One Hundred Yalies in China

by Gemma Bloeman:

Speaking to an American audience in Beijing’s historic Great Hall of the People, President Hu Jintao remarked, “Heroes always come from young people.”

It was an apt message for his audience, the “Yale 100” delegation. On a visit to Yale in 2006, Hu had invited the delegation, which was to consist of 100 students, administrators, and professors, to visit China and participate in an intercultural dialogue on education. Just a year later, standing before the delegation he had invited, Hu explained his motivations. He said that students can play a vital role in maintaining a peaceful and constructive relationship, especially between the world’s two principal economic powers.

Bruce Alexander, Yale Vice-President of New Haven and State Affairs, with the Yale 100 delegation in China. (Bloeman/TYG)

“‘People to people’ diplomacy, in the form of interaction between students from the U.S. and China,” Hu claimed, “is an untapped tool for fostering international understanding.” The Yale delegation spent ten days in China on President Hu’s invitation, with an itinerary that took it to four of China’s most prestigious universities to meet Chinese students and administrators. The discussions that ended up taking place demonstrated a traditional though unfamiliar view of the country and its schools. While many Yale participants anticipated the highly structured schooling system and the government’s control over education, they left with an unexpected picture of a new and changing China—a China that, given its increasing significance in the world, is willing, if not eager, to undertake the risk of reforming its old educational traditions and structures.

Overseeing Education

The Chinese students the delegation met had been admitted to their prestigious universities on the basis of a competitive entrance exam taken by more than seven million high school students each year. The exam is just one example of the importance Chinese culture places on education. Another can be found simply by looking at the universities themselves. Each campus the delegation visited had newly built buildings and walkways.

Yet many Chinese students did not seem to enjoy university life or even their studies. While appreciating the educational resources available to them, they still claimed that their schooling fell short of the U.S. system in terms of freedom and flexibility. For instance, seminars are almost non-existent; classes usually involve professors lecturing without providing time for questions or dialogue.

Because students are unable to explore topics with much freedom or depth, some hope to pursue further study in the United States. At Xi’an Jiaotong University, a philosophy student spoke enthusiastically about his dream of studying there. He explained that, although he was eager to learn more about his favorite French philosophers, “his Chinese philosophy classes almost exclusively focused on the virtues of Marxism without mentioning any philosopher from abroad.”

The head of the Jiaotong philosophy department agreed that a strong emphasis in Chinese universities is placed on Marx while other philosophers are hardly explored. Studying Marx is not simply a trend— Marx is actually built into the curriculum.

As one computer science student, herself a Christian, explained, students must pass a test on Marxist values in order to graduate. During her test, one question forced her to make a choice between her Christian beliefs and the politically correct answer. Unwilling to sacrifice her college degree, she silenced her own reservations and answered the question as the administration wished.

Karen Xinyue, a Peking University sophomore majoring in Chinese language and literature, has encountered similar difficulties. She participated in a summer program at Yale—an experience that “opened the door to a wider mind.” When she returned to Peking University, she acted on her new feelings by joining The Peking Globalist, of which she is now the editor-in-chief.

But Karen had not anticipated the difficulties of running a student magazine in China. Not only was it difficult to find money, but it was also difficult to find story ideas that could meet the approval of the government or the administration. Education authorities encourage articles on “soft” topics, such as the lives of international students in China.

But whenever Karen attempts to publish or assign an article with a larger scope or more critical stance, it proves impossible to find funding or even information. Indeed, while the Chinese government is making education a priority, the exploration of controversial topics remains discouraged.

Commitment to Progress

Ever since Yung Wang, the first Chinese student to receive a degree from an American university, graduated from Yale in 1854, Yale has had a unique relationship with China. Thousands more Chinese students have graduated from Yale over the last century and a half. In 1991, when Richard Levin became president of Yale, the relationship became even more pronounced. Trying to transform Yale into an international institution, Levin especially strengthened the university’s focus on China. More than 80 different academic collaborations today make Yale and China committed partners in education. As Levin told the Globalist, he was “fortunate enough to be ahead of the curve in predicting the rise of China.”

So far, 17 schools and departments within Yale have established partnerships with 45 Chinese universities, government agencies, and independent research institutions. Yale College’s Peking University Exchange Program and the Light Fellowship enable and fund Yale undergraduates to study in China. Three research centers at Chinese universities allow Yale faculty to perform controversial genetics and nanotechnology research. In collaboration with U.S. Supreme Court judges, the Yale China Law Center has initiated major changes in Chinese law.

The variety and extent of programming is extensive, and one of the greatest products of this collaborative partnership is China’s efforts at education reform. The Yale-China Advanced University Leadership Program, which has brought Chinese university leaders to Yale, familiarizes leaders at Chinese universities with the benefits of a liberal arts education. This exchange is meant to encourage administrators to promote more creative and innovative thinking at their home institutions.

In many ways, the Yale 100 was a continuation of the educational exchanges Yale and China have pursued for decades. In focusing on education, it was even reminiscent of the Yale-China Advanced University Leadership Program. What differed with the Yale 100 were the participants. Instead of only university administrators, Yale 100 also put students from Yale directly in touch with Chinese students.

An American Legend

The American education system is of mythical proportions in the eyes of the Chinese. The Yale 100 was headline news in China for all ten days of the trip. When the delegation visited a rural village in Xi’an province, people gathered along the village’s streets to catch a glimpse of the American visitors famous from daily media coverage. But Yale was not just invited to China for celebration. The Chinese government wants to adopt parts of the American education system. At breakfast with the delegation, the Chinese Vice-Minister of Education expanded on China’s hopes behind the current reforms. By transferring control from central to local bodies, allowing the spread of private universities, and supporting a more multidisciplinary focus, the government hopes to improve the quality of Chinese education.

Additionally, China is starting to emulate American universities by moving towards a research-based system and encouraging competition among different institutions.

By collaborating with Yale, China is making progress on many fronts and its commitment to reform is encouraging. Still, a fundamental change in the university system’s attitude towards freedom of thought is necessary to achieve the progress the government seeks. However, by at least prioritizing educational reform, the Chinese government has demonstrated that it is aware of the importance of education reform for the future of the country.

Is China ready for a more permanent commitment than the ten-day visit of the Yale 100 delegation? When Levin asked a Chinese government official if China understood that education reform will likely have political consequences, she responded, “Yes, that’s inevitable.”

Perhaps China will actually have freedom of thought inside the classroom sooner rather than later.