China can be world's academic leader

Its young scholars have better English skills and its universities are rising up the rankings. But Internet censorship and a lack of intellectual freedom are stumbling blocks.

From gunpowder to alcohol, centuries of innovations testify that China is no scholarly slouch. The country's intellectual prowess is now regaining global visibility in an academic community that has been dominated by the West.

This latest renaissance is notable in two ways. First, global communications, physical interconnectivity and rising income levels have prompted a flood of Chinese students to study abroad (over 700,000, of whom 260,000 study in the United States).

Second, Chinese universities are rising in the global rankings, with 22 now in the top 100, according to the Times Higher Education world university rankings. By pure output alone, if not also by ambition, China is poised for global academic leadership in the 21st century. To hasten this process, the country must address three issues: language, openness and image.

Many precocious Chinese students pursue studies in Western universities, having proven their language proficiency through TOEFL (Test Of English As A Foreign Language). While language requirements vary by university, most Chinese graduates of Western PhD programmes eventually acquire the level of English proficiency needed to publish in international academic journals. Many acquire near-native fluency.

Admission requirements for language proficiency also vary by subject; more Chinese students pursue degrees in the hard sciences, mathematics and technology (areas recently emphasised by President Xi Jinping) than in the humanities, where facility with the nuances of English is a more crucial determinant of success.

As the younger generation of Chinese students learns English more quickly - formally through schooling and informally through global entertainment and culture - the university applicant pool will equalise on this crucial dimension. This benefits Chinese students, who are often better grounded than their Western counterparts in substantive fundamentals such as hard sciences and mathematics.

Mr Xian Guangnan, a communication engineering student at the Beijing Information Science and Technology University in Beijing. Modern facilities, productive graduate students, a culture of respect and fringe benefits, such as housing, are luring talented international scholars to China's ambitious universities. PHOTO: NYTimes

Chinese scholars will become an increasingly productive contributor to the global academic community. Better language skills will also facilitate the types of interpersonal connections that lead to global collaboration. And from a public policy perspective, robust emphasis on English- language education would be an incalculably valuable investment for China.

But maintaining China's path towards global research pre-eminence requires more Internet freedom. The so-called "Great Firewall" - China's Internet censorship infrastructure - now blocks thousands of websites. Aside from major social networking sites, including Facebook and Twitter, the firewall also forbids access to Google Scholar.

Most users scale the wall using virtual private networks (VPNs), which enable them to access the Internet through networks in other countries. However, VPNs are notoriously unreliable. Aside from being routinely shut down by increasingly vigilant Chinese censors, VPNs are often unstable and reduce Internet speed. For researchers downloading items from Google Scholar or Google Books, this unreliability demands heroic patience and can significantly hinder productivity.

Finally, China must address certain aspects of its global image to market itself as an academic leader. The past several years have been troublesome for China's academic reputation, particularly amid accusations of plagiarism and favouritism. The 2013 dismissal of a politically outspoken economics professor and controversial charges of plagiarism against outspoken academics in Hong Kong - regardless of the justification - have raised concerns from the West that some topics are off limits, even under the supposed protection of the academy.

Perceived free speech limitations may appear to be of small concern to scientists or mathematicians, but scholars, in general, are protective of their peers, even those in other fields. When one scholar is muzzled, many take notice. The notion of academic freedom knows no disciplinary boundary.

Investments to improve Chinese universities have elevated their global status, generating many attractive jobs. Modern facilities, productive graduate students, a culture of respect and fringe benefits (such as housing) are luring talented international scholars to China's ambitious universities.

Furthermore, the increasingly global nature of academic research is breeding a culture that values international partnerships. Esteemed Western universities have established campuses in China, while others have developed collaborations with Chinese universities.

However, until a culture of academic freedom pervades all disciplines, including the social sciences, the international academic world and individual scholars may harbour lingering concerns about China's respect for intellectual freedom. Premier Li Keqiang's recent statements encouraging openness and freedom in Chinese universities are an encouraging sign.

Academic scholarship has a deep and illustrious history in China. Academia is currently an exciting sector for young Chinese scholars and also represents a valuable tool for China's government to maintain economic growth and manage urbanisation and environmental concerns. For example, Guangzhou's government often solicits input from local academics.

The culture of public and social service is growing and academia will play a significant role. China is poised to be a source of advice for other countries on issues like urbanisation, technology and infrastructure. Many ambitious Chinese students are toiling on these and other challenges; they are breaking through already.

If China addresses these issues - none of which is insurmountable for a country with vast resources and ambition to match - the 21st century could see the West rivalled and even unseated as the world's academic superpower.

Napoleon once said that when China awakes, the world will notice. This is already evident economically and geopolitically. Scholarly progress can emerge through productive competition - a friendly version of the Cold War's space race.

China's rise is good news and the right policy is to embrace openness.

  • Asit K. Biswas is a distinguished visiting professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Kris Hartley is a doctoral candidate at the same institution.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 13, 2016, with the headline 'China can be world's academic leader'. Print Edition | Subscribe