Photograph of Shanghai
'Hunger in the realm of ideas’. Pudong district, Shanghai. Image ©

Pixabay, adapted from the original.

November 2017

Professor Kerry Brown, of King’s College London and Chatham House and member of the British Council’s Advisory Board on China, explores the changing nature of the opportunities for the UK provided by China’s immense hunger for quality education.

Hunger in the realm of ideas

China has three broad interests in the UK. The first is through the city of London as a finance centre and the role it currently plays internationalising Chinese currency, the RMB. The second is to provide a liberal, developed investment environment – something the Hinkley Point nuclear power plant approved last year testifies to. But the third is in intellectual partnership. This is largely undertaken through university and school links, businesses and on the level of individual interaction. 

China has 3000 universities. Some of these are already highly ranked in global listings of research output. But as Chinese president Xi Jinping made clear in his speech on the 18th October in Beijing at the 19th Party Congress, its aspirations to be an innovative are still not satiated. This is where the role of international partnership comes in. And in an area that plays to the UK’s current strengths. 

China is of course a source of customers, and of capital for investment. But its greatest hunger is probably in the realm of ideas. 

We usually focus on the ways in which China runs trade surpluses with much of the rest of the world, and of how to address this through trading more goods and services into the emerging middle class, service sector orientated economy China is creating. China is of course a source of customers, and of capital for investment. But its greatest hunger is probably in the realm of ideas. 

Part of this is due to the suite of challenges China is currently facing. Its ageing population are presenting a number of issues from treatment of chronic illnesses to management of mental health. Its environment is under almost unbearable strain from decades of rapid industrialisation. Food, water and other resources are all either scarce, contaminated, or coming under pressure. Even with the immense funds China has committed, it will not find answers to these issues without good quality collaborations with international partners. 

China as intellectual collaborator

Then there is also the simple fact that the pedagogical tradition in China, while changing, remains a teacher focussed one – with limited space for individuality and creativity. Three million Chinese have gone abroad to study in the last three decades since reform and opening up started. Over 100 thousand are currently in the UK, the third largest destination after the US and Australia. They are here as a recognition of the high regard that British education and its intellectual traditions are held in. 

Almost every British university now has Chinese students. Some, such as Oxford, Liverpool, or Nottingham, have substantial presences in China, or major joint projects. Most members of the Russell Group would have defined collaborations, in discipline areas ranging from nursing, to biology, biosciences, and engineering. King’s College, as an example, runs a major project in Nanjing training nurses, and a small one in Beijing looking at monitoring air quality. Put together, these links are probably the most sustainable, and reciprocal, of any that the UK enjoys with China. 

Seeing China as an intellectual collaborator is something new. Until very recently, the attitude was more that the relationship was asymmetrical. China was a developing country, and needed to go out to get access to good quality ideas, technology and thinking. This is now changing. As much through the urgency of addressing its domestic challenges as through any other factor, Chinese institutions and individuals are creating their own proprietorial technology, and seeking new ways of doing things. In stem cell research, for instance, China is now a world leader. The same goes for its high speed train technology. 

There are plenty of challenges from working with Chinese research partners. The UK and China still lack a common ethical basis on which to do high quality medical research. There is residual wariness about intellectual property protection within China – despite improvements here in the last few years. Perennial problems of cultural communication remain. Despite this, there has never been a time when the potential looked brighter. There is an alignment between a British internationally recognised strength – research and development – and a Chinese need. This also links to issues around creating sustainable investment, and better communication across the board. 

As it seeks to leave the European Union, the UK is in the market now for finding new global relationships. China would be a natural partner.

As it seeks to leave the European Union, the UK is in the market now for finding new global relationships. China would be a natural partner to focus on, particularly because of its own aspirations, and the work that both countries have already done with each other. While a lot of attention will focus on movement of capital, and goods, it will be the flow of ideas that will have the longest impact – and there the UK and China are already telling a good story, and one with potentially a long and exciting future. 

Professor Kerry Brown, King’s College, London and Chatham House

About the Author

Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King's College, London. Prior to this he was the Professor of Chinese Politics and Director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. He led the Europe China Research and Advice Network (ECRAN) funded by the European Union from 2011 to 2014. He is an Associate Fellow on the Asia Programme at Chatham House, London. His main interests are in the politics and society of modern China, in its international relations and its political economy.

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