An academic door to outreach to Chinese

October 13, 2014 By Tenzin Tseten*

Besides Chinese intellectuals’ affinity to and support for the policy adopted by the Central Tibetan Administration in resolving the issue of Tibet through negotiations with Beijing, there are some striking forces that could possibly play a significant role in transforming the Chinese society: emerging civil society and “Haigui”, the term used in China for the returned students from overseas study.  Even though little attention is being directed to the political impact of the returnees, the unprecedented but crushed 1989 democratic movement on Chinese soil after Communists took over was largely initiated by the students, workers, intellectuals, and civil servants.

In the post-Moa era, things are changing within the Party. The changes are not necessarily political. This time the most visible changes happen to be in academic qualifications. Two of seven of the Politburo Standing Committee members and three in the broader Politburo hold a PhD degree, which is not in the case of the previous leadership. Change in the overall breadth of education is impressive -from a gang of revolutionary leaders to political technocrats to social managers at present.

Some empirical research shows that “Haigui” graduated in the field of natural sciences are more privileged in terms of getting research funding than those qualified in basic or applied humanities, including comparative literature, English language and linguistics, political science, education, geography and management. Notwithstanding their specialized areas of study, a few engaged in promoting an understanding within China of the cultural and social context of western modernity. The integration of basic or applied humanities within the higher curriculum that resulted from the reforms initiated in 1978, certainly have positive effect on the movement and independence of scholars.

If we closely look at China’s domestic issues, corruption turns out to be the gravest challenge to the leadership. Wang Qishan, one of the trusted friends of Xi Jinping in decision making circle is handling the anti-corruption task. The commission that Wang heads is considered very important (if not one of the most important) in enhancing legitimacy of the Party in present-day China. The case of the breaking down of Zhou Yonkang’s entrenched network via Bo Xilai is one excellent example. Wang had a long history with esteemed research-oriented institute called the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), which is considered a semi-official think tank.

No wonder civil society is discontent with the government on its various policies that are designed purposely to uphold the party’s supremacy. The latest case of Hong Kong’s ongoing street protests to challenge Beijing’s directives on election of the chief executive in 2017 and the Tibetans resorting to self-immolation and sporadic ethnic conflicts in Xinjiang are the clear indications of policy failure.

Beijing is confronted with piles of domestic maladies. Income inequality and urbanization are the two most frightening social tensions. Since the era of reform, an unprecedented surge in corruption particularly in the elite circle has apparently greatly widened the gap between rich and poor. Urbanization policies so far fail to recognize the large section of rural migrants’ basic needs and urban-style benefits – like health and education. This in turn develops more hostility and resentment from the civil society, leading to potential chaos.

China’s academic journey to the west germinated after the demise of the Cultural Revolution. China understands the importance of western-educated scholars and experts’ involvement in policy formulation. Gradually think tanks started to grow. The CASS and the Development Research Center (DRC) are the two most authoritative think tanks in China.

Interestingly, the CASS and Brookings China Center (reputed research institution based in U.S.) have developed a good relationship in the recent past, and the latter from time-to-time invites Chinese scholars to talk on different subjects. For example, how China’s youth are transforming Chinese society and Christianity in China: a force for change? Those were the two events held at Brookings China Center that I came across. Probably, there would be many more of this kind. The reason behind to highlight the idea here is not to harm the relationship between these two esteemed institutes, but the fact that China has the largest number of think tanks next to the United States.

Amidst scholars’ discourse on the reliability and independence of China’s think tanks, some government-affiliated semi-official think tanks were able to openly criticize government policies. One significant example was 2005 report released by the DRC of the State Council on China’s health policy reform although it’s rare to see criticism on the political behavior of the government because of the one-party dominated system.

Despite the facts that most of these entities are either run or funded by the party/state, experts are still able to share their ideas to the Chinese public through marketing and new social media.  This creates an external pressure on the policy makers to acknowledge public opinion. It is also wise to construct more favorable recommendations and ideas which are suitable to a China-style political system.

In this hopeful cycle, the younger generation of Tibetans in the west, especially the university students and scholars, should use the academic platform to enable ideas to travel both ways. Through this channel, more and more Chinese in the mainland could be informed about the essence of Middle-Way Policy, which in no way harms the core interest of the People’s Republic of China.



Principle references:

Xi Jinping’s Inncer Circle (Part 1: The Shaanxi Gang), Cheng Li

Xi Jinping’s Inner Circle (Part 2: Friends from Xi’s Formative Years), Cheng Li

The influence of Think Tanks in the Chinese Policy Process, Zhu Xufeng

China’s Returned Scholar and the Democracy Movement, Ruth Hayhoe

Returned Students and Political Change in China, He Li

The Fourteenth Central Committee of the CCP: Technocracy or Political Technocracy? Xiaowei Zang


Tenzin Tseten is a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.

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