China’s next major export might just be universities. China’s Soochow University, based in the eastern city of Suzhou, is raising money to build a satellite campus in Laos where it will enroll around 5,000 students. Other Chinese universities have announced plans for campuses in Malaysia and in the UK.
The push is the next step in China’s billion-dollar charm offensive, also known as “soft power” diplomacy. The government has long tried to raise China’s international appeal by funding and setting up hundreds of culture and language schools, Confucius Institutes, around the world. Now, education officials are encouraging Chinese universities to expand abroad—much in the same way that Chinese manufacturers have been told to expand into other markets. Soochow University hasn’t said whether it will use only mainland Chinese curricula and teachers, but it would likely promote Chinese language and perspectives on history and world events. The move abroad by Chinese schools is mirrored by Western universities clamoring for access to China’s booming student population. New York University, Johns Hopkins University, and the London School of Economics have all set up campuses or joint programs in China.
Still, exporting universities isn’t likely to change the fact that China’s soft power campaign has been ineffective in a lot of ways. In Southeast Asia, where China has concentrated the bulk of its efforts, it lags the United States and Japan in public opinion polls—perhaps because of China’s aggressive stance over disputed islands in the South China Sea. China’s reputation isn’t much better in Europe (pdf) or the US, where some polls show opinion of China has actually declined in the past three years. In Latin America and Africa, Chinese companies are often seen as privileging their own employees and caring little about the local community.
The move to export China’s higher education system will ultimately be hindered by the fact that its schools are no where near the world-class institutions education officials have hoped to cultivate over the last decade. China has one of the world’s largest higher education systems, but few of its schools rank internationally and many graduates can’t find employment. Making the system even bigger, and expanding beyond its borders, won’t change that.