Fewer students and researchers in the United States are developing expertise on China, which could be a big problem for the future of diplomacy between Washington and Beijing, a new article argues.
In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Princeton University China scholar Rory Truex details how declining funding for language and research institutions, misperceptions about Americans’ safety in China, and the securitization of bilateral ties means fewer American students are enrolling in China studies programs, putting the U.S. at a disadvantage as the two superpowers duel for global dominance.
“We must do more than invest in weapons and semiconductors. We must invest in understanding,” Truex argued. U.S. lawmakers and institutions are offering some solutions to the academic crisis, but they may not be enough to combat the problem.
Collaborative scientific research is “an essential form of diplomacy”
Universities have historically helped in “lowering international tensions and encouraging mutual understanding between global superpowers,” according to former MIT professor Leo Rafael Reif. U.S. and Soviet universities pursued scientific research and collaboration all throughout the Cold War, with academics proving crucial in helping draft bilateral arms control. China certainly presents new national security challenges not seen during the 20th century, Reif explained, but American universities already have rigorous codes and training for how to collaborate on sensitive research. Scientific cooperation is “an essential form of diplomacy,” because it generates “open-mindedness, patience, and fellow feeling.”
China’s restrictions on academic freedom aren’t helping
Beyond general surveillance concerns, many interested in studying China fear that their field of research is too “politically sensitive” to pursue, one academic told the South China Morning Post. Even foreign-run institutions based in China have begun acquiescing to Beijing’s narrative, with some university administrators now stressing the importance of the Communist Party in education. China scholars in the United States who can’t travel to China previously relied on openly accessible databases, but Beijing restricted foreigners from using one of the country’s top research portals last year. One scholar told Semafor that the move would only fuel “misperception” of how China’s government and society operate.
Some scholars are moving to Taiwan instead, but there are drawbacks
As Beijing’s foothold on China studies fades, some researchers have relocated to Taiwan. The U.S. government and American universities have also sought to bolster the island’s reputation as a destination for scholarship. Lawmakers are pushing institutions to support the U.S.-Taiwan Education Initiative, a program to help American students learn Mandarin from Taiwanese teachers, which is framed as a replacement for China-funded Confucius Institutes that have been shut down in recent years. Major research centers like Texas A&M, Arizona State University, and Purdue University have all pledged to create new exchange programs with Taiwanese universities. But some people complain that Taiwan is not an adequate replacement for being on the mainland, where they can conduct field studies and access historical archives. “We’ve only seen China’s development through the TV and internet,” said one Soochow University economics student who opted to study abroad in Beijing in 2016. “It’s a completely different experience living there.”