BEIJING – It is no secret that the Chinese have a crush on Crimson red. Naturally, high intelligence is drawn to elite universities like physical strength to top sports. And with overwhelming evidence from the social sciences that East-Asians, on average, have a higher IQ-score than Whites (which results in higher SAT-scores throughout the United States, of course), Western ivory towers now have come to salute outstanding Chinese applicants on a scale unprecedented in world history. Harvard has de facto become a Chinese outpost.
It is not alone. Whether it is the University of California, Berkeley, Yale University, or Cambridge University in the UK; those top schools brim with Chinese prodigies, relatives, princelings (taizidang), or else engage in China-related research and cultural diplomacy. Good for China’s elites, but there is a dark side to it, too: brain drain.
The latest piece of evidence comes from a $15 million donation to Harvard by a billionaire couple, Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin, in order to establish a ‘Soho China Scholarship’. This wasn’t at all that newsworthy because Chinese donations like this to Harvard are somewhat common (you have no idea!), but this one in particular sparked outrage (or was it a well-orchestrated publicity campaign?) on Chinese social media.
As business people, Mr. Pan and Ms. Zhang surely expect some form of return on their “investment,” apart from the Soho name’s sake and patronage; probably by getting one of their own into Harvard -a family member, a relative, a friend, many friends? Most Chinese commentators would have little problems with that, as the caring for one’s family and friends is an inherent component of the Chinese/Confucian tradition (even Xi Jinping, the country’s president, sent his daughter to Harvard). In fact, most critics would do the same if only they had the financial means. Their main concern, however, is this: Why not invest in China’s education?
Chinese students (together with other East-Asians such as Singaporeans, Japanese, and South Koreans) have (on average) superior mathematics, reading, and science skills. This is readily available facts. No one is in the dark any longer. Even the United Nations, in its OECD ‘Pisa Study’, confirms that much: Shanghai-China, Macao-China, Hong Kong-China, and Chinese Taipei are on top of the world. Why not their universities?
Beijing, meanwhile, is pushing hard to reverse the brain drain and, by extension, the flow of Mao (Mao Zedong graces the 100 yuan bill). Tsinghua University, for example, has attracted a $300 million donation from the Schwarzman Group as part of an initiative to train “future world leaders.” Peking University, back in 2010 already, hired the former Harvard Professor and Director of Harvard Yenching Institute, Tu Weiming, notorious for having “assisted” hundreds of Chinese scholars into Harvard, cultivating a vast, almost cult-like network of adulation, loyalty, and guanxi. Not wanting to fall back behind Tsinghua, Peking University now announced the establishment of its own “future world leaders” program -the Yenching Academy.
China needs, no wait, it deserves its own Harvard. It is entirely conceivable precisely because Chinese students have momentum and a competitive advantage (which currently spurns them into succeeding anywhere in the world). But as long as the elites in China don’t believe in their own civilization and would rather invest their wealth in education elsewhere, nothing short of a miracle is needed to wake a billion people and this once so proud nation from its deeply historical slumber.