If I had been more inquisitive and worldly at the time, I would have wondered how it was that, among my students, there were 15 from China sent from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing.
After all, the Cultural Revolution was still being fiercely fought, China’s universities were still locked shut, and the Gang of Four must surely have taken a very dim view of bright young future diplomats being thrown into the lap of the capitalist West to learn English. Someone in the ministry was clearly taking big risks.
From those early, discrete beginnings, the flow of Chinese students overseas has grown into a flood. Last year, more than 600,000 mainland Chinese began study abroad, taking the overall total of the nation’s overseas students to just over 1.5 million, according to Caixin, quoting the Ministry of Education.
Over half of them went to the United States, accounting for over one-third of all foreign students studying there. Almost 90 per cent paid their own costs, with US$11 billion spent in the US.
According to many at the White House and some in the US Senate, most of these are spies, or are in the process of stealing secrets, and many are a threat to national security in the US.
Putting such paranoid views to one side, such numbers raise some very interesting questions. Why is it that so many mainland Chinese students flock overseas? And what are the implications?
William Kirby, TM Chang professor of Chinese Studies at Harvard, asks exactly these questions in a chapter in a fascinating new collection of essays from Harvard: The China Questions – Critical Insights Into a Rising Power  . Needless to say, the paranoid White House position rings hollow.
The first key insight is that the Chinese habit of studying overseas, in particular in the US, has some very deep roots. Over a century ago, “preparing young men to enter American universities was the founding mission of Tsinghua”. It is hard to think of what today is one of China’s most formidable education institutions as a finishing school preparing Chinese kids for study in the US.
In 1911, Edmund James, president of the University of Illinois, told Theodore Roosevelt: “The nation which succeeds in educating the young Chinese of the present generation will reap the largest possible returns in moral, intellectual and commercial influence.” What a far cry from the foreign security threats being fretted over today.
It was perhaps easy to understand, back during the chaos that prevailed across China through the first half of last century, why so many of China’s elite sent their kids to the US for study.
But why today, when by most accounts China’s own universities have built a strong international reputation, and universities like Tsinghua and Fudan are ranked among the best in the world?
Once upon a time not long ago, university places inside China were so limited that it was easy to understand why so many looked overseas. But today, there are more than 36 million Chinese enrolled in universities inside China compared with just 6 million in 2000, according to the Ministry of Education. More kids graduate every year in China today than in the US and India combined.
The initial answer is obvious. According to Kirby: “beyond the openness and accessibility of American universities there is a widespread perception on the part of Chinese parents that a US education is simply better than a Chinese education.”
Others simply recoil from “China’s examination hell” – the gaokao, or university admission exams, sat on the same day last year by more than 9.4 million university applicants, is an unseemly trauma for many families across the country.
Such is the angst about the gaokao that many elite schools in China have set up parallel study tracks – one preparing for the gaokao, and a second for study abroad.
As Kirby notes: “The strengths of China’s education system are more appreciated abroad than at home … Required classes are large. Good teaching is seldom rewarded. Good jobs do not necessarily await graduates of such a suddenly expanded system.”
But it seems that many Chinese families are implicitly asking a question explicitly posed by Kirby: “can world class universities – however they are defined – exist in a politically illiberal system?”
The question is even more moot when “in the realm of politics and history, the distance between what Chinese university students have to learn to graduate, and what they know to be true, grows greater every year …
“Massive educational migration to the United States may be due less to confidence in American universities than to a sense of doubt and uncertainty about China’s own institutions, especially in its current repressive and insecure political climate.”
This raises a question Kirby does not ask: why does the Beijing leadership continue to allow such large numbers to study abroad and return to influential top jobs, when this foreign experience inevitably exposes them to “polluting” foreign thought that must raise questions about the way China is run and ruled? Out of the 5.2 million students that have studied outside China in the past 40 years, more than 3.1 million, or about 60 per cent, have returned.
Kirby’s question on China’s politically illiberal regime as an incubator for innovation is nevertheless more easily asked than answered.
Global educational performance measures like the Pisa tests suggest that China’s universities – indeed its whole education system – are today home to a large proportion of the most accomplished students on the planet. They are today being credited with an increasing share of leading research in many fields, in particular in the sciences.
Whatever the answer, there must surely be a deep irony that so many in the US leadership are today wringing their hands about Chinese students subverting the US economy and its political system, when back in China the leadership seems so tolerant of potentially “polluted” students returning home to top roles in the economy.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view