What does Xi Jinping’s third term mean for Chinese science?

Concerns over more rigid control of universities and fear of isolationist thinking causing ‘intellectual impoverishment’ for East and West

十一月 4, 2022
China Great Hall
Source: iStock

As Chinese president Xi Jinping’s third term begins and China doubles down on its homegrown talent, scholars expect strong funding to boost universities, despite some concerns over increased ideological control over higher education.

A meeting of Chinese political leaders during last month’s 20th Party Congress called for “revitalisation” of the country through science and education and strengthened support for those involved in its modernisation process. For the first time, a report out of the gathering, which takes places every five years, included a separate chapter on education, science and technology – a move scholars noted gives new prominence to universities.

In a subsequent address, China’s minister of education Huai Jinpeng underscored institutions’ role in the nation’s future development.

“The world’s changing centre of science, constant prosperity of a nation’s economy and improvement of people’s lives – are closely related to the basic, strategic, and supportive ability of education, science and technology, and talent,” he said.

Scholars reading the tea leaves said that overall, there were positive signs for the sector, with particular gains for STEM fields and a likely boost for fields related to China’s history, culture and political ideology.

William Kirby, professor of China studies at Harvard University, said he expected a continuation of “strong financial support for leading universities” with investment in “almost every area of sciences” and healthy competition between them.

He believed that, given the emphasis on areas that promote China’s national values, there would be more funding for fundamental research into areas such as Marxism. He predicted that many universities would apply for money “under the guise of Marxism”, much as they took advantage of resources under China’s Belt and Road initiative.

“It’s like a few years ago, if you wanted to have a conference on anything at all you had to do was put the words ‘Belt and Road’ into it,” he said.

Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, said it was clear that China’s “eye-watering” spending would push it to the fore globally.

“China is going to do all it can in terms of investment and government support to try to delink from reliance too much on non-Chinese for intellectual property, and to try to create its own technology and innovation record,” he said, warning against complacency by now-leading Western nations.

Futao Huang, a professor at the Research Institute for Higher Education at Hiroshima University, agreed that “without a doubt” China would strengthen its investment into the sector. But he raised concerns over what tightening political control at the top would mean for institutions.

“The government will [make] tougher regulations and [put] more rigid control on Chinese universities...especially on the majority of humanities and social sciences from the political and ideological perspective and view of national security,” said Professor Huang.

He worried over the emergence of an environment where “politics comes first, and all teaching and research is basically measured by academics’ loyalty to the Communist Party as the most important criterion”.

But others disagreed.

“It certainly cannot be true if China is to continue to rise in the global rankings – it isn’t political fealty that led Tsinghua [University] to be number 14 in the world,” said Professor Kirby.

He pointed out that academics in the country so far have not been required to publicly promote views they do not believe to be true – “they have freedom to keep quiet”.

But scholars warned against the threat of isolationist thinking – either by China or the West – hampering already weakened cross-border mobility of students and researchers and ultimately inhibiting progress on both sides.

Professor Kirby conceded that certain areas of research will be “off limits” for future collaborations, with the Biden administration recently restricting its exports of advanced computer chips to Chinese companies. In other fields, institutions would need to be proactive to sustain ties, he said.

“Isolation is not good for China and not good for the West – both of us will be intellectually impoverished if that continues.”




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