Tsinghua University in Beijing inaugurated its new Schwarzman College at the weekend, named after the co-founder of the Blackstone hedge fund Stephen Schwarzman, who donated $100 million and raised $350 million more to start the scheme.
The programme, a fully funded one-year master’s degree intended to foster understanding of China, is in some ways reminiscent of the Rhodes Scholarships at Oxford.
They were established by the will of British colonialist and mining magnate Cecil Rhodes, who died in 1902, for students who showed “moral force of character” and “instincts to lead”, with the ultimate intent to “render war impossible”.
At the opening ceremony, Schwarzman emphasised the role students would have in “fostering friendship, fellowship, and collaboration” between the US and China in a time of increasing geopolitical tensions.
“It is the paradox of our time that the innovations and progress that bring the world closer together often create conditions of fear and misunderstanding that could pull us apart,” he said.
The first class of 110 Schwarzman Scholars, the vast majority from outside China, were welcomed by messages of support from a long roster of luminaries.
US President Barack Obama praised the programme for helping the US and China move forward “in deeper understanding and mutual respect”, and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping lauded it for “planting the roots of global vision and encouraging the muse of innovation”.
But Xi’s official stamp comes as the Communist party decries the influence of “Western values” in schools. Xi has overseen stricter media censorship and a crackdown on dissent, and has called for higher education to play a larger role in “ideological guidance”, urging more teaching of Marxism.
Liberal scholars fear censorship, with several outspoken academics sacked or jailed, among them Uighur economics professor Ilham Tohti, convicted of separatism and sentenced to life.
William Nee of Amnesty International said restrictions on academia had “clearly intensified” in recent years. “These are some of the risks that face Western organisations or universities when doing partnerships with their Chinese counterparts,” he said.
“In the past, China has tried to go out of its way to give high-profile foreign dignitaries or academics the impression that it is much more open to rigorous academic debate than it actually is,” he added.
Yale University president Peter Salovey dismissed such concerns, saying there would be “continued movement” towards greater academic freedoms in China, especially as more mainlanders travelled abroad.
Speaking in the Schwarzman College library, where the still largely empty shelves were dominated by dozens of copies of Xi’s propaganda tome “The Governance of China”, he said: “China recognises that creativity and innovation is a product of liberal education, so they want more of their students to be educated in that way.”
– ‘Special education zone’ -China has greatly expanded higher education as its economy has boomed, with universities and colleges more than doubling in numbers over the past decade.
But quality has lagged and even Tsinghua, one of China’s most prestigious institutions, ranked just 59th on the US News and World Report’s 2016 list of best schools worldwide.
Xi has set a goal for two Chinese universities to be ranked among the world’s top ten within 20 years, said Schwarzman. “You can’t do that without opening yourself up for new experiences and new learning. We’re part of that.”
His fund has several business interests involving China, and in March sold $6.5 billion of luxury properties to Chinese insurer Anbang, which has helped fund the college.
The 25,000 square metre facility has courtyards and tiled roofs inspired by the East, but inside seeks to promote Western-style group work and camaraderie via myriad lounge-like common spaces and a dark-stooled student pub.
But one of Schwarzman’s first beneficiaries, Princeton graduate Ella Cheng, 23, expressed doubts about the extent of integration.
Unlike most of the 70 percent male cohort, she speaks fluent Chinese and said: “The linguistic barrier is the primary thing keeping people from cross-cultural interaction and communication.”
Schwarzman Scholars dean David Li described the facility as a “special education zone” where internet and academic censorship would not apply — a reference to the special economic zones where China’s reforms were first rolled out.
“Within this college, everything can be discussed at international standards of academic freedom, because our scholars come here to understand, not to provoke a revolution… [or] go to Tiananmen Square to protest,” he said.
“They go home when they graduate and make changes in their own politics.”
But not all Tsinghua students could enjoy the same liberties, he acknowledged. “As a whole, the university has its own ideas and systems,” he explained. “It’s complicated.”