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In my opinion

Take China or make China?

In pursuing Chinese students, Canadian universities could take actions to encourage China to develop in a more open, democratic way.

BY GEORGE YE | AUG 21 2013

In the recent decades, one of most phenomenal change in the campuses of many universities in Western countries is the sharp increase of students from China. According to a report by the Ministry of Education of China, the number of Chinese students studying abroad has increased at an annual growth rate of over 20 percent in the past a few years with an estimated 400,000 Chinese students going abroad in 2012 alone.

With the significant rise in Chinese students in Canada, the pros and cons are being debated. The central issue – as Wayne Peters, president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, pointed out recently – is that “pursuing the international students is a worthy venture but we should ensure it is being done for the right reasons.”

The economic and societal benefits to Canada are undeniably significant. In 2010, international students in Canada spent $8 billion, which translates to 86,570 jobs and $455 million in government tax revenue. On the other hand, there is the concern over the commercialization of higher education. And, if international students are encouraged to stay in Canada to fill labor markets gaps, this may deny home countries of much needed talent. In Canada, where Chinese students are the largest single group of international students, some worry that Canadian universities may become “too Asian” as reported in Maclean’s magazine.

In the end, we need a larger and more strategic perspective to justify the pursuit of Chinese students to study here. China, the second largest economy in the world with rising military and international influence, will undoubtedly become a world superpower. Will the rise of China benefit or threaten the world in the future? Rather than waiting for what may happen, why don’t we take actions to ensure the rise of China in the direction towards a more open and democratic society?

Among many things that we can do is to consider admitting even more Chinese students to Canadian universities and colleges. This will help to impart Canadian values to Chinese citizens, and together with similar actions in other countries, this can have great influence on the China of the future and a better world.

To understand the impacts of abroad Chinese students on shaping the future of China, a historical context can help. In the late 19th century, after China was defeated in several wars with Western countries and Japan, some Chinese thinkers believed that learning from the West was the only prescription for China to survive and develop. It was called the Westernization Movement, and an important part was that the Chinese government started to send students to Western countries, with 120 heading to the United States from 1872 to 1875.

Though the movement failed and the government stopped sending students abroad, the “study abroad” idea resurfaced, emerging in three more recent tidal waves. It’s notable that Chinese students studying abroad and China’s pursuing modernization” occurred at the same time.

The first wave occurred between 1902 and 1910, with more than 20,000 Chinese students sent to study in Japan. Many of these students became the main driving force in the Xinhai Revolution that overthrew the Qing dynasty in 1911 and led to the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912, a milestone in the modernization process of China.

The second wave occurred in 1920s and 1930s, with three major destinations: the U.S., France and Russia. Those in France were organized under a work-study program in which Chinese students were paid their own way by working in factories. Probably because of their hard experience, many of those students adopted Marxism and later joined the Communist Party of China. Within the Communist Party of China, those students who had worked and studied together in France played key leadership roles in the communism movement in China.

The current surge comprises the third wave, which began when China started opening up and embracing economic reforms to bolster its economy after the Mao era ended in the late 1970s. During the period from 1978 to 2011, about 2.25 million Chinese students had studied abroad, mainly in Western countries.

There is no doubt that the influx of Chinese students in Canada and other countries is leading to a better understanding between China and the West. Even though many Chinese students choose to stay in the West after finishing their studies, China’s rapid development has attracted a growing number of Chinese students to return home in the past decade. Nicknamed “Hai-Gui”(sea-turtle), the group of returned students has become quite visible in China. With the ideas, knowledge and expertise they bring home, these returning Chinese students have played important leadership roles in academia, government, business and other areas. These students undoubtedly will have a great influence on shaping the future of China.

The rise of China will likely redefine the future of the world, but the ascendancy of China gives rise to a series of questions of how China will affect the world and how the West will adapt to this. Everyone in the world should be concerned with these questions because we are all stakeholders. Considering how Chinese students studying abroad have shaped the development of China, this is not time for Canada to disengage. Increasing enrolments from China will not only benefit Canada, but will also have the potential to make China develop in a way that is positive to the future of the global economy and society.

George Ye is director of the Canada-China Centre for Financial Studies in the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.


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  1. Calvin Zhang / August 21, 2013 at 19:10

    Good article. Compared to other English speaking countries, Canada is far behind in the percentage of international studentson campus. Also taking into consideration that China has become the second largest trading partner for Canada, developing education and people relations become even more critical.

  2. Danah Baqais / August 23, 2013 at 11:24

    This article does not inspired only Chinese student but also me as a Saudi student ,, great,, thanks

  3. Todd / August 27, 2013 at 21:05

    The comparison of the types of students sent abroad in previous decades as compared to now is not really a good one as a recent Economist article pointed out, sea turtles versus sea weed. The jist of the article being in the past,generally, it was the academic elites and people who would become leaders in government, science and industry that were sent. Now, anybody who has the money can go which means that a lot less future influencers are coming to Canada. It is more of the local students who will become the influencers in government since they will have stayed home which will perpetuate the current state of affairs.

    Also, scientists, engineers and business people are highly influenced if not outright controlled by the government,through government regulation in the case of business and funding in the case of scientists and engineers, and since these are faculties where most of the Chinese students choose to study in, it should not be expected that these people will want to demand change if it threatens their livelihoods.

    This does not mean to say that until China becomes a full democracy there should be no Chinese students in Canada. If anybody knows why the protests in 1989 failed to ignite all over the country, it is because the vast majority of the citizenry were content with their lives and it was perceived just a bunch of spoiled urban university kids wanting something. Until enough people feel that the government is not providing enough for them then real change will occur. Most of the time, the foreign students just want to get by and not rock the boat for fear of the consequences back home.

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