Yet Another Sino-US Confrontation: This Time over Education Affairs

Prof. Chintamani Mahapatra
April 7, 2019

Subtly but surely education Policy is emerging as a new area of confrontation between the United States and China, as the existing and emerging superpower seek to promote their respective versions of ideals and values in the rest of the world.

For long, the United States has been the most attractive place in the world for international students and researchers to go, study, and do research in almost all areas of academic subjects. Many of them would stay back in the US for a few years and work before returning home, some would seek green card or even citizenships, but those who returned home also contributed towards betterment of their countries in their respective fields.

Significantly, the US-returned would become important points of contact for the American government, businesses or even universities. This is how the US investment in fellowships and grants to foreign students helped in promoting interests of that country around the world.

Education has increasingly become a commodity for import and export in last couple of decades in the new contexts of the post- Cold War era. Some European countries, Canada and Australia began to aggressively market education abroad. As the rich and the affluent in developing countries, particularly China and India, were able to finance education of their children abroad, there was windfall for the education providers in western countries and Australia. It benefited universities that found their budget declining due to reduced funding from their governments or because of recessionary periods.

Education, combined with culture, served as effective diplomatic tools as well. In last several years, the world has witnessed a new phenomenon. China has begun a very aggressive drive to promote its version of ideals, culture and values. Since 2004, Beijing has a mission to set up Confucius Institutes in various parts of the world.

The stated goal is to help local students learn Chinese language, literature and culture. While the traditional educational hubs, such as US, UK, Canada, Australia and a few other countries have focused on encouraging their respective universities to establish campuses in other countries, China has been trying to provide education free by fully funding Confucius Institutes in various parts of the globe.

It was a Chinese master stroke. At a time when other countries made strenuous efforts to understand China more to do better business with a fast rising economic powerhouse, it was not easy for educating their students in Chinese language. China then took steps to provide the same at door steps of many countries. It is notable that more than 500 Confucius Institutes have already been established in about 140 countries. It is a commendable success of a mission that was launched only about 15 years ago.

That success now faces big challenges and China is yet to be able to come to terms with it. Several of the universities in the United States now are in the process of dismantling the Confucius Institutes. The reason is interesting. China is accused of seeking to “indoctrinate” the students, propagate its culture and values and more curiously discourage any criticism of Chinese policies.

Some universities in the United States reportedly are facing the agents of Federal Bureau of Investigation to explain the funds that they have received from China. In the midst of these developments, President Donald Trump has accused Chinese students in the US as spies trying to steal industrial and technological secrets.

Chinese students constitute about a third of all foreign students studying in various American universities. And all of them finance their own education. Significantly, the US earned about 39 billion dollars from international students last year and China’s contribution was substantial.

While some Chinese students have started returning home and new potential Chinese students feel discouraged from applying to US universities, closing of Confucius Institutes must have angered the Chinese Government. China is yet to respond. China also gives scholarships to thousands of international students under the same scheme. A large number of American students study in Chinese universities. Will China ban American students? Will China just explain and clarify its intentions and not retaliate? Nothing is known yet. Nor can one speculate now.

What seems certain is inclusion of education affairs in the menu that lists areas of cold-confrontation between the sole superpower and the aspiring one. China seems so preoccupied in its perceived trade confrontation with the US that it may not give priority to education affairs. But it is unlikely to ignore this for simple reason that the American suspicion may spread to other countries. As a matter of fact, China is already facing the heat in Australia. There are reported allegations that China through its education policy is trying to influence decision making in Australia.

Developments in this unfolding Sino-US Cold Confrontation needs careful watch and monitoring.