Critical engagement

January 13, 2006

"Few things matter more... than how we approach China," Timothy Garton Ash wrote in The Guardian recently. Unfortunately, readers of Wei Jingsheng's "Opinion" ("Smoke, mirrors and Chinese pipe dreams", January 6) are left with only the option of protest at a distance, comforted by the generalisation that Western university ventures inside China are profit-driven as well as self-deluding.

The University of Nottingham in Ningbo has 900 students on the first fully fledged Western campus inside China. We are a not-for-profit organisation in the UK; in China, we operate according to legislation that requires surpluses to be reinvested in the campus. Even if this were not so, there are much easier ways for universities to make money than joint ventures in China.

The motive for Nottingham is internationalisation: our students will have opportunities that will enhance their employment prospects and also promote international understanding. When Garton Ash insists that "time is running out" for human rights in China, he ignores the time needed for a generation of students to experience international exchange and, as graduates, to go out into their world, one in which China will figure prominently.

If a university campus is in China, the challenge is greater; but so, too, are the non-monetary rewards, not least the opportunity for collaborative research in areas such as sustainable environment and international relations.

We do not delude ourselves that the recent Times headline "Free speech is flourishing at China campus" underplays future difficulties.

But Nottingham's direction is well signposted. For some years, our Human Rights Centre has received Chinese scholars and students; senior Shanghai judges visit the university; and an Institute of Contemporary Chinese Studies and a China Policy Institute underpin a sometimes critical relationship.

Jingsheng's indiscriminate argument evokes degree mills and doubtful franchising arrangements but denigrates efforts such as ours to establish a genuine campus, staffed by a majority of Nottingham staff teaching our degrees. His experience is likely to have been such as to recommend that no foreign institution should deal with the Chinese authorities.

There are still suspicions and misunderstandings, but Nottingham's China campus would have been unthinkable during China's glacial period.

Douglas Tallack
Pro vice-chancellor for internationalisation
Nottingham University

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