Why China Isn’t Winning: American Higher Ed Is Still Much, Much Better

Chinese universities are antiquated, hindered by political orthodox, and often unhappy places for students.

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Students attend a graduation ceremony at China’s Fudan University / Reuters

American universities tower high above China when it comes to producing human capital, by far America’s greatest comparative advantage.

Consider two major news stories prominent in American discourse recently. First, China is rising. Second, American universities have had much abuse heaped upon them: declining standards, “neoliberal” corruption of academia and worries about universities exacerbating class divides.

Both of those stories might be overblown. An American only a few years separated from college life and now a lecturer at China’s top university, I suggest that when it comes to higher education, American institutions are leaving China’s in the dust.

No Comparison

The weaknesses of the Chinese classroom are more or less well-known: rote learning, an America-inspired fixation with metrics for professorial performance (scholarly publications) and students with upwards of twenty-five class hours per week, resulting in large class sizes.

Libraries, the cathedrals of learning necessary for any university, are not up to specification. Newly built yet still cramped, they contain a ragtag collection of discarded books from American universities. The typical American community college boasts about the same. Contrast this with formidable collections of Chinese literature at elite American institutions.

Housing facilities are also inferior. Students live four or six to a room, with a bathroom at the end of the hall. That’s not to say that American-style amenities are the way to go–there’s obviously some waste. But exactly where is the emotional development on Chinese campuses? Amenities, perks and comfort zones might be what students need during four years of emotionally taxing, intensive social experiences.

The Extracurricular Advantage

It is in the less discussed extracurricular domain where American institutions really best their peers in the world. This is where the massive advantages the United States still enjoys in creating human capital are found.

China is a more conservative society than many Western ones. A narrow concept of learning is prioritized over wider notions of personal growth common to many Americans. Chinese students are not only less likely to graduate without pleasant and fulfilling romantic experiences, they’re also less likely to know themselves in many senses that Americans see as essential: tendencies under stress, life trajectory or, more practically, career preferences.

Chinese students seek release from stress just like everyone–a little recreation or time to let go. But as for on-campus entertainment for students, China fails again. Lacking a student meeting hall, group meetings are often held in cafeterias amid the aroma of fried rice, above drips and drops of sauce and soup.

Red Campus

There is one extracurricular activity on campus with a serious following and predictable loyalty–the Communist Youth League. In China, educational openness stops where the Chinese Communist Party begins. And in Chinese universities, party tentacles reach down into every department and faculty, choking off potentially independent power structures, as recently seen in the undermined election effort of a popular Beijing professor running for the National Party Congress. Student bodies are often composed of either alienated, apolitical youth on the one hand and tooth-and-nail careerist, aspiring party members on the other.

Tsinghua University has a tradition of political interference. In the late 1940s, its president Mei Yiqi fled to Taiwan, where the nationalists established their own Tsinghua, an institution that still exists today. During the Cultural Revolution, some of Tsinghua’s university and middle school students comprised Mao’s Red Guards, terrorizing the campus for much of the late 1960s. Tragically, the Red Guards themselves fell victim to violence when Mao judged them too powerful and subsequently pitted other student factions against them. Twelve students died in the summer of 1968 alone, with many others injured and abused. (Other stories are recounted by Johns Hopkins University professor Joel Andreas in The Rise of the Red Engineers.)

Last year was the one-hundredth anniversary of Tsinghua’s founding, an event administrators felt was better commemorated through galas, music and Jackie Chan visits than historical reflection. Perhaps this is because the history is uncomfortable. Tsinghua was not a Chinese undertaking. It was rather a charitable act on behalf of Christian missionaries from America, making use of indemnity payments extracted from China after its Boxer Rebellion targeted foreigners, foreign interests and missionaries in the early twentieth century.

2011 was also the one-hundredth anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution in China, usually deemed the start of “New China” by Westerners. (The PRC prefers to label the 1949 communist victory as New China’s beginning.) This was an especially inauspicious time, in any case, for the PRC to report that absconding government officials had embezzled over $120 billion, with many preferring to settle in the United States.

Like many Chinese elites, a large number of Tsinghua students will later seek graduate degrees in the United States. Tsinghua estimates that 40-60 percent of graduates who study abroad do not return. The government has tried to stop this brain drain by providing money for talented researchers, especially Chinese scientists already established abroad. This is not easy, one professor explains, when funding in the PRC has traditionally been divvied up based on connections.

A Long Grind

Suicide rates are a controversial subject on Chinese campuses, so much so that neither universities nor the government publish statistics. Suicide here can be partly attributed to the immediate material pressures weighing upon Chinese students.

Despite economic growth around them, Chinese students face tremendous pressure from their future job searches, especially since the “growth” touted by the Chinese Communist Party represents China’s mastery of manufacturing and assembly, manual labor that Chinese graduates have no interest in. And even Chinese qualified to work at Western firms have high turnover due to gaps in education, including a lack of creativity, flexibility and communication.

For China’s next generation, the road ahead is not paved in gold, nor is it very inviting. Lest this be cause for American relief–that somewhere, someone is worse off–Americans should remember that economic links render China’s future important to the United States. And if the future of China is in part seen in its universities, there is cause for concern. Every day I’m reminded that the students I engage with here are in the midst of a great grind through a troubled, antiquated system–and then outward into a China moving faster than it can handle.

This article originally appeared at NationalInterest.org, an Atlantic partner site.


David Lundquist is a lecturer of Western philosophy at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Prof. David Lundquist, The Atlanta



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