Towards the end of last year, Xi Jinping called for the need to establish “World Class Universities with Chinese Characteristics” (中国特色世界一流大学 zhongguo tese shijie yiliu daxue). This new strand to the China Dream discourse sets out a goal of establishing truly world class universities by 2020, and positions elite HE reform as part of the first of Xi’s “two centenary goals” (两个一百年奋斗目标 liang ge yibainian fendou mubiao). The first of these centenary goals is to establish a prosperous nation by the 2021, the centennial of the Chinese Communist Party. The second aims realize a vision of China as prosperous, democratic, civilized and harmonious by 2049, the centennial of the People’s Republic of China. Both of these campaigns pertain to the 4 national-level values outlined in the Core Socialist Values campaign ((社会主义核心价值观 shehuizhuyi hexin jiazhiguan).
Until now, HE reform under the Xi leadership has been conspicuous in so far as it has largely followed the direction of the 2010-20 Medium to Long Term Plan developed under the administration of Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao. But this announcement signals the inevitable capture and deployment of HE in Xi’s superstructural reforms. The only real surprise is that HE has not been targeted sooner. This move indicates an intention to develop world class institutions which compete with the best the world has to offer, but which are also distinctly Chinese. By “Chinese”, the CCP means universities which contribute to the realization of a nation, society and citizenry which reflects the Core Socialist Values and the works to pursue and realize the national economic and social development objectives laid out in the 13th Five Year Plan.
This announcement has since been followed up, in May, with a direct call from Xi himself to foster and promote the development of “philosophy and social science with Chinese characteristics” (中国特色哲学社会科学 zhongguo tese zhexue shehuikexue). Taken alongside the call for world class universities with Chinese characteristics, this represents a significant departure from the reforms efforts of the last 20 years, which have focused on massification, knowledge transfer and restructuring of the higher education infrastructure. What it implies is that, as with other civil society institutions, the CCP demonstrate an ambivalence to civil society in the western sense: they desire the stability conferred upon societies by civil society, and the way in which values permeate the institutions of the state and civil society in western countries, yet they do not share those values and view them as distinctly “un-Chinese”. (This, in my view, is why the Xi’s administration is profoundly different from his post-reform predecessors: Xi is focused overwhelmingly on the superstructure, perhaps due to the approaching problems foreseen in shifting the economy from export-led manufacturing to a consumer-driven economy).
The announcement on World Class Universities with Chinese Characteristics signals an end to two projects, both of which have been decreasing in importance since around 2008: Project 211 and Project 985. As anyone with a passing knowledge of Chinese HE must know, these projects were launched under the leadership on Jiang Zemin, with 211 aimed at establishing 100 leading universities for the 21st century, while the 39 universities also categorized as 985 universities haven risen to prominence as the research elite of Chinese HE. Undoubtedly, it will take time for these labels to wither and die, especially outside of China. When any Sino-Foreign collaborations are discussed, the first question asked by many foreign universities is “are they 985? Are they a 211 university?”. Quite apart from the misleading nature of these categorizations (there are many superb and well-resourced universities which are not members of either 985 or 211), these labels will decline with importance until they are consigned to history.
Instead, within China, a new classification of leading universities has been drawn up. 47 universities are divided first into either “World Class” (世界一流大学 shijie yiliu daxue) or “Internationally Renowned” (国际知名大学 guoji zhiming daxue). They are then further categorized as either Comprehensive (综合 zonghe) or Specialized (特色 tese). In this instance, the use of the Chinese 特色 simply refers to a specialized institution, and is not to be conflated with the 特色 as used in phrases like “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” (中国特色社会主义zhongguo tese shehuizhuyi). All 47 universities have been designated under the umbrella term “World Class universities with Chinese Characteristics (中国特色世界一流大学 ). These universities will be pushed and supported throughout the 13th Five Year Plan period to attain the status of World Class or Internationally Renowned by 2020-21.
The following chart and table give more details on the categories and the institutions included:
The Major Question
The most controversial aspect of this listing? As it probably has not escaped your attention, it includes universities in Hong Kong (HKU and HKUST) and Taiwan (Taiwan University).
The central question that arises from this is: “What exactly is a ‘World Class University with Chinese Characteristics?”.
The term clearly indicates that the very idea of the university is to undergo a kind of Sinification, as has been the case with the pragmatism embodied by “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. The common sense understanding of the university is of an institution characterized by freedom of enquiry, autonomy from the state and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. It is these ideas, that will be subject to surgery, reflecting the CCP view of HE as in service of the PRC Academic freedom is often cited as a problem in Chinese universities, though this is, to a great extent, massively over-emphasized. The real issue is that of institutional autonomy. For example, universities cannot launch degrees without approval from the Ministry and provincial education authorities; the Gaokao remains an effective draft of talent, rather than a qualification valid for admission to a university through a selective recruitment process; universities cannot set their own fees, as this is handled by the provincial Pricing Bureaus, and universities must develop 5yr plans which contribute to the 5yr plans of the jurisdictions under which they operate (Ministry of Education, Province, Municipality, other Ministries, Chinese Academies). In effect, universities serve the state and are both the subject and source of China’s industrial policy, especially with regards to science and technology, R&D and IP.
So with this dual call for Universities and Philosophy/Social Science with Chinese Characteristics, it is evident that the very idea of the university is to be subjected to a reimagination in service of the China Dream. The CCP’s use of terms such as democracy, freedom, rule of law in the Core Socialist Values is substantively different than use of those terms in, say, the US or Europe. The same is likely to transpire for China’s universities.
What we will likely see over the next 5 years is not an all-out war on academic freedom, as many will likely speculate. There is and will remain a generally positive environment especially in and across STEM disciplines. Yet the call for a philosophy and social science with Chinese Characteristics does present a double-edged sword with the potential to slice away at the harmony between academia and the Party. However, I expect that we will see developments as the CCP push their ideas and material resources through institutions to create opportunities for advancement for academics willing to rise to this challenge. Certainly this will be more likely within the Mainland, but the question remains over the inclusion of HK and Taiwanese institutions: are these "World Class universities with Chinese Characteristics" purely by virtue of their geographical and cultural locations? Or does this indicate plans to absorb HK and Taiwan HE into the PRC's broader state HE reforms?
Its going to be a very interesting 5 years.