Issue: 2017: Vol. 16, No. 2

U.S. – China Education Relations: past, present, and future

Article Author(s)

Mary Brown Bullock

Avatar photo
Dr. Mary Brown Bullock is president emerita of Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia and Founding Vice Chancellor of Duke Kunshan University. She serves on the advisory board of the China Research Center. 
Newsletter Signup
Subscription Form

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The following is an address Dr. Bullock prepared for the third annual Young Scholars Forum at Nanjing University. The forum, held on September 21-22, 2016, was sponsored by The Global Times and the Carter Center. 

Let me begin with a story.  In 1978 Zhou Peiyuan, senior scientist-educator and president of Peking University, led a delegation to Washington to negotiate a new era in U.S.-China education relations.  Trained in both China and the United States, he was determined to recreate for a new generation the educational experiences that had given him a Boxer Indemnity scholarship, that had enabled him to receive three degrees from the University of Chicago and California Institute of Technology, that had enabled him to study at Princeton University with Albert Einstein.  His model was that of the Republican era when thousands of Chinese students studied with scholarships at elite American universities.  As an observer I was somewhat surprised that American negotiators were hesitant, preferring a very limited, centralized Soviet-type program.  Under the Soviet exchange program, American and Soviet universities did not have direct contact with one another, and the exchange numbers were negotiated and balanced each year.  Zhou would have none of it, canceling the meetings and threatening to return to China.

After a few days the American side accepted all details of his proposal. The “Understanding on the Exchange of Students and Scholars,” signed in October 1978, was appended as Agreement #1 to the January 1979 political normalization agreement between Jimmy Carter and Deng Xiaoping.  Today, 38 years later, with 305,000 Chinese in the United States and an American number only limited by interest and funding, this remains the governing framework.

I begin with this story for two reasons.  First, to underline the many different ways in which the legacy of an earlier era has influenced government officials, educators, and the Chinese and American public.  Second, to remind us that the power of ideas flows continuously, over decades and centuries, and across oceans and continents.  The British and German influences on American education continue to be felt even as Confucianism and the traditional shuyuan find expression in China’s modern universities.

Today China is America’s largest educational and scientific partner, and vice-versa.  China has made many investments to become an international education destination. In addition to national scholarship funds, each province is working to attract more international faculty and students.  It has funded upwards of 100 Confucius Institutes in the United States.  The Fulbright Program is the signature American program. The United States continues as the number-one destination for Chinese students who number more than twice those from India, the second-largest group.  They are relatively evenly divided between graduate and undergraduate students.  Hundreds of American universities have research and exchange programs with China.  More American students study in China than any other developing country.  Eighty colleges and universities from 36 states are operating undergraduate degree programs in China while 30 offer graduate degrees.  All Chinese provinces and autonomous regions have educational agreements with American universities, and all but Xinjiang, Tibet, and Qinghai have joint degree programs.  Most of the Ivy League schools are sponsoring stand-alone research centers in China while three American universities – NYU, Duke, and Kean – have established comprehensive, joint venture, independent Chinese universities.  The Schwarzman College, a fully American-funded graduate school, has just opened at Tsinghua University this fall.1

The sheer scale is hard to grasp. But beyond the scale I would like to note three key factors.

First, the importance of science. Since 1980 more than 90,000 Chinese have received Ph.D. degrees in the United States, approximately 70 percent in the STEM fields, and approximately 80 percent have stayed in the United States, contributing significantly to U.S. human capital needs.  This has not necessarily limited their contributions to Chinese higher education and research.  Telecommunications and the ease of trans-Pacific travel have changed the context of global knowledge creation: the boundaries between national and international science are far more blurred.  Given these numbers and the extensive bilateral institutional research projects, it is not surprising that for both countries, scientific collaboration has been the most important result of the educational relationship.  Richard P. Suttmeier, the foremost American student of the scientific relationship, has concluded that, “Measured by co-authored scientific research papers, U.S. collaboration now exceeds collaboration with traditional partners such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan.  China and the United States have become each other’s main partner in scientific collaboration.” (Italics added.) 2

Second, some limitations in the fields of social science and the humanities.  Almost all of the joint-degree programs are in scientific fields, and only a small percentage (c. seven percent) of Chinese students in the U.S. are in these fields.  During the last three decades, American scholars have learned a great deal about China, historically and today.  Information about Chinese history, economy and government has been passed on to American higher education and the broader public.  The Chinese study of the United States has, however, been rather limited.  Given the importance of our bilateral relationship one hopes that Chinese attention to the study of the United States, including more accurate high school and college textbooks, could be accomplished.  The United States would welcome more Chinese students and scholars studying the United States.

Third, although student exchanges receive the most attention, it is arguable that institutional partnerships are more significant. For both countries, their institutional partnerships with each other greatly outnumber those with other countries.  Some are superficial but one increasingly finds dual-degree programs and significant collaborative research.

Of particular significance are the ways in which two American university models – the liberal arts college and the research university – are influencing China’s education sector. In 2012 leading American, Chinese, and European university leaders signed “The Hefei Statement on Ten Characteristics of Research Universities.”  While recognizing national difference, the university leaders concurred on key attributes including academic freedom, tolerance of competing views, and open and transparent governance.

Looking to the future, let me suggest an emerging new paradigm in Sino-American education relations.  I look forward to your critique of these ideas.

First, the education relationship is no longer asymmetrical; it is becoming symmetrical.  Gone are the days when China needed American educational assistance. Gone are the days when American faculty were always the senior partners in research collaboration.  China is creating world-class universities and Chinese funds are building and sustaining the new joint venture universities in China.  No longer do American universities provide free rides for underprivileged Chinese students. They now seek self-paying Chinese students.  In 2015 these contributed $9.8 billion to the American economy.

Second, for the first time China is directly participating in research and education in America.  In 2015 Tsinghua University, the University of Washington, and Microsoft announced the creation of a new research and education institution in Seattle, the first such bilateral venture in the United States.  Ten years earlier, the Chinese government-funded education agency, Hanban, began funding Confucius Institutes in American universities. Today there are perhaps 100.

The third change is ideological. In 2014 the Minister of Education called for a rejection of western learning and subsequent government documents have reinforced the importance of Marxist ideology and patriotic education.  This rhetoric, which appears to exclude American values, has already had a chilling effect on some educational programs.

Taken together these three factors – the advent of Chinese world-class scholars and universities, the entry of China into the domestic American educational world, and China’s current ideological campaign – point to a more complex and potentially contentious future.  To offset this pessimism let me also point to ways in which the U.S.-China educational relationship can continue to flourish.

First, both countries are experiencing the presence of new institutional models introduced from each other.  There is every indication that these will include educational innovations that will benefit higher education universally.  In 2018 Duke Kunshan University will introduce a new undergraduate curriculum that may well become a transformative model for both countries.  The Tsinghua collaboration with the University of Washington and Microsoft introduces a new model of industry/university cooperation that could well have a broader influence.  In collaboration with Tianjin City, The Julliard School will introduce a music academy in 2018 that truly is of world renown. The sometimes-criticized Confucius Institutes are innovative university partnerships that promote linguistic and cultural collaboration.

Second, at a time of growing competition between the two countries, the extensive bilateral educational relationship takes on a new strategic role – for both countries.  The growing parity between the educational and scientific establishments makes the China connection much more valuable for the United States.  Americans must learn to welcome a more symmetrical relationship in which we have much to gain as well as to give. With its many collaborative programs in China, American scholars are well positioned to collaborate with Chinese scholars in forefront fields.  Already the fields of medicine, environment, geology, and climate change are benefitting from this bilateral collaboration.

Finally, the educational relationship is in the DNA of U.S.-China relations, a strand of DNA that has served both countries well, during the Qing, Republican, and People’s Republic eras.  This relationship has survived earlier periods in which China has questioned western education.  China’s quest to form a distinctly Chinese modern education system is central to its modern history.  We need to learn more about this emerging model.  And, I believe we share more educational values than some realize.  While I was vice chancellor at Duke Kunshan University, I always talked about a cluster of values: academic freedom, academic responsibility, and academic integrity.  My Chinese counterparts loved Duke’s motto: knowledge in service to society.  Chinese educators understand that all of these values are central to the success of the vibrant American educational model.  Academic freedom and university autonomy are frequently discussed in educational circles.  China cannot expect American educators to abandon their core values, nor should Americans expect Chinese universities to “become just like us.” A new Chinese model is emerging, one that draws on historic Confucian as well as more recent Marxist and western influences.

  1. Open Doors Report on International Education Exchange, 2015; “Doctorates Awarded to citizens of the People’s Republic of China, by doctoral field of study, 1980-2013,” National Science Foundation; Susan Lawrence, Testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations, June 25, 2015; Chang Xiaolin, Vice Chancellor for Government Affairs, Duke Kunshan University.
  2. Richard P. Suttmeier, “Trends in U.S. – China Science and Technology Cooperation: Collaborative Knowledge Production for the Twenty-First Century?” Research Report Prepared on Behalf of the U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission, September 9, 2014, 4.