Just how cozy is New York University’s relationship with China?

Not so bad?
Not so bad?
Image: Imaginechina via AP Images
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Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng claims that New York University booted him from a fellowship because of “unrelenting pressure” from China, where he spent many years under house arrest. NYU has denied that politics played any role in the blind law student’s departure, citing a 2012 agreement to shelter Chen for a year, and no more.

Whatever the truth, the university has deep ties to China, and they have not been without controversy: In May, three NYU researchers were charged with conspiring to take bribes from a Chinese company for passing on information about their US government-funded work with magnetic resonance imaging technology.

NYU is the third-most popular US university among international students, accepting 8,660 in 2011/12, according to the Institute of International Education. NYU does not publish a breakdown of its students’ nationalities, but about 25% of foreign students in the US are from China, and NYU’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association has more than 2,000 members.

The university’s closest link to China is its Shanghai campus, which is set to open in the autumn. It will form the third leg of what NYU calls a “global network university”—the original campus in Manhattan plus outposts in Shanghai and Abu Dhabi. The NYU Shanghai campus will be run in partnership with an existing Shanghai university. The first student intake will be just 300 students, according to Chinese media, 51% of whom will be from the Chinese mainland, although original plans show that the campus will eventually take up to 3,000 students each year.

The appeal of the project to NYU and its Chinese partners is clear: The number of Chinese university students is growing exponentially—three out of every ten college graduates will come from China by the end of this decade—and Chinese educational institutions are desperately trying to catch up with their regional neighbors.

Chen said on Sunday in a statement that “as early as last August and September, the Chinese Communists had already begun to apply great, unrelenting pressure on New York University.” And China certainly has the ability to make life very difficult for the university—by denying faculty and American student visas for the Shanghai campus, or by discouraging Chinese students from studying at NYU’s main campus in the United States.

Top-flight universities and China are becoming very reliant on each other, and the close ties are bound to multiply: China wants access to American research and expertise; American universities want access to Chinese students. NYU and China may need each other too badly for China to throw its weight around without fear of consequence, but at the same time their relationship is growing very cozy indeed.