'Independence', at a price: it's better to be Red than led

Communist influence is non-negotiable for UK's Chinese outposts. Melanie Newman writes

February 18, 2010

When the University of Nottingham opened its campus in Ningbo, China in 2005, it was hailed as a little piece of England in a foreign field, with its British curriculum, English-only tutorials and replica of the Nottingham campus' tower, complete with chiming bells.

Unlike other Sino-British university collaborations, Ningbo, or UNNC as it is known internationally, is not a partnership with a Chinese institution.

Nottingham's partner in the venture is a private company, the Wanli Education Group, an arrangement designed to leave the institution free to run its academic affairs on Western liberal lines.

Nottingham has been keen to emphasise this freedom, describing Ningbo as the "first and only Western university to operate independently from the Chinese Government".

Yet on closer examination, it is clear that it has had to make significant concessions to the cultural and political parameters within which it is operating.

For example, the university is responsible for enforcing laws forbidding the dissemination of anti-government material.

Student-residence regulations posted on UNNC's website say that "distributing any anti-government materials is strictly forbidden", adding that any breach of this rule is punishable under the university's disciplinary code.

Roger Woods, Ningbo's outgoing provost, told Times Higher Education that the university was required by Chinese law to include the paragraph in its regulations. However, he added that UNNC had never been required to enforce the rule.

Another conspicuous difference between Nottingham's UK and Chinese campuses is the Communist Party branch office at UNNC.

According to the campus' website, Lu Junsheng, deputy party secretary of the local Chinese Communist Party Committee branch, is in charge of "the political and ideological education of the students".

Party-free degree

However, a spokesman for Nottingham said this was a reference to compulsory courses in Chinese history, politics and culture taught to all domestic first-year students, and did not form part of the Nottingham degree programme.

"The UNNC programmes are completely separate and have the same content as Nottingham's UK degrees. There is no Communist Party involvement in what is taught in these programmes," he said.

The website also gives details of the role of the Youth League, described by Nottingham as "an important organ of the ruling Chinese Communist Party". Its activities on campus include "managing and supervising ... and establishing a sound database" of student leaders.

The Nottingham spokesman said the Youth League oversees the non-academic activities of student members of the Communist Party, adding that student union representatives do not have to be members.

However, Professor Woods acknowledged that the description of the university as independent of the Government was "not quite the right way to put it. We're here with the support and approval of the Chinese Government and we couldn't manage without it."

The university accepted the residence regulations and the Communist Party's presence on campus as part of the deal when it set up shop in China, he explained.

"We have made a conscious decision to accept this package. We have done so because we feel we have an opportunity to influence and educate thousands of young Chinese people and introduce them to the liberal values that underpin our approach to education," Professor Woods said.

He added that stereotypes of government control were a "long way" from the reality experienced by those who have lived in 21st-century China for any length of time. "If the situation changes, we may well face some difficult decisions. The Chinese authorities understand this," he said.

'Healthy' articles only

Another UK institution with a presence in China is the University of Liverpool, which opened a campus in partnership with Xi'an Jiaotong University in 2006.

Like Nottingham, Liverpool stresses the joint institution's freedom from state interference, describing it as an "independent Chinese university".

Yet under its student-accommodation regulations, it is "strictly prohibited to promulgate any reactionary and unhealthy articles", and Jianhua Wang, the Communist Party branch secretary, is also chair of the university's board of directors.

The Youth League also has a presence on campus, but unlike at Ningbo, its Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool branch has a department responsible for "organising" academic activity and "assessing, establishing and evaluating students' scientific research projects". It also scrutinises "students' state of mind".

A Liverpool spokeswoman said the Youth League's academic activities were "intended to support students in the development of their study skills" and were "not assessed as part of academic qualifications".

Another set of regulations posted on the university's website, from the Chinese Ministry of Education, state that "all students must have patriotic thoughts, show solidarity ... be diligent, courageous and self-motivated".

Asked how Liverpool enforced such rules, the spokeswoman said: "This is simply intended to give students an idea of what is expected in terms of their social responsibility."

The regulations also forbid religious practice on campus and threaten expulsion for opposing the leadership of the Communist Party.

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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