rapidly in China, with the number of college graduates mushrooming from 805,000 to 7.65 million over the past decade. By the time Gonzalez rolled into Beijing in 2014, the number of international students was more than 377,000, up from 111,000 in 2004, according to the Institute of International Education. Most came from South Korea, followed by the U.S., Thailand, Russia and Japan. China’s goal: 500,000 foreign students by 2020.

The increasing stature of Chinese universities is helping the country’s marketing effort. Tsinghua University in Beijing edged MIT for top spot in the 2016 U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of the best global universities for engineering, and three other Chinese institutions also broke into the top 10. A pair of freshly minted scholarship funds also sweetens the deal for international students. In the summer of 2015, Gonzalez joined 99 other students in the first cohort of Yenching Scholars at Peking University. (Roughly one-third of the seats are reserved for Chinese nationals.) The scholars are housed in the former imperial gardens of China’s first modern university while they participate in a one- or two-year, all-expenses-paid master’s program in Chinese studies, taught in English.

A few miles away, the inaugural Schwarzman Scholars enrolled this summer at Tsinghua. Established by American financier Stephen Schwarzman, chairman of the Blackstone Group, the program has a $450 million endowment, an advisory board packed with boldface names (Henry Kissinger, Nicolas Sarkozy, Yo-Yo Ma) and a mission to cultivate “the next generation of global leaders.” Winnowing through more than 3,000 applications, the one-year program selected its first cohort of 111 scholars from 32 nations, including a community organizer from Chicago, a commander of a Special Operations Forces team in Iraq and 15 students from mainland China. The classes, which also are taught in English, are broadly divided into public policy, international studies, economics and business.

China faces stiff competition in its attempts to attract more foreigners to its groves of academe. The United States leads all nations in educating international students, with some 975,000 foreigners enrolled on American campuses, including more than 300,000 Chinese nationals. Britain hosts nearly 495,000 foreign students, while China ranks third. In addition, many Asian countries, most notably India, are launching programs to plug long-standing brain drains by retaining their own students. Then there’s the competition in China itself from American and European schools setting up branch campuses, including Duke University’s collaboration with Wuhan University and New York University’s Shanghai campus.

Some experts question the quality of the Chinese educational product. The country’s Confucianism-inspired rote learning is considered by some to be intellectually unstimulating and parochial in a globalizing world. A recent study by Prashant Loyalka and his colleagues at Stanford found that Chinese students entered college with intellectual rigor a few years ahead of their counterparts in the U.S. and Russia, but their edge is dulled over the first two years of college education. “China needs a huge reform in education,” says Harvard education professor Haiyan Hua. “Not many Chinese parents and children have trust in their university system.”

Lingering restrictions on intellectual freedom may also hobble the country in its bid to reach the 2020 target. Last year, China’s then-education minister Yuan Guiren warned professors to shun books that “disseminate Western values,” a pronouncement that stirred public outrage. In 2013, the dean of the Schwarzman program, Daokui Li, voiced a subtle note of political caution to an eager audience of parents in Hong Kong: “We don’t want our students to become political activists. We want them to become active thinkers.”

The fledgling scholarships also are dogged by charges of elitism. The Yenching scholarship faced initial opposition from host professors and students concerned about special privileges for scholarship recipients parachuted into their midst. “Many professors who were against [the program] changed their minds after meeting the scholars,” says Gonzalez, who graduated from Yenching this summer and now works in Beijing as an interpreter at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. To integrate the program into a university renowned for student activism, the scholars organized campus-wide events, including the first LGBT conference ever held at the 118-year-old institution.

China’s campuses have long been in the vanguard of social change. Students galvanized the Xinhai Revolution of 1911, which overthrew China’s last dynasty. They also sparked the May Fourth Movement of 1919, which ushered in the New Culture Movement, and spearheaded the 1989 pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests. During Gonzalez’s government class, she was surprised to hear her Peking University professor’s outspoken criticism of the Chinese Communist Party.

If Beijing can revamp and market its higher education to the world, foreign students will continue to flock to the Gate of Heavenly Peace. Although French-educated Deng Xiaoping successfully revamped China’s economy without reforming its politics, it remains to be seen whether Tsinghua University alum Xi Jinping can liberalize China’s education without undermining its authoritarian politics.

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