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Does China Have Anything to Fear from Foreign Universities? Not Exactly

9 minute read

Alyanna Felix wept when she realized she was going to New York University. They weren’t tears of joy. The Philippines-born New Yorker had unwittingly also ticked the boxes for NYU’s Shanghai and Abu Dhabi campuses on her college application form. In the end, it was the Shanghai campus that accepted her.

“I just burst into tears and said to my parents, ‘I’m going to go to China, aren’t I?’” Alyanna, 21, tells TIME in NYU Shanghai’s bustling cafeteria, as waves of dyed hair, piercings and pimples rush past. “I just never imagined myself going so far away. I consider myself a very family-oriented person.”

But Alyanna, dispelling tropes about mollycoddled millennials, has made the best of her situation. It was surprisingly easy. “I’ve loved it here from the very first second,” says the business and finance sophomore. “I was like, ‘this is why I’m doing this, I’m doing this for my future.’”

The number of American students studying abroad has more than tripled over the past two decades — breaching 325,000 for the first time in 2015/2016 — and reflects the growing importance of foreign languages and international experience to the globalized workplace. China is also welcoming soaring numbers of foreign students, who totaled an unprecedented 489,200 in 2017.

Meanwhile, Chinese students are also choosing to study abroad, eager to develop critical thinking skills often neglected at traditional Chinese universities. In 2017, 608,400 Chinese students pursued advanced studies overseas, according to official figures, a 12% increase year-on-year.

If they can’t make it overseas, they can apply to one of the scores of foreign universities that have opened Chinese campuses. Besides allowing foreign students to get to grips with a presumptive superpower, the new institutions give Chinese students the benefit of a Western liberal arts education close to home.

Founded in 2012, NYU Shanghai was the first joint-venture between an American and Chinese university, invited by authorities eager to revamp China’s higher learning system. Starting out with 300 students and some 40 faculty members, NYU Shanghai now boasts 1,400 students and 200 faculty across 16 gleaming floors in the Chinese mega-city’s financial district. Students can study 19 majors in the arts and sciences, business and finance, engineering and computer science.

Like all joint ventures, NYU Shanghai partners with a Chinese college — in this instance East China Normal University — but is a rarity in that it has its own campus. Half of NYU Shanghai’s students are Chinese and half are foreign, mainly from the U.S., but also 70-odd other nations.

Every foreign student is required to learn Mandarin and have a Chinese roommate for their first year. Most choose to keep that same roommate the following year. Aside from trifling cultural clashes over unfamiliar food or preferred air-conditioner settings, cohabitation can spark lively discussions. China’s record of quashing dissent and flouting human-rights is a frequent topic.

“As an American, we’re very focused on political activism and everyone should be able to vote,” says freshman Phoebe Ruth Harmon, 22, from Naperville, Il. Her Chinese roommate, however, believes “people don’t need to push to have a voice.”

But as China undergoes an ideological tightening under President Xi Jinping, and Beijing and Washington spar over trade and other issues, the position of foreign joint-ventures like NYU Shanghai appears increasingly precarious. In July, China’s Ministry of Education announced that 234 of more than 1,000 partnerships with foreign universities would close.

“There’s been a big, big push toward limiting the influence of foreign institutions operating within China,” says Jiang Xueqin, an educational consultant based in the central city of Chengdu. “This is entirely driven by the personality, the ideology and the values of one person.”

Although Xi’s own daughter studied at Harvard, he doesn’t share the enthusiasm of his predecessor for foreign institutes of learning. Under former President Hu Jintao, joint educational partnerships flourished. But in 2016, Xi declared that Chinese universities should become “strongholds of the party’s leadership” and warned against “Western influences.” Last month, China’s education ministry announced a “comprehensive” inspection of school textbooks to “correct and dispose of” unapproved or foreign content.

As such, the liberal arts pedagogy of NYU Shanghai, and joint ventures like it, appears diametrically at odds with the increasingly illiberal Chinese state that surrounds them. A quick glance at the NYU Shanghai library reveals stacks of politically heterodox material, including The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Fight for Justice and Freedom in China by exiled Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng.

The NYU Shanghai campus and dorms also have inbuilt virtual private network (VPN) software to circumvent China’s Great Firewall censorship, which renders Western websites like Google, Facebook, Twitter and, indeed, TIME, inaccessible. In August, Reddit, the self-styled “front page of the internet,” also found itself banned. Another 4,000 new websites were blocked last month.

“One of the first things I heard from a Chinese student when they got access to the VPN was that they looked up the Tiananmen Square incident,” says business and finance sophomore John Dopp, 21, referring to the bloody crackdown on student protesters in Beijing in 1989 that remains strictly censored.

But while some Chinese students are shocked by the information they can access freely on the NYU Shanghai campus, for others it’s nothing new. “I used to read the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and then one day I found these websites were blocked,” says Chen Gengyu, 18, a freshman from China’s Shanxi province. “I started to figure out why, so I built my own VPN and even watched videos on Youtube.”

Ground-Breaking Ceremony For NYU Shanghai
New York University president John Sexton and East China Normal University president Yu Lizhong pose with students at the ground-breaking ceremony for NYU Shanghai on March 28, 2011 in Shanghai, China.VCG—VCG via Getty Images

‘We already have our own views’

Despite China’s illiberal turn under Xi, NYU Shanghai Provost Joanna Waley-Cohen insists she has not experienced any government pressure. “I think they’re quite pleased with what we’re doing,” she says, adding that she believes “debate on campus is at least as free and frank as it is on any American campus.”

Still, in July a foreign academic was removed from the management board of the University of Nottingham Ningbo China for criticism of Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-backed policies. And since last year, all foreign joint ventures have been required to appoint a CCP secretary with a seat on the board, and to allow for internal CCP committees. At NYU Shanghai, that committee is chaired by the chancellor, Yu Lizhong.

Christian Grewell, assistant arts professor for interactive media and business at NYU Shanghai, says interfering with the free exchange of ideas and opinions ultimately stymies progress. He talks to TIME while helping a group of students use 3D cameras to film an expert player of the guzheng, a 16-stringed Chinese instrument rather like a zither. By putting tracking sensors on the performer’s fingers and limbs, students are investigating whether an algorithm can draw links between, and thus quickly identify, true “experts” compared with amateur performers.

It’s groundbreaking research in the field of Artificial Intelligence — one of the key strategic industries Beijing has its sights on dominating. But therein lies the rub. How can the Chinese government hope to foster a generation of disruptors in science and business but not expect them to critically appraise the society around them? What use is fostering critical thinking in a society that demands blind obedience?

Grewell, for one, says the state must eventually realize this contradiction and roll back restrictions to allow for innovation — the only way China will remain competitive. “Will there have to be a crisis in order for that to be realized?” he asks.

Others disagree. From the government’s perspective, says Jiang, China’s problem isn’t a lack of creativity, but too much disagreement and too much debate, especially between different provinces and locales. For China to thrive, the official line goes, it needs to remain strong and united under the enlightened leadership of the party. “From the perspective of Xi Jinping and the Communist Party there’s no contradiction at all,” he says.

The ongoing crackdown against foreign influences highlights the CCP’s deep angst regarding its own legitimacy. There’s little evidence, however, that exposure to democratic values leads to rejection of authoritarian rule — in China, at least. Besides the large number of Chinese students studying abroad, some 100 million Chinese travel overseas for work or vacation every year. But there has been no discernible groundswell of discontent as a consequence.

“Chinese people have a sense of positivity about the growth of their country, which contrasts to the feeling in America [that] things have kind of slipped out of hand,” says Anthony Comeau, 19, a political science major at NYU Shanghai.

Partisan bickering in Washington, and turmoil over Britain’s departure from the E.U., doesn’t engender admiration for Western democracy either, and many young Chinese are perfectly happy to throw their support behind a CCP that has hauled 700 million people out of poverty (although it must be said that it was the party’s ineptitude that partially created and certainly sustained that poverty to begin with.)

Even though discussion of human-rights and democracy is rare in today’s China, says NYU Shanghai student Zheng Yi, 18, that doesn’t mean Chinese people are ignorant. “Nobody is a fool, we already have our own views on these matters.”

So far, a liberal arts education, even if permitted to flourish in China, doesn’t appear to be the Trojan horse that the CCP fears it could become. And while foreign students at NYU Shanghai are getting a newfound appreciation for the Middle Kingdom’s 5,000 years of culture, that doesn’t mean that Chinese students are ingesting Western values in return—even if the sharing of ideas, and being receptive to new ways of thinking, are at the very heart of discovery and learning.

“I know that there are different [political] viewpoints out there,” says Zheng. “But hearing them won’t make me alter my own.”

—With reporting and video by Zhang Chi/Shanghai

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Write to Charlie Campbell / Shanghai at charlie.campbell@time.com