Old school ties

China’s top university celebrates centenary

Old school ties

Celebrating the rigorous scholarship or the cheap beer?

Boxers rarely enjoy much of a reputation for educational achievement, but Tsinghua University in Beijing is an exceptional case.

Not for the contribution of the normal type of pugilist, though.

Tsinghua’s origins are linked directly to the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, and particularly its aftermath. Following the crushing of the revolt against foreign nationals living in China, the Qing government was forced into paying reparations of $330 million to the Western powers.

This led Liang Cheng, the Chinese ambassador to Washington at the time, to warn the Americans that paying the indemnity had “made our people hate foreigners and that might bring disasters and thus upset China’s foreign trade, in which American merchants have an important stake.”

The US seems to have agreed, remitting part of its own indemnity payment to establish a preparatory school for students who would pursue further studies in America.

Last week saw the centennial celebrations of Tsinghua’s 1911 founding, although it was not until 1925 that the university itself was established at the same location.

If they were hopeful of a little gratitude down the road, the Americans were to be disappointed. The school was originally established to use “the illusion of education” to exert greater influence on China, says Li Xiguang, dean of Tsinghua’s Centre for International Communication. But it matured to forge its own path, particularly in science and engineering, and has become “a rich source of both soft and hard power for China,” Li told state media earlier this month.

Certainly, a stint at the university opens up access to a powerful old boys network at home. China Economic Weekly reported this week that Rmb1.4 trillion (or 5%) of the market capitalisation of the Shenzhen and Shanghai stock exchanges is now derived from companies run by executives who have either graduated from Tsinghua or who have taught there. Oxford, Cambridge and the Ivy League might well claim similar influence in their respective countries but they have been around a lot longer – almost 10 times as long in the Oxbridge case.

The list of current bosses includes Ma Weihua, president of China Merchants Bank (an adjunct professor at Tsinghua), Chang Xiaobing, chairman of China Unicom (an MBA graduate) and Huang Dinan, president of Shanghai Electric (a physics grad). Other tech entrepreneurs who graduated from Tsinghua include Charles Zhang of Sohu and Feng Jun of Aigo.

Then there is the political angle. At least 32 alumni have served in elite roles, with the current roll call including Wu Bangguo, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, vice-president (and future Chinese leader) Xi Jinping, and former premier Zhu Rongji.

Also a Tsinghua man is Hu Jintao, a degree-holder in hydraulic engineering, who made the keynote address at the main centennial event last Sunday.

“When I studied in Tsinghua, the vigorous youth ideal and rigorous scholarship deeply nurtured us,” Hu remembered fondly, his student memories somewhat diverging from WiC’s preferred recollection of subsidised beer and sleeping till noon.

But amid all the plaudits, there was the occasional word of caution, including an opinion piece in the Global Times from Eric Fish, a current post-graduate student at the university.

Fish has probably waved a very public farewell to the Dean’s List with his observation that the celebrations mark a milestone but not necessarily success. Ten years ago Tsinghua had vowed to be “among the world’s premier universities” by its centennial year, he points out. But it continues to trail the leading group, sitting between 36th and 58th place, according to its scores in the different international rankings.

We have discussed the ranking of China’s leading universities before (WiC65) but Fish thinks Tsinghua needs to improve in two areas in particular. Although it talks up the international make-up of its student body, the reality is somewhat different. Domestic and international students live in separate dormitories, with foreign students barred from a number of programmes, even those fluent in Chinese. That limits the scope for the type of student interaction on offer at the world’s elite schools.

The school also needs to do more to boost its score in terms of academic citations (the mentions it gets for research work from other academics).

Like other Chinese universities, that means encouraging a climate of creative thought. It was also mentioned as a priority by Hu, who called for more scientific innovation.

With that in mind, WiC readers might wonder what Hu thinks of the current controversy across the road at Tsinghua’s great rival Peking University.

Last month, administrators announced a mentoring programme designed to control wayward students said to be showing signs of “radical thought” or “independent lifestyle” (WiC102).

Something, presumably, that Tsinghua’s original Boxers showed too.

Keeping track: In WiC104 we wrote about the centenary anniversary for China’s most prominent seat of higher education, Tsinghua. The university was in the news again this week, albeit more contentiously. On Monday, one of its classroom buildings got a new name. Business tycoons have long had buildings named after them when they make donations to universities, but in this case debate was stirred because the donor was a company, not a person. The goldcoloured plate on the former No4 Classroom Block now proclaims it the Jeanswest Clothing Building. A little too

commercial? The China Daily said the move had excited fierce debate among the student body. Jeanswest, a Hong

Kong firm, had given the university money for the building’s upkeep but as one anonymous postgraduate student

commented: “I think it’s improper to have the company’s name on a classroom building.” Another said it was

unbecoming of an elite institution. (27 May 2011)

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.