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China “can use students as a valve to control their influence”

All eyes are on Beijing as President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party hold the 19th Party Congress. Policies are discussed and set, while Xi is said by some analysts to be planning his empire as his “Chinese Dream” is seen to be successfully growing GDP and global influence. That view was given further support on October 24, as Xi Jinping was elevated to the level of Mao Zedong and his ‘Thought’ incorporated into the Chinese constitution.

The Great Wall of China once defended against foreign powers. Could students signal a new way of moving power?The Great Wall of China once defended against foreign powers. Could students signal a new way of moving power? Photo: Flickr/ Matt Barber

Chinese students should seek to gain an "authentic Australian education"

But one sector that many analysts are not looking at is international education, and how China may seek to use international students to spread its influence and power.

“They can use students as a valve to control their influence on a particular area”

At AIEC in Hobart, Australia, Taiwanese academic and researcher Sheng-Ju Chan presented his argument that China is in fact politicising international students, and the huge numbers of globally mobile Chinese students could even be used as a tool to control the direction of soft power.

Chan illustrated the current state of mobile students in the Asia Pacific region, and highlighted the strong hand of soft power that China now holds, both in the region and further afield.

“[China] is the main source in the international market, which means when The Party, or the government, are not happy with another region or country, they can use students as a valve to control their influence on a particular area,” Chan explained to The PIE News.

The influence on outside markets may be most clearly seen within the Asia Pacific region, Chan said, with high numbers of Taiwanese, Japanese and South Korean students studying in mainland China, as well as Chinese students migrating to those countries.

But that influence extends globally, Chan warned.

“They just signed an agreement with the US to send around 10,000 students to China over the next four years – this could be seen as one of these [soft power] valves.”

“[The valve] means if China wants to have more soft power in certain areas, no matter if positive soft power or negative, it means they have influence on the area. It’s a purely political dimension,” he explained.

This may seem like an ideological issue, but as Chan related, there could be serious economic effects if China did decide to pull the plug on one or more education markets.

“It is an exaggeration to [claim] that the direction of students can be reversed so easily”

“In Taiwan, if they do not like the political direction, they can stop sending students there, and it will have a significant influence on their higher education systems. And so – if they do it suddenly, well we have already prepared the infrastructure, the faculty, or even the research… now it could be a little bit empty!”

However, Rahul Choudaha, executive vice president of global engagement and research at StudyPortals and researcher on Chinese international education, said these claims are overblown, and globally China is not able to exert such unilateral influence. 

While it is true that Chinese students have driven the growth of international study around the world, and are financially critical to many HEIs, it is an exaggeration to [claim] that the direction of students can be reversed so easily,” he told The PIE News.  

But Choudaha also said that international relationships differ, and some ties may be more difficult, and therefore pose problems for globally or regionally mobile students.

The context of the China-Taiwan relationship is an exception due to several economic and historical layers, which make the student mobility more vulnerable to political influences,” he said. 

The presentation by Chan comes at an interesting time for Australian-Chinese international education, as Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson responded to media reports of Chinese students reporting ‘offensive’ course materials, and debate over Confucius Institutes at Australian HEIs.

“The silencing of anyone in our society – from students to lecturers to politicians – is an affront to our values,” Adamson said.

She also added that Chinese students should seek to gain an “authentic Australian education”, where discussion and disagreement are to be expected.

The 14 Confucius Institutes in Australia have been criticised over the alleged lack of balance in the curriculum, with one MP saying critical examination was left out so as not to insult the Chinese government. The concerns were addressed by Adamson, who said “language is insight itself,” adding that the language classes had “an obvious role to play” in educating Australians about China and Chinese language.

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