Rachel Brown is a research associate in Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Amid the flurry of press coverage surrounding President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States in September, his gift of a dawn redwood tree to be planted on the campus of the Global Innovation Exchange (GIX) program in Seattle received little attention. However, the GIX program, a collaboration between China’s prestigious Tsinghua University and the University of Washington, reflects a next step in China’s soft power strategy. Presenting a model for higher education has characterized global powers from nineteenth century Germany to the present day United States, and China now seems to be making a bid to promote its own educational model abroad. While over the past two decades, American and other foreign universities have flocked to establish campuses and centers in China, GIX will be the first outpost of a Chinese university in the United States.
The GIX campus itself is still being built and designed, but when it opens in the fall of 2017, the school will host the second year of a dual degree program offering a master’s degree in technology innovation to approximately thirty students. There are plans to offer other programs and by 2025 to enroll 3,000 students. The initial program will cover the legal, technological, and entrepreneurial aspects of “Internet-connected devices,” playing to both Tsinghua’s strengths in business and computer science as well as the campus’ location in Seattle. Courses will be taught in English by faculty from both universities and the two universities will play equal roles in curriculum design, university administration, and admissions. GIX will be funded by a forty million dollar contribution from Microsoft as well as contributions from both Chinese and American companies.
While GIX stands out as the first instance of a Chinese university establishing a physical presence in the United States, it fits into a pattern of recent initiatives to expand China’s global educational footprint. China’s domestic higher education system has been growing rapidly in both quantity and quality, and thus it is perhaps natural that the growth would continue into foreign markets. Affiliates of other Chinese universities have already been established in other nations including a campus of Soochow University in Laos, a branch of Xiamen University under construction in Malaysia, and a joint lab sponsored by Zhejiang University and Imperial College London in London.
Chinese higher education has also internationalized in other ways. Central to the educational dimension of Chinese soft power have been Confucius Institutes, government-sponsored centers that promote Chinese language and culture abroad. Already, more than 480 Confucius Institutes operate in over 120 nations. Chinese universities also currently offer over one hundred online courses. Tsinghua University alone provides more than twenty online courses on the edX platform for massive open online courses. These classes include “China’s Perspective on Climate Change” and “Introduction to Mao Zedong Thought,” which has approximately 3,100 viewers. Courses such as these contribute both to the spread of Chinese views on certain topics and to raising the profile of Chinese institutions.
But initial efforts to spread aspects of the Chinese education system globally have met resistance. Certain Confucius Institutes have triggered controversies surrounding academic freedom. Several universities in Canada and the United States, including the University of Chicago, decided not to renew Confucius Institutes at their schools, and the American Association of University Professors has argued for the closure of all American Confucius Institutes citing opaque contracts that lead universities to compromise their integrity. Not all of the online courses have been popular either, as some American students likened Tsinghua’s edX class on Mao Zedong Thought to propaganda.
Similar controversies could also arise at GIX. While the leader of the project on the Chinese side, Zhang Tao, argues that one of the advantages of the collaboration is that Americans who hope to sell tech products in Asia will be exposed to Chinese preferences and business practices through courses with Chinese students and faculty, the program’s emphasis on technology also raises potential concerns. Particularly troubling are issues surrounding Internet censorship and intellectual property protection where practices in the two countries diverge sharply. Nevertheless, given the Chinese government’s commitment to expanding soft power through education, collaborations between Chinese and American universities on this side of the Pacific seem poised to spread.