In December, I traveled to China to speak at Duke Kunshan University, the liberal arts and research campus opened by Duke just outside of Shanghai.
I was there to speak at a conference on 40 years of Sino-American higher education cooperation, and the theme couldn’t have been more timely. Just as the meeting opened, Chinese officials signaled a willingness to expand partnerships between Chinese universities and their foreign counterparts.
The same week, several Chinese universities, including Fudan University, one of the country’s most prominent, abruptly modified their institutional charters, deleting language about freedom of thought from their bylaws and pledging loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. It is the latest development in what has become an increasingly restrictive environment
for Chinese higher education under President Xi Jinping.
The move to curb universities’ academic independence alarmed American institutions, like Duke, that operate joint campuses there. (Duke’s Chinese partner, Wuhan University, did not change its charter.) Denis Simon, Duke Kunshan’s executive vice chancellor and my host, said that the university hasn’t faced governmental interference since it was established in 2013. But he told the Wall Street Journal
“Basically it’s a game of vigilance. I would be less than honest if I said we don’t have some concerns.”
Most American colleges don’t have full-fledged campuses in China, of course. Still, find me a college that doesn’t have some significant relationship – joint academic programs, collaborative research, student exchange – with China. The actions the Chinese government takes affect American universities – just as surely as does the growing suspicion in Washington, D.C. of Sino-American partnerships.
Yet, while much of the three-day meeting focused on the tensions that roil and threaten to disrupt U.S.-Chinese academic relationships, it was also possible to step back and see how critical four decade of openness, of what one speaker called “constructive engagement,” have been to universities and to both countries as a whole.
I could tick off the joint research projects, the intellectual discoveries, but to me, one of the most profound effects, as always, can be seen in the students. I was lucky enough to get to spend a lot of time at DKU talking with student volunteers – and in particular, with my assistant for the week, Christine Sui, a freshman from Zhenjiang – and I found them endlessly thoughtful, about education, about China, about the world around them.
I always want to be careful about over-ascribing the impact that individual institutions like Duke Kunshan can have, as islands
in broader systems, but as Brandon Conlon, who teaches at another joint campus, NYU-Shanghai, said,
“We’re impacting individuals who feel like they can have an impact on the system.”
And that’s a reminder of the costs of taking one step back.
It’s a new year. Have new ideas of stories I ought to be covering? Drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.