The Benefits of Deepening Ties with China

By Kate Rix

UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau talks with Binglin Gu, president of Tsinghua University at the April symposium. Berkeley Professor Jasper Rine is in the background.From university leaders to professors and students, members of a delegation from Tsinghua University, one of China’s premier research universities, visited Berkeley for a special symposium in early April. The schedule was replete with academic panels on topics ranging from philosophy, history, and psychology to higher education, engineering and technology.

But in many ways it was the existence of the event itself that drew the greatest interest from participants.

“It is truly unprecedented to host a full delegation from an elite university, an institutional partner from China,” Berkeley’s Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer said at the start of one panel. Berkeley was the first American institution of higher learning to develop academic ties to Tsinghua after formal relations between China and the United States were restored in 1978. Berkeley is now one of Tsinghua’s most comprehensive overseas partners, collaborating over a broad spectrum of disciplines — from poetry and politics to power circuits and pathway controls.

Today, faculty and student exchanges between Berkeley and Chinese universities, including Tsinghua, are rapidly expanding, as Berkeley continues to strengthen its longstanding ties with East Asia.

“Research exchanges between UC Berkeley and Chinese universities in the physical sciences and engineering have been robust for many years, but in the past few years exchanges in the social sciences and the humanities have been accelerating at a remarkable pace,” says Carla Hesse, dean of Social Sciences.

In November, Hesse joined Vice Chancellor R. Scott Biddy and history professors Wen-Hsin Yeh and David Hollinger at the Beijing Form 2009, the largest international academic conference in China, for a roundtable presentation that compared the history and the organization of public research universities in the United States and China.

More than 350 scholars from around the world attended the Forum. The global reach of the event rivaled any similar forum in the United States, notes Professor Yeh. A panel on modern Chinese history, she recalls, included African scholars of Chinese history.

 Wen-hsin Yeh, professor of history and director of the Institute of East Asian Studies“I found that incredibly inspiring,” she says. “Only a small fraction of the scholars at the Forum were from the United States, and maybe only a third were from major industrialized nations. If we invited scholars to a forum in California, how many would we invite from Africa or Lithuania or the Ukraine? But in Beijing you could see the former Soviet and Eastern European ties to Asia are strong. We are in some ways the latecomers as we join an established network that involves the Third World.”

As a leading authority on 20th century Chinese history and the director of the Institute of East Asian Studies, Yeh helped develop the Berkeley China Initiative, which is working to increase scholarly exchange between Berkeley and top Chinese universities. Yeh grew up in China and received her bachelor’s degree from National Taiwan University.
“What we are trying to build is a bridging mechanism between Berkeley and China,” she says. “Because of my own undergraduate experience in that system and then graduate experience in the United States, I am motivated to make that bridging possible for our students.”

Elite universities in China are looking to the United States for inspiration as they develop their system of higher education, and especially to our great public universities, which share their commitment to social access. As the University of California rethinks its own relationship to state funding during a time of financial crisis, China’s leading universities in Beijing are looking to Berkeley as a model of how to design and run a world-class public research university.

In her presentation to the Beijing Form, Dean Hesse spoke about UC’s evolving sense of what it means to be a public university.  She analyzed the changing mix of monetary sources, including public funding, tuition, revenue-generating grants, and gift endowments. Increased reliance on non-state funding redefines the sense in which Berkeley is a “public” university, she argued, but its public character remains even as its hybrid financial model changes.
“The public character of the University has multiple dimensions,” says Dean Hesse. “It is not simply a question of ‘who pays,’ but also of who benefits. Our mandate is to generate knowledge in the public interest and to be a resource for citizens of all ages who seek an arena for open debate and access to the very best and most current knowledge in all fields of inquiry.”

Binglin Gu, president of Tsinghua University,  Lan Xue, professor and dean at Tsinghua University, and Berkeley Professor Jasper Rine at the symposiumShe adds, “We are committed to offering a world-class education to any student in the state who is capable of succeeding here, regardless of their economic status or social background. We are ‘public’ in all of those senses and our aim is to serve the common, as well as the individual good.”In China, notes Yeh, the majority of elite universities are public and receive most operational and research funding from the national government. In the past decade there has been growing interest in China in expanding provincial funding to universities to provide access to a high-quality education to more students. After studying the University of California master plan, one Chinese province is drafting its own plan to build a provincial university system that is benchmarked on Berkeley’s commitment to both access and excellence.

“Chinese university leaders studied our undergraduate admissions process,” says Yeh. Elite universities in Beijing are interested in the way Berkeley evaluates applicants using a comprehensive review system, which takes into account extracurricular activities, social services and personal challenges as well as academic performance. The existing admissions system in China looks principally at a student’s test scores.

“In China, taking into account service would mean looking at a student’s work in the Communist Youth Corps, which is a leading group fighting poverty and closing the literacy and health gaps between rural and urban children,” says Yeh.

As university leaders in China study Berkeley’s systems, faculty and students are benefiting from new connections between Berkeley and China.  Last year a group of Cal graduate students visited Taipei, where they were able to study late imperial documents in the archives in the Academia Sinica and imperial art collections in the Palace Museum.

“It’s crucial for our graduate students who study art and history from 16th century onward to be on site and have access to those materials in the original,” Yeh says.

Through reciprocal visits, the benefits of collaboration extend the other direction as well. Next summer, for example, Berkeley will host a research camp for 15 junior faculty members and post-doctoral scholars from Chinese research institutions. 

“We will invite our own senior and young scholars to participate, so as to put junior scholars on both sides of the Pacific in touch with one another early in their careers,” Yeh says.

The Tsinghua Symposium at Berkeley last week featured many such opportunities, ranging from a panel about Chinese and American research in psychology to “Religious Encounters in China,” which offered participants an opportunity to discuss how religious practices have migrated between different regions of China and been adapted or rejected in relation to changing social and political circumstances and interactive dynamics.

The kind of open-ended interaction fostered by events like the symposia during the Tsinghua-Berkeley Week has particular relevance for today’s young scholars, adds Yeh, noting that graduate students today use social networking sites like Facebook to meet, share ideas and see what each other are working on, which might make the regular face-to-face summer or winter institutes even more valuable and a chrysalis for on-going scholarly relationships.

At Berkeley there is the C. V. Starr East Studies Library, which is the only stand-alone East Asian Library in North America. Yeh and her colleagues envision a day when there will be an East Asian Studies building on the Berkeley campus. “With all these disembodied interactions across the Pacific, it’s important to be in the same physical space,” she says, “For in the end you need to go somewhere to share coffee and talk face-to-face. You want an intellectual home for all these possibilities.”

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| Updated: May 21, 2010