Yung Wing was the first Chinese student admitted to Yale. And he returned to imperial China in 1854 determined to encourage other Chinese to study in the United States. After nearly two decades of lobbying by Yung, the Qing government finally agreed to send other students abroad and the Chinese Educational Mission began dispatching about 125 boys – aged 10 to 15 – to the US from 1872. A quarter of those kids made it to Ivy League schools. Some even befriended Mark Twain. Many of them would become influential figures after returning home, including Tang Shaoyi, the first premier of the Republic of China, and Jeme Tien Yow, dubbed “the “father of China’s railroad”.
American politicians and businessmen saw the Chinese Educational Mission as a way of communicating the values of a young American republic to imperial China. Thus when the Qing government halted the programme in 1881, there was huge disappointment. “This action is sincerely regretted here,” the New York Times wrote at the time. “It seems to those who had become interested in the mission a serious step backward on the part of the Chinese Empire.”
The Americans soon rekindled the educational link, although in less friendly circumstances. Following the payment of an indemnity after the Boxer Rebellion of 1898, Liang Cheng, the Qing representative in Washington (and an alumnus of the Chinese Educational Mission), campaigned to pressure Theodore Roosevelt’s administration to return some of the money. He agreed, but only if the difference went to fund Chinese student education in the US.
The result was the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship. Again, the programme boosted a glittering list of alumni, including the likes of Franklin Yang (a Nobel laureate in physics) and Qian Xuesen (dubbed the “father’ of China’s space programme”, see WiC38). The Beijing preparatory school that was established as a feeder for the programme later developed into Tsinghua University, one of China’s leading universities today.
Today, the progress of educational exchange between the two countries is uneven. A State Department report late last year suggested that the number of Chinese students in American colleges had jumped 21% to 235,000 for the 2012-2013 school year, or 29% of the international student population in the US. By contrast, the report found that only 14,887 Americans were studying in China in 2011/12.
It is now Beijing’s wish to attract more foreign pupils in the hope that they will look more favourably on China and its values, in the same way that the American promoters of the Chinese Educational Mission first hoped for their programme. But such reverse traffic doesn’t sit comfortably with many in the US academic community. In late June, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) called on colleges to uphold academic freedom by either terminating or renegotiating agreements with nearly 100 Confucius Institutes now housed on American campuses. “Occasionally university administrations have entered into partnerships that sacrificed the integrity of the university,” the association wrote. “Confucius Institutes function as an arm of the Chinese state and are allowed to ignore academic freedom.”
Xinhua reported in March last year that nearly 10,000 professional teachers and volunteers have been sent overseas to assist Confucius Institute programmes. In over 100 countries there are now more than 400 Confucius Institutes, named after the Chinese teacher and philosopher. Hanban, the body that overseas the institutes, wants the number to grow to 1,000 by 2015 with 1.5 million registered students.
Universities around the world have been embracing the programme as a cost-effective way to offer Chinese language and cultural education. According to media coverage, universities partner with a Chinese school to establish the programmes, with the host institution providing space and an administrator in exchange for $100,000 or more yearly from Hanban, as well as text books. Teachers receive a monthly salary from the Chinese government of $1,500 to $2,100.
But the Washington Post was one of a number of newspapers to warn that these “free lunches” should not “come at the expense of free speech”. It also pointed out that, on at least one occasion, an invitation made to a high-profile speaker had been cancelled by a US university at the request of its Chinese partner.
The AAUP has advised universities to cut ties with the institutes unless agreements with Hanban are rewritten to give the universities control over teachers, curriculum and texts, and Confucius Institute teachers get the same academic freedoms as other university faculty.
The Canadian Association of University Teachers released a similar statement last December asking schools to sever ties with the Confucius Institutes on similar concerns about academic freedom.
Xinhua hit back with an angry editorial arguing that the shaping of traditional Chinese culture over thousands of years has little relationship with Communism. “Such claims expose not so much Communist propaganda as their own intolerance of exotic cultures and biased preconceived notions to smear and isolate the Chinese Communist Party,” it insisted.
Elsewhere, the attempts to deepen international educational exchange with China are ongoing. Peking University (or Beida) said last month that it is looking to recruit 100 postgraduate students for a one-year masters programme on Chinese studies at its new Yenching Academy (Yenching is the old name for Beijing). Yenching scholars will receive a full scholarship, free accommodation and a stipend to cover living expenses. The academy wants 65 overseas students and 35 from China. The inaugural class will begin in September 2015
“It is the most ambitious academic initiative Beida has launched since the turn of the new century,” said Wang Enge, president of Beida. “The Yenching programme aims to cultivate world leaders who will make a difference in the world.”
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