Trump may be bad news for US universities, but Chinese institutions could benefit

Gerard A. Postiglione

Like never before, universities have become instruments of competition between nations. Diplomatic relations can have major repercussions. When the US and China were on the verge of normalising relations in the 1970s, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping ( 鄧小平 ) became adamant that China should have a thousand talented scientists who would be recognised around the world. Ezra Vogel recounts the story of a 1978 phone call to president Jimmy Carter at 3am, Washington time, by his science adviser, who was visiting China at the time, because Deng wanted quick approval to send several hundred Chinese to study at American universities.
Since then, diplomatic relations between the US and China have steadily improved, through not without regular periodic strains over economic, political and military issues. Nevertheless, economic interdependence and finely tuned statecraft ensured that cool heads prevailed in times of stress, and economic progress for both countries continued for several decades.
Today, there are signs that US-China relations are in for a jolt. Newly installed US President Donald Trump has threatened to undo 40 years of US-China diplomacy and ignite a trade war between the world’s two largest economies. The leaders of both countries have a similar goal. For Trump, it is to “make America great again”. For President Xi Jinping (習近平), it is to rejuvenate China and restore it to its place when it led the world. While China has declared its support for deepening economic globalisation, the new US administration has turned inward to save jobs for workers who fell victim to what journalist Thomas Friedman calls the “flattening world”.
Trump’s vitriol was initially met with anger from Beijing. That soon turned to laughter at what the Chinese press perceived as amateur statesmanship. However, the possibility of new tariffs to block access to the US market is now being met by plans for a Chinese economic pivot. If tensions continue, there could be several potential consequences for universities.
First, while US universities are now scrambling to become sanctuaries for immigrant students and safe havens for scholars needing rescue from visa-banned countries, American universities and programmes in China may also feel pressure from a Trump administration. The political atmosphere at Chinese universities has tightened, but American campuses and programmes in China continue to find ways to get round internet restrictions and operate with little interference. Nevertheless, Republicans in Congress are already harassing American campuses in China and we can expect more of the same from Trump Republicans.
Second, Trump’s contention that China is stealing American jobs, even though the decision to transfer jobs was made by US corporations, may come to affect universities. Chinese scientists who graduate from US universities and join the American workforce may face a backlash, or even tougher visa restrictions, if they are perceived as taking jobs from American graduates. Trump stokes suspicion about the Chinese as hackers, which may create an even more toxic atmosphere for Chinese scholars studying and visiting US universities, especially in fields such as computer science, a field that China sees as being essential to its own economic restructuring.
Third, former president Barack Obama’s initiative to send thousands of US students to China for language study will become less popular in an environment of China-bashing under Trump. The aim of the Obama initiative – to build trust and understanding – could be severely compromised.
Fourth, the illiberal turn of Trump’s policies, including the higher entry barriers for scholars from majority-Muslim countries, may make young scholars and scientists from some countries give more serious consideration to the long-term advantages of studying at a Chinese university.
Fifth, while Trump has weakened the resonance of liberalism and globalisation in American universities, China stands to gain as it takes a lead in economic globalisation with its “One Belt, One Road” initiative and funding mechanisms such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Furthermore, the elimination of Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) proposal has opened up a leadership void.
With as many college-educated citizens as the US by 2020, several globally competitive universities, and generous funding for attracting notable scientists for visits, China stands to gain. Much energy at American universities will be focused on fending off Trumpism, amid an international atmosphere made unsteady by possible changes in US policy in Europe and Asia. China’s top-tier universities may advance in global visibility. China is already the third most popular destination for international students.
Sixth, the wild card is tension in the South China Sea. For China, the Taiwan issue is non-negotiable and territorial claims are a matter for countries that have claims. Should this situation intensify, educational and academic exchanges would surely fall victim to any conflict. For example, China may restrict the Fulbright programme, as it has done in the past. Such a move could lead to a tit-for-tat tussle with the Confucian Institutes in the US.
Moreover, Trump’s reversal of the TTP has weakened Southeast Asian nations’ balancing act between China and the US. The pattern of overseas study of Southeast Asian students would shift even more to China.
There will be no winners in a changing relationship between the US and China; universities in both countries could suffer. Nevertheless, the advantage could go to China if it continues to invest heavily in teaching and research, and further its internationalisation. With increased autonomy, China’s research universities will not only help to restructure the economy by injecting more innovation into the mix, but also extend its influence on international higher education.
The US-China relationship under the Trump administration will surely test the autonomy of universities in both countries, and the potential of the academic community to be a force for rational discussion. This is an opportunity for universities to distinguish themselves not only as instruments of national competition but also as institutions for international peace. Universities in both countries may not be able to eliminate the confrontations that may be in store under a Trump administration, but there is much they can do to keep US-China relations on an even keel until 2020.

Gerard A. Postiglione is professor and chair of higher education at the University of Hong Kong