IAt early stages In the 20th century, thousands of members of the Chinese Communist Party went to Russia to learn how to carry out revolution and build a socialist country. In turn, the Russians hope that these study programs will have a lasting impact on their Chinese comrades, many of whom will rise to positions of power. But within a decade of becoming a communist country, China began to feud with the Soviet Union. In 1961, Beijing’s leaders denounced Soviet communism as the work of “revisionist traitors.”
The incident offers sobering lessons for Western countries, which have hosted millions of Chinese students over the past four decades – many of whom have risen to great power status. While the universities make a lot of money, Western leaders hope the experience will teach future Chinese leaders embrace liberal values. But, like the Russians, they were disappointed. Today, the party is more anti-Western than it has been in decades, a sentiment reflected in speeches to the National People’s Congress this month by President Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister Qin Gang.
Returning students are called Returnees (sea turtle), homophonic for “return from abroad”. For a long time, people entering the Chinese bureaucracy found themselves swimming upstream. While their technical knowledge is valued, the party fears they could split loyalties.but with the amount Returnees Swell, mistrust ebbs.
Today, more than 20 percent of Central Committee members—the 370 most powerful party officials in China—have received some education abroad, mostly at Western universities. That’s up from 6 percent two decades ago, according to Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. Eight of the 24 members of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee have studied in Western countries, the most ever.
Like many overseas Chinese students today, leaders often focus on Dry Subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Shanghai Party Secretary and Politburo member Chen Jining studied engineering in the UK for ten years. Another member, Yuan Jiajun, studied at the German Aerospace Research Center. He later presided over the rocket program that sent the first Chinese into space.
But there is also demand for other subjects. In 2002, Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government partnered with Chinese institutions to set up a three-month program to teach middle-level Chinese officials administrative knowledge. Similar short-term programs have mushroomed at universities in the United States and elsewhere in the West. (Some, like Harvard, were later closed.)
Still, an anti-Western spirit permeates the leadership. State directives strongly oppose “wrong” Western ideas, such as having an independent judiciary. Students in Chinese schools are warned not to be misled by foreign concepts. In February, a teacher in Anhui province was accused by a student of “worshiping the West and pandering to foreign powers” after he encouraged students to study abroad. Not to mention that Chinese Education Minister Huai Jinpeng was a visiting scholar at Columbia University in the US in the 1990s.
President Xi Jinping has only studied in China. But his ideological czar Wang Huning was a visiting scholar in the United States in 1988. He wrote a book about his experience that expresses his admiration for aspects of the country, such as the way the president reliably leaves office after his term ends (Mr Xi will soon be recognized as an iconoclast third term of office). But ethnic tensions, broken families and low education levels have contributed to an “undercurrent of crisis,” Mr Wang wrote. For him, America was mostly a lesson in what to avoid.
Subscribers can sign up to our new weekly newsletter, The Drum Tower, to learn how the world shapes China — and how China shapes the world.