By - Howard W. FrenchSHANGHAI
When Andrew Chi-chih Yao, a Princeton professor who is recognized as
one of the United States's top computer scientists, was approached by
Tsinghua University in Beijing last year to lead an advanced computer
studies program, he did not hesitate.
would a leading scientist at one of America's top universities leave a
prestigious program for a university that is little known outside of
China? One reason is loyalty to the country where he was born, although
he spent his academic career in the United States and was raised in
"Patriotism does have something to do with
it, because I just cannot imagine going anywhere else, even if the
conditions were equal," he said.
China wants to transform its top
universities into the world's best within a decade, and is spending
billions of dollars to woo big-name scholars like Yao and to build
first-class research laboratories. The effort is China's latest bid to
raise its profile as a great power.
already pulled off one of the most remarkable expansions of education in
modern times, increasing the number of undergraduates and people who
hold doctoral degrees five fold in 10 years.
universities increasingly reflect a nation's overall power," Wu
Bangguo, China's second-ranking leader, said recently in a speech here
marking the 100th anniversary of Fudan University, the country's first
modern post-secondary institution.
China's model is
simple: recruit top foreign-trained Chinese and overseas-born ethnic
Chinese to well-equipped labs, surround them with the brightest students
and give them tremendous leeway.
China is focusing on science
and technology, areas that reflect the country's development needs, but
also reflect the preferences of an authoritarian system that restricts
free speech. The liberal arts often involve critical thinking about
politics, economics and history. The government has placed relatively
little emphasis on achieving world-class status in these subjects. Yet,
many Chinese say – most often indirectly – that the limits on academic
debate could hamper efforts to create world-class universities.
now, I don't think any university in China has an atmosphere comparable
to the older Western universities – Harvard or Oxford – in terms of
freedom of expression," said Lin Jianhua, the executive vice president
of Peking University. "We are trying to give the students a better
environment, but in order to do these things we need time. Not 10 years,
but maybe one or two generations."
new confidence about entering the world's educational elite is heard
among politicians and university administrators, students and
professors. Young Chinese visit the top campuses as if on a pilgrimage,
posing for photographs before the arching stone gates they dream of
entering as students.
"Maybe in 20 years, MIT will be studying
Tsinghua's example," says Rao Zihe, director of the Institute of
Biophysics at Tsinghua University, an institution that is renowned for
its sciences and is regarded by many as China's finest university. "How
long it will take to catch up can't be predicted, but in some respects
we are already better than the Harvards today."
In only a
generation, since 1978, China has roughly 20 percent of its college-age
population in higher education, up from 1.4 percent. In engineering
alone, it is producing 442,000 undergraduates a year, along with 48,000
graduates with master's degrees and 8,000 doctorates.
only Peking University and a few other top Chinese institutions have
been internationally recognized as superior. Since 1998, when Jiang
Zemin, then China's leader, officially started the effort to transform
Chinese universities, state financing for higher education has more than
doubled, reaching $10.4 billion in 2003, the last year for which an
official figure is available.
Xu Tian, a leading
geneticist who was trained and still teaches at Yale, runs a laboratory
at Fudan University that performs innovative work on the transposition
of genes. On Aug. 12, his breakthrough research was featured on the
cover of the prestigious journal, Cell, a first for a Chinese scientist.
University drew on the talents of Tian Gang, a leading mathematician
from MIT, in setting up an international research center for advanced
mathematics, among other high-level research centers.
at Peking University estimate that as much as 40 percent of its faculty
was trained overseas, most often in the United States.
president of Yale University, Richard Levin, interviewed in Shanghai,
where he was the featured guest in late September at Fudan's centennial
celebration, also had high praise for China's students.
has 20 percent of the world's population, and it is safe to say it has
more than 20 percent of the world's best students," he said. "They have
the raw talent."
Levin also noted how China's low labor costs
simplified the effort to upgrade. He said he had been astounded by the
new laboratories at Shanghai Jiaotong University, the city's second-most
prestigious university, which he said could be built in China for $50 a
square foot, or 0.09 square meters, compared with $500 a square foot at
Some critics say that the country is trying
to achieve excellence in too many areas at once, and that the plans of
about 30 universities selected for heavy state investment have far too
little differentiation, wasting money on duplication and sacrificing
excellence. Even Levin tempered his enthusiasm with a warning that the
"top schools have expanded much too fast and are diluting quality."
In many cases, however, the toughest criticism comes from people who have worked in the system.
is important for different universities to have different qualities,
just like a symphony," said Yang Fujia, a nuclear physicist and former
president of Fudan University. "But all Chinese universities want to be
comprehensive. Everybody wants to be the piano, having a medical school
and lots of graduate students."
now leads a small experimental university in Ningbo, founded with the
help of the University of Nottingham, also criticized the lack of
autonomy given to many Chinese researchers.
"At Princeton, one
mathematician spent nine years without publishing a paper, and then
solved a problem that had been around for 360 years," he added, a
reference to Andrew Wiles and his solution to Fermat's Last Theorem in
the early 1990s. "No one minded that because they appreciate the
dedication to hard work there. We don't have that spirit yet in China."
Ge Jianxiong, a distinguished historical geographer at Fudan, said
Chinese culture often demands speedy results, which can undermine
research. "In China, projects are always short-term, say three years,"
he said. "Then they want you to produce a book, a voluminous book. In
real research, you've got to give people the freedom to produce good
results, and not just the results they want."
Ge added that education suffers here because "it has always been regarded as a tool of politics."
said he had expected to concentrate on creating a world-class Ph.D.
program, but had found surprising weaknesses in undergraduate training
and had decided to teach at that level.
"You can't just say I'll
only do the cutting-edge stuff; that's not a workable solution," he
said. "You've got to teach the basics really well first."
biggest weakness, many Chinese academics indicated, is the lack of
academic freedom. Yang, the former president of Fudan, warned that if
the right "atmosphere" was not cultivated, great thinkers from overseas
might come to China for a year or two only to leave, frustrated.
Gong Ke, a vice president of Tsinghua University, said universities had "the duty to guarantee academic freedom."
have professors who teach here, foreigners, who teach very differently
from the Chinese government's point of view," he added. "Some of them
really criticize the economic policy of China."
Li Ao, a
well-known Taiwanese writer, called for greater academic freedom and
independence from the government in a September speech at Peking
University. The next day, after reportedly coming under heavy official
pressure, he delivered a far tamer version of the speech at Tsinghua
University, where media coverage was tightly controlled.
Chinese government also censors university online bulletin boards and
discussion groups, and recently prevented students at Zhongshan
University in Guangzhou from conversing freely with visiting elected
officials from Hong Kong.
Students here are not
encouraged to challenge authority or received wisdom. For some, this
helps explain why China has never won a Nobel Prize in any category.
What is needed most now, some of China's best scholars say, are bold,
The greatest thing China has done in the past
20 years is to lift more than 200 million people out of poverty, Xu
said. "What China has not realized yet, though, if it truly wants to go
to the next level, is to understand that numbers are not enough.
need a new revolution to get us away from a culture that prizes
becoming government officials. We must learn to reward real innovation,
independent thought and genuine scholarly work."
Source - http://chrd.edu.vn/site/en/?p=1040