In March 2011, according to an AP article, China’s Ministry of Education is reporting that the number of foreign students in the country reached a record high of more than 265,090 in 2010, with students from 194 countries studying in China. That represented a jump of 8 percent from the 240,000 students in 2009. There were 141,097 foreign students at Chinese universities in 2005 up from near zero in 1980. [Source: AP, March 4, 2011]

As part of its “soft power” initiative to win friends and influence people China is expanding the enrollment of foreign students at its universities. China’s government encourages cooperation between Chinese and foreign universities. China is seeking “more substantive, productive and enduring partnerships,” Liu Yanshen, a Chinese Ministry of Education official, said in aspeech in New York.

In 2005, for the first time the number of foreign Students studying in China (141,097) exceeded the number the Chinese students studying abroad (120,000). Among those studying in China were 57,000 South Koreans, 18,000 Japanese, 11,000 Americans, 7,000 Vietnamese, and 5,000 Indonesians. Under the 100,000 Strong Initiative, the White House aims to have at least that many American students studying in China.

U.S. Students Losing Interest in China

There was a lot of the enthusiasm at first by American students about studying in China and learning the language but by the early and mid 2010s interest was declining fast. Reuters reported: American students are getting cold feet about studying Chinese in China, with many study abroad programs in the country seeing a substantial drop in enrolment over the last few years. At the University of California Education Abroad Program (UCEAP), student enrolment in programs in China is expected to be less than half the level it was only four years ago. Washington-based CET, another leading study abroad group, says interest in China has been falling since 2013. [Source: Alexandra Harney Reuters, March 12, 2015]

“The Institute of International Education says the number of U.S. students studying in China fell 3.2 percent in 2012-13 to 14,413, even as overall study abroad numbers rose modestly. For U.S. students, China's notorious pollution is a concern. Job opportunities are another. As multinationals in China hire mostly local Chinese, a growing percentage of whom have studied abroad, they have less need for foreigners who speak Chinese. "I came to China thinking I could learn Chinese and get a high paying job. I learned very quickly that was not the case," said Ian Weissgerber, a 25-year-old American graduate student in China. "A lot of Chinese can speak English just as well as I can, and Chinese is their native tongue too."

“Gordon Schaeffer, research director at UCEAP, says surveys suggest the decline in study abroad programs in China might also reflect students' migration to science and technology majors, where courses need to be taken in sequence. Some study abroad executives say a move toward more direct enrolment in Chinese universities could also, in part, account for fewer students taking traditional programs that typically offer a summer or semester overseas. When students do come to China, they are increasingly coming for shorter periods of time, and often for trips that involve more travel than language study, study abroad executives say.

“Enrolment in entry level Chinese is almost half the level of 2007 at Middlebury College, a private liberal arts college in Vermont renowned for its language instruction. In 2014, total Chinese enrollment was "the lowest in a decade", said Professor Thomas Moran, chair of Middlebury's Chinese department.

“Between 2002 and 2006, Chinese language study at U.S. institutes of higher education leapt 50 percent, according to the Modern Language Association (MLA); it grew a further 16 percent between 2006 and 2009. But from 2009 to 2013, growth in enrolment had slowed to just 2 percent, an MLA study released last month shows. Enrolment in all foreign language courses at U.S. higher education institutions fell 6.7 percent between 2009 and 2013, according to the MLA study.

“"It really comes down to money," says John Thomson, a veteran China study abroad executive. "You're taking yourself out of the job market for a couple years to study an extremely difficult language with no guaranteed pay-off at the end."

Foreign Universities with Campuses in China

A number of colleges and universities, including Cornell, Yale and the London School of Economics, established dual-degree programs or enhanced academic collaboration with Chinese universities. The Hopkins-Nanjing Center opened in 1986 as the first campus jointly run by U.S. and Chinese universities.The University of Nottingham, Ningpo opened in 2005. It offers English-language the courses that are almost identical to those at the university’s British campus. At least a dozen private and public U.S. colleges either have or planned campuses in China.

Duke University and New York University opened campuses in China. The University of Chicago opened a research center in Beijing in 2010, and Stanford University opened one soon afterwards. Daniel Golden and Oliver Staley wrote in Bloomberg, Excluding those initiatives, 18 foreign universities, including nine from the U.S., have branch campuses in China and Hong Kong, up from 14 in 2009 and zero in 2002, according to the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, a U.K. research group. The Chinese government, along with philanthropy and tuition, will pay for the New York University campus slated to open in Shanghai in 2013, the school’s president, John Sexton, said. [Source: Daniel Golden and Oliver Staley, Bloomberg August 10, 2011]

More than 60 U.S. colleges since 2004 have accepted tens of millions of dollars from the Office of Chinese Language Council International, a government-affiliated body known as the Hanban to establish Confucius Institutes for the study of Chinese language and culture. Restrictions on academic freedom may become an increasing pitfall as U.S. colleges expand their ties with China, according to administrators involved in joint programs.

Columbia University also has a program in China. “To help students make the cultural leap — as well as to internationalize their institutions — colleges and universities are building programs that begin in China and end, hopefully, on an American campus,” Dan Levin wrote in the New York Times. “Teachers College of Columbia University has started a program for high school seniors (in China, much of the last year is spent reviewing for a college entrance exam, though curriculum varies). This year, the program’s first, 28 students spent six months at the University of International Relations in Beijing; 19 were found qualified to finish off the year at Columbia. The program preps students to apply as freshmen, with a focus on English instruction, cultural immersion and counseling, including study for the Test of English as a Foreign Language and SAT, and a tour of campuses in the Northeast. (Total cost: about $45,000, including room and board.) [Source: Dan Levin, New York Times, November 5 2010]

Hopkins-Nanjing Center at Nanjing University

“In 1986, Johns Hopkins University opened a study center in Nanjing University, making it the first American institution of higher education allowed to establish a physical presence in China during the Communist era. Hopkins insisted the center should safeguard academic freedom in the classroom, with a library giving students access to the same materials as in the U.S., said George Packard, former dean of Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, who helped negotiate the deal. [Source: Oliver Staley and Daniel Golden, Bloomberg, December 6, 2011]

Oliver Staley and Daniel Golden wrote in Bloomberg: Tuition covers most of the center’s cost, President Daniels said. The center charges international students $22,000 for a certificate and $36,000 a year for a master’s, plus housing. Nanjing University paid two-thirds of a $25 million-plus physical expansion completed in August 2006, said Robert Daly, co-director from 2001-2007. China mandates political-study courses in such topics as the ideology of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, Daly said. While Hopkins-Nanjing was exempted from this requirement, other joint campuses may have to grapple with it, he said.

The Hopkins-Nanjing Center occupies a 10-story tower of brick and glass within a gated compound on the northwest corner of the Nanjing University campus. “They probably have the strictest security on campus,” said Man Fang, 24, a Nanjing University student. The center, which grants one-year certificates and two-year master’s degrees, has 164 students. Half of them are Chinese, and most of the rest are American. Chinese students take courses in English and international students in Mandarin.

The Hopkins-Nanjing Center is a model for a growing number of U.S. colleges, including Duke University and New York University, which are establishing footholds in China. As the newcomers take advantage of multimillion-dollar subsidies from China, they may jeopardize the intellectual give-and-take that characterizes American higher education, said June Teufel Dreyer, a University of Miami political science professor and China specialist. “In their enthusiasm to be part of the Chinese educational picture, American universities may be ceding some measure of their independence to avoid offending the government,” Dreyer said.

The Hopkins-Nanjing Center has achieved its goal of being a “safe place” where Chinese and American students can debate controversial aspects of both societies, Johns Hopkins President Ronald Daniels said. “Is it what we would desire for every project, every center we’re involved in?” Daniels asked. “The answer is no. We would hope over time that the scope for discussion can extend beyond the center.”

New York University in Shanghai

Oliver Staley and Daniel Golden wrote in Bloomberg: New York University plans to open a liberal arts campus in 2013 in Shanghai, where the municipal government, along with tuition and philanthropy, will cover the expense, President John Sexton said. Students and faculty at the new campus shouldn’t assume they can criticize government leaders or policies without repercussions, Sexton said in his office in Manhattan’s Washington Square. “I have no trouble distinguishing between rights of academic freedom and rights of political expression,” he said. “These are two different things.” [Source: Oliver Staley and Daniel Golden, Bloomberg, December 6, 2011]

The ministry of education assured Sexton that the university can manage its academic program as it sees fit, he said. “If it gets to a point where we feel that our core and essence is being compromised, we can leave without having jeopardized” the university’s finances or reputation.

Restrictions on academic freedom helped trip up a prior NYU collaboration in China. In 2006, officials at Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s law school asked NYU law professor Jerome A. Cohen to start a joint law center. Cohen has studied China since the 1960s and met leaders such as Zhou Enlai and Deng. After retiring from law practice, he began pushing to reform China’s criminal justice system.

“I may cause you nothing but trouble,” Cohen told Jiao Tong administrators. They reassured Cohen of their support. Then the Jiao Tong administrator who had pushed for the center died, and party representatives began to criticize the program, Cohen said. “It became clear that things would go better if I resigned as head of the NYU side,” he said. “I didn’t step down because it was a matter of principle.” The three-year agreement between the two universities wasn’t renewed. “We just let it drop,” Cohen said.

The Jiao Tong program was “fairly small,” said NYU spokesman John Beckman. At NYU’s study-abroad site in Shanghai, professors haven’t had issues with academic freedom, he said. During early discussions with NYU, Chinese officials mentioned a requirement for a Chinese study course, said May Lee, NYU’s associate vice chancellor for Asia. Two British schools fulfill that mandate at their China campuses with standard history courses, she said. NYU would not teach anything it objected to, Sexton said.

Duke University in China

Founded in 2013, Duke Kunshan University is a partnership of Duke University in the United States, Wuhan University in China, and Chinese city of Kunshan, Jiangsu province, where its campus is located. According to Time Higher Education: The academic pedagogy at Duke Kunshan features interdisciplinary approaches, engagement with research and collaborative learning. Wuhan University is one of the most prestigious and selective public universities in China. Founded in 1893, the university is among the oldest in China.Wuhan University enjoys partnerships with more than 400 universities and research institutes in over 70 countries and regions, and its more than 500,000 alumni include at least 100 members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering.

Duke University has pushed back the opening of its campus in Kunshan because of construction delays and communication problems, according to The Chronicle, Duke’s student newspaper. Some Duke professors have questioned the effort to open the campus, raising concerns about academic freedom in China and the project’s finances.

The city of Kunshan, 40 miles west of Shanghai, spent an estimated $260 million to build a new university jointly run by Duke and Wuhan University. Duke’s share of planning and operating expenses were s expected to be $43 million over six years. Neither Duke nor NYU has an agreement specifying what kinds of speech will be permitted at their campuses.”We know China does not observe the same norms of First Amendment rights that we’re used to in this country,” Duke President Richard Brodhead said in his office in Durham, North Carolina. “If you want to engage in China, you have to acknowledge that fact.” “We haven’t negotiated in advance about such things,” Brodhead said. “We’ve made it clear that we have values and principles and if it becomes untenable, we have an exit clause.” [Source: Oliver Staley and Daniel Golden, Bloomberg, December 6, 2011]

Harvard in China

As of 2009, there were 36 Chinese undergraduate at Harvard with a much larger number of graduate students there. Harvard is a big deal in China. There is a Harvard Kindergarten, a Harvard Graphic Arts School and even a Harvard beauty School in Shanghai. Among the titles with Harvard in its name are “You Too Can Go To Harvard: Secrets of Getting Into Famous U.S. Universities”. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, July 2010]

When Chang Shua go her acceptance letter from Harvard in 2010 she became an instant celebrity, A publisher offered he a book deal, people wanted her autograph. A local newspaper attributed her success to her extracurricular activities in an article entitled “Magic Girl Danced Ger Way Into Harvard.” Chang herself attributed her success in part to English skills and said she was happy about her acceptance because it allowed her to escape the grind of studying for the Chinese college entrance exam. Chang attended at top high school in Shanghai and spent some time at an American high school in Seattle. She danced with a student troupe that toured France, Australia and North Korea and was rejected early admission to Yale.

In March 2011, Harvard University launched the Harvard Center Shanghai, a new research and training site. Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust showed up for the opening. He told The New Yorker: “We’ve had a doubling in the number of our undergraduates who undertake a significant international experiences during their time at Harvard. We’ve had a twenty percent increase in the number of international students who come to Harvard over the last decade. So now, twenty percent of all students, across all schools, are international in origin. We find also that our faculty are much more likely to be engaged, just in the normal course of exploring intellectual problems, with international dimensions of those problems.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker website, March 19, 2011]

Evan Osnos wrote on the The New Yorker website: “To coincide with the opening of the Shanghai center, Harvard Magazine has published “Changing, Challenging China,” a discussion among a handful of China watchers. Harvard has taped one of its most popular courses on the region, “China: Traditions and Transformations,” long known as the Rice Paddies course — and put it online, with a number of others, all for free — to mark the hundredth anniversary of the extension school.

Lack of Academic Freedom Experienced by U.S. Universities in China

Oliver Staley and Daniel Golden wrote in Bloomberg: The most recent written version of the agreement pertaining to academic freedom at Hopkins-Nanjing Center, from 2005, formalizes the concept of the campus as a sanctuary: “Within the HNC, no student, faculty member, research fellow, administrator, or visitor will be restricted in formal or casual speech, writing, access to research materials, or selection of research, lecture, or presentation topics.” This approach precluded publications circulating outside the center, Daly said. “To have a voice reflective of the center would be to push the freedoms outside,” he said. American students at Hopkins-Nanjing said they discuss sensitive subjects in class — and recognize the hazards of doing so outside it. “It’s been very interesting to engage with the professors on topics that are somewhat taboo in China,” said Daniel Stein, 26, from New York. [Source: Oliver Staley and Daniel Golden, Bloomberg, December 6, 2011]

Brendon Stewart learned how the “protected space” agreement works in practice. A native of Albuquerque, New Mexico, he enrolled at Hopkins-Nanjing after a stint in the Peace Corps in Lanzhou, China. Stewart began his journal late in 2009 to inject some vitality into a torpid campus, he said. The bilingual journal would show off the center’s finest scholarship in Chinese history and politics and would be sent to donors and prospective students. “If you want to start a journal at an American university, you just start it,” Stewart said. “We thought we were adding value. We were like, Oh How does this not exist?”

“You think you’re going to a place that has academic freedom, and maybe in theory you do, but in reality you don’t,” said Stewart, 27, who earned a master’s degree in international studies this year from Hopkins-Nanjing and now works for an accounting firm in Beijing. “The place is run by Chinese administrators, and I don’t think the U.S. side had a lot of bargaining power to protect the interests of its students. At the end of the day, it’s a campus on Chinese soil.”

Difficulties Trying to Launch a Journal and a Film About Tiananmen Square at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center

Oliver Staley and Daniel Golden wrote in Bloomberg: In the 25 years Johns Hopkins University and Nanjing University have run a joint campus in China, it’s never published an academic journal. When American student Brendon Stewart tried in 2010, , he found out why. Intended to showcase the best work by Chinese and American students and faculty to a far-flung audience, Stewart’s journal broke the Hopkins-Nanjing Center’s rules that confine academic freedom to the classroom. Administrators prevented the journal from circulating outside campus, and a student was pressured to withdraw an article about Chinese protest movements. About 75 copies sat in a box in Stewart’s dorm room for a year. [Source: Oliver Staley and Daniel Golden, Bloomberg, December 6, 2011]

Encouraged by Jan Kiely, then American co-director of the center, Stewart began soliciting articles from students and faculty, aiming for equal Chinese and U.S. representation. “I didn’t foresee the way it was to become a problem,” Kiely said. Still, he and Chinese administrators rejected Stewart’s request for 3,000 yuan ($470) to print the journal. The center rarely funds student projects, Kiely said. On Kiely’s advice, Stewart asked HNC alumni for donations, and he received an anonymous gift from an American alumnus in China.

Shortly before the journal was to be published, an American student, posted a one-page essay denouncing the Communist party on a white board outside the cafeteria. The essay soured the atmosphere at the center, Stewart said. The student did not respond to e-mails. Days later, a Chinese professor withdrew an article he had submitted about the financial crisis. Stewart then heard a rumor that all the Chinese students with articles in the journal wanted them removed because they were afraid it would reflect the student’s political views. To reassure them, Stewart showed them the galleys. The word came back that they were all very sorry because they saw how hard we worked, but the powers that be wouldn’t allow them to participate,” said Stewart. Most of the Chinese students involved in editing and layout asked Stewart to remove their names. He complied. Chinese authorities at Hopkins-Nanjing were worried that a student-produced journal would draw unwanted attention to the center’s special protected status, Kiely said. Huang Chengfeng, the Chinese co-director of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, declined an interview request.

Administrators told Stewart that he could publish his journal if he submitted it for their review and limited circulation to students and center personnel, he said. They removed the word “center” from the journal’s title so that it didn’t appear to be an official publication, he said. Many of the 300 printed copies were never distributed, Stewart said. “I learned some incredible lessons about how the system works,” he said. “I got a lot more cynical.” The muzzling of Stewart’s journal exposes the compromises to academic freedom that some American universities make in China. While professors and students openly discuss sensitive subjects such as the Tibetan independence movement or the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests on the Hopkins-Nanjing campus, they can’t do so in the surrounding community. Even on-campus protections only cover class discussions, not activities typical of U.S. campuses, such as showing documentary films in a student lounge.

Administrators also intervened on the eve of the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square in 2009, when students discussed the uprisings in an online Google group. One American student, who asked not to be named, offered to screen a 1995 Chinese- language documentary about the protests, “The Gate of Heavenly Peace,” which he had saved on his laptop.”Everyone was debating about this and I said, OHow about we set up a time to watch the documentary and have a discussion,” the student said. About a dozen American and Chinese students and their Chinese guests gathered one Saturday evening in the lounge on the center’s second floor. Once the film began, an American administrator said they couldn’t watch it there. They finished their viewing in the organizer’s dorm room. Chinese police monitoring the Internet conversation had alerted the center’s Chinese administrators, who contacted their American counterparts, Kiely said. The Chinese reaction was “heavy handed,” he said. “Something like that of course makes them very nervous.” It was “inappropriate” to show a video banned in China to an audience that included Chinese visitors unaffiliated with the center, said Felisa Neuringer Klubes, spokeswoman for Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies. The video is available to faculty, staff and students in the library, she said.

Cornell and Stanford Shut Down Their Programs in China

In 2012, Stanford University opened a $7 million research center on the Peking University campus. In 2017, it announced it was suspending its Beijing study abroad program indefinitely. The Stanford Daily reported: “The Beijing program, which allows undergraduate students to study at Peking University, one of China’s leading research institutes, was established in 2004. Enrollment, which was high at first and able to fill the 20 to 30 slots each year, steadily declined over time. In the spring of 2016, only eight students participated in the program. [Source: Lisa Wang,The Stanford Daily, January 18, 2017]

“Ramón Saldívar, director of the Bing Overseas Studies Program (BOSP), attempted to make the program more accessible by eliminating the Mandarin language prerequisite, but that did not improve enrollment. “In our various pilot programs around the world, when we reduced the language requirement or removed it altogether, enrollments shot up,” Saldívar said. “In the case of the Beijing program, though, it didn’t have any effect.” Priyanka Sekhar ’17, who studied in Beijing during the fall quarter of 2015, was one of the students who signed up due to the absence of the language prerequisite. While there, however, she noticed that some aspects of the program differed from what she had expected. “When we got there, it was a little disorganized,” Sekhar explained. “I felt like it was a little chaotic on the part of the administrators. A lot of the events we did weren’t with Stanford — we would kind of plan our own things.”

In 2018, Cornell halted its ties with Renmin University in China over curbs on academic freedom The Financial Times reported: “The move came after several students of Renmin, a top ranked Chinese institution, said they were punished by the school for speaking out online about workers’ rights and for supporting workers’ attempts to unionise in the manufacturing hub of Shenzhen this summer, Cornell told the Financial Times. “Cornell’s ILR school began its partnership with Renmin’s school of labour in 2014, and the two are often ranked as the best such schools in their respective countries.[Source: Yuan Yuan Financial Times, October 27, 2018]

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2022

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