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China and Western Higher Education Institutions

February 4, 2014

In a recent blog post Thomas Cushman of Wellesley College recounts his the experience of inviting the Chinese dissident Xia Jeliang to Wellesley.  After Wellesley concluded an exchange agreement with Peking University Cushman and a number of colleagues invited Xia to the US.  After his visit Xia was fired by Peking on grounds of ‘poor teaching’.  What is exercising Cushman is the number of colleagues who either accepted the ”poor teaching’ story which he regards as completely incredible or rejected support for Xia on the grounds that it was ‘orientalist’ or evidence of ‘cultural imperialism’

His conclusion:

What is hard to bear, and what we all must come to expect when we consider any partnership between Western and Chinese institutions of higher education, is that there are those who are willing to work actively against the liberal forces of civil society, and to serve as mouthpieces for a regime that is the enemy of the basic values and freedoms of liberal democracy. Whether they do so wittingly or unwittingly, and for whatever reason, the effect is a devastating blow to freedom and civil society and a victory for repression in China.

Academic institutions that have relationships with China are easily corrupted by such relationships, either through the development of the generalised cowardice of self-censorship or the with active complicity of various interests in a regime that is at war with the mind.

The post raises some  interesting questions about how HE institutions should think about partnerships with China.  As the LSE saw with the funding from Libya relationships with rich authoritarian countries can create all kinds of pressures.  Certainly institutions need to think through the downsides of such partnerships when they negotiate them.  It raises issues of national policy.  I think that there’s an implicit confidence that we got rid of the USSR so why worry about China?  The point to keep in mind is that it’s much bigger, richer and western HE is much more dependent on the PRC than it ever was on the USSR.  If we conceptualize soft power in terms of relationships those relationships pull in both directions.

The other side is that this shows why Chinese public diplomacy struggles in the west.  It’s the familiar collision between liberalism  and totalitarianism.  Totalitarianism was never very helpful as an empirical account of how Fascist or Communist countries work but there’s a useful idea there: everything is, in principle, political and hence subject to party control.   The result for liberals is an inherent scepticism of whatever the authorities do in China.  On the other side of course liberalism likes to circumscribe the realm of politics and replace it with law,  civil society, rights.  The irony is that Cushman’s post is entirely (and justifiably) political without him once recognizing the fact.

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