Beijing’s Educational Silk Road


Beijing’s Educational Silk Road

Western countries are hesitant to continue or deepen educational and research cooperation with China. Yet, cooperation especially within the framework of China’s Belt and Road Initiative is gathering pace, and China is becoming an increasingly tempting study destination for students from the global south. For China, the cooperation serves as an efficient future soft power resource. Western observers warn about the danger of educational dependency, however.

As a result of big-power competition and China’s domestic developments, among other things, Western countries, western universities and western students are increasingly turning their backs on China’s education and research initiatives. Leaders in the West have limited personal engagement with China and are increasingly hostile toward Chinese investment and contributions in the sector. This, however, should not lead us to generalize these attitudes as indicative of global trends. Indeed, the western approach is in stark contrast to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) partner countries, which are welcoming educational and scientific co-operation opportunities offered by Beijing. 

Belt and Road Initiative
BRI is a Chinese governmental global infrastructure development strategy unveiled in 2013, which aims at building a land-based Silk Road Economic Belt and the ocean-going Maritime Silk Road along the historical Silk Road region. However, the scope and reach of BRI is not determined solely by its geography, as many countries outside these historical corridors have also participated in the initiative. It aims to foster flow of capital, goods, services and cultural exchanges through the building of, for example, ports, highways, skyscrapers, railroads, bridges, airports, dams and power stations. The Third Belt and Road Forum convened in the autumn of 2023 in Beijing with representatives from over 150 countries attending. Although the initiative has faced stern criticism over issues such as human rights violations and neocolonialism especially in the west, elsewhere it has also been praised for its potential to boost the global GDP and in helping national economies grow.

Educational and scientific cooperation under BRI 
What started as a massive infrastructure project has gradually evolved to include a new set of goals that now comprise also culture and education in the broadest sense. Indeed, since the expansion of BRI into these new areas since around 2016, Beijing’s international cooperation in education has become such a kay part of BRI cooperation that it has at times been labeled the Educational Silk Road. 
By 2023 China has signed mutual higher education diploma recognition agreements with 24 Belt and Road countries. The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) has established Belt and Road Institute, and similar research institutes focusing on BRI-related research have been established by many of China’s leading universities. Programs prioritize target sectors such as artificial intelligence. Indeed, of individual fields of study, engineering has become the most popular major among the students in China studying with a scholarship. Other education-related projects include the formation of several university alliances. Most notably the University Alliance of the Silk Road has more than 130 member universities from five continents.

Student mobility and BRI
For individual students China offers scholarships covering everything from accommodation and living costs to tuition costs. These generous packages are attracting huge numbers of international students; in 2018, nearly 14 percent of foreign students in China received some sort of scholarship offered by CAS, Confucius Institute Scholarship program, Chinese Government or by one of nearly 300 individual universities. The Chinese Ministry of Education alone offers up to 10,000 government backed Silk Road Scholarship to BRI countries each year. 
Moreover, many top-level Chinese universities have established new degree programs to enroll students from the BRI countries and regions in particular. Besides majors in science and technology, courses cover issues such as governance and economic development. Most of these programs are also aimed at facilitating Chinese language learning. 

As a result, Chinese universities have become magnets for students from BRI countries. Although the flow of students paused between 2020 and 2022 as a result of Beijing’s prolonged and stringent COVID-19 measures, China has been able to restore the influx of students from abroad, with ever-increasing share coming from BRI countries in particular.

Chinese education and research initiatives in BRI countries
China’s presence in educational field is also felt inside the BRI countries themselves. A small number of Chinese higher education institutions are engaged in overseas campus building in the BRI countries. Currently Chinese universities operate campuses in 23 BRI countries. This signifies a move away from earlier Chinese efforts to concentrate on luring international branch campuses in the UK and US, in particular. Joint research projects and joint laboratories have also been established in partner countries. CAS has set up BRI funded research institutes in fields such as astronomy, research and education, ecology and environment, drug development, space weather, biodiversity and innovation cooperation.

The continued presence of Confucius Institutes (CIs) across the world has been increasing since 2008 despite the fact that in Western countries the institutes have been closing down at an increasing pace. In reality, the western reality is only a small part of a much bigger picture. BRI has accelerated and concentrated the growth of CIs, most prominently in Southeast Asia and Africa. 

In addition, Beijing’s overseas commitments include primary and secondary education initiatives. Chinese companies have been participating for example in training of local teachers and building new school buildings.

The underlying question: Why?
Education as part of BRI cooperation is of course not promoted merely for the sake of education. Under slogans such as "peace and development" and a "future for humanity", the official Chinese rhetoric education will not only serve to bring minds and hearts together, but will also uphold regional peace and reshaping returns of investment. In reality, Beijing’s promotion of educational engagement comes with a catch.

Beijing’s investment into education is also part of Beijing’s long-term future vision to consolidate soft power ties with target regions and their political elites in particular. As the next generation of students take up leadership positions in BRI partner countries, their familiarity and experience with China will certainly play a role in steering foreign policy decisions hopefully – from Beijing’s view – to China-friendly directions. 

Critics have been quick to point out that there is a considerable risk that BRI nations will become not only financially but also educationally dependent on China, which in turn will enable China to consolidate its position of power and expand its influence in these regions. Despite the Chinese narratives of “win-win” and “shared community,” the BRI would de facto turn into a hard power instrument.

Text: Olli Suominen

Photo Timo Sysiö: The Third Belt and Road Forum took place in autumn 2023. During the Forum traffic around Ministry for Foreign Affairs of China was highly congested as the movement of foreign diplomats and dignitaries was prioritized.