Has Internationalization ‘Hit a Brick Wall’? After 4 Decades on the Front Lines, This China Expert Is Worried

Denis Fred Simon’s five years as executive vice chancellor of Duke Kunshan University, Duke’s joint campus with Wuhan University in China, didn’t end exactly as planned. With the Covid-19 pandemic spreading in China, he had to quickly close campus and help Duke Kunshan’s 700 students return to their homes around the globe.

Duke U.

Denis Fred Simon, of Duke U.

Simon is now back on Duke’s home campus, where he is senior adviser to the president for China affairs and a professor of China business and technology. But he has been working in and studying China for more than four decades, and has watched the growing Sino-American tensions with alarm, especially as they affect higher-education collaboration.

“Education and science and technology cooperation used to be foundation areas — no matter what happened in the relationship, education exchanges continued to grow and expand, and academic cooperation continued to grow and expand,” he said. “They held the relationship together, even in times of a previous turbulence. But now they have themselves become the source of disagreement and tension.”

Over the course of two conversations, before and after the presidential election, Simon spoke about what a new U.S. president could mean for academic partnerships, how to interest more young Americans in going to China, and how the pandemic could affect international education. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Duke Kunshan had to confront the pandemic early on. Were there lessons you learned that helped Duke’s main campus in its response?

By mid-January, Covid was building momentum in China. Within three weeks, when it was decided that we had to evacuate the students, Duke and DKU worked together to produce an online university option. We have students from over 40 countries, and you’re mobilizing a whole university to change gears. Little did we know that some two months later, it would be Duke itself that had to engage in that activity. Having gone through it with DKU, Duke was ahead of the curve.

Relations between the United States and China have deteriorated under President Trump. What are your expectations for President-elect Biden’s approach to China, and how do you think it will affect academic partnerships?

Some of the hard lines may continue to be in place initially, but I think that the policy environment will change. I think that we’re more than likely to see a more constructive dialogue, one that’s aimed at working to find solutions to problems rather than trading threats across the Pacific. The Biden administration recognizes that there are too many global problems out there that require Sino-American cooperation for us to have an estrangement with China. But I think that the security dimension will be here to stay until there’s a greater sense of trust rebuilt between the two countries.

We need to construct a new road map to take into account a new security environment, a different political environment, and the economic competition that has emerged between the two countries.

Are there things that you think need to be in that road map for educational and scientific collaboration?

I’ve been working with a few other people on the idea of establishing a code of conduct for American and Chinese universities. It would provide rules of the road for promoting and engaging in scholarly exchange. There would be commitments made about respecting intellectual-property rights and to open access for research and study. Everyone would have to be aboveboard in declaring what their home institution is and what their relationships are, so there are no surprises down the line. Then institutions will be held accountable.

The academic communities need to sit down with one another and recognize the tensions in educational areas. The code of conduct would be one way that we could ease the concerns on the government side about what’s going on.

Do you think those tensions are likely to endure?

Everyone seemed to join the bandwagon of China bashing, and very few people stood up and said, “Hey, wait a minute. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Now, that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems. Americans are right to be concerned about issues of academic freedom. There is a growing concern in the United States about self-censorship by Chinese students, who fear that what they say will find its way back to China and be a cause of problems for them. We’ve got to nip that in the bud. All students who land in the United States have to feel that they are safe and can participate in the American academic experience. That’s part of the reason for coming here.

For me, it’s never been about creating a whole bunch of democracy advocates to go back to China and undermine the regime. That’s never been my goal. We want to promote mutual understanding and greater awareness of each other’s societies. When these young people encounter one another 20 years later, then they’re able to work together and not end up in the verbal fisticuffs that we’ve seen recently between the two countries.

One of the worries during the China-student boom is that Chinese and American students don’t actually interact, and that international students become isolated. Based on your experience at Duke Kunshan, how can colleges do a better job of integrating students from abroad?

Just because you co-locate the students in one campus doesn’t mean they’re all of a sudden going to play nice with one another. Language, culture, dating — all sorts of things get in the way of a natural meshing of the cultures. At DKU, we took special trips with mixed groups of students around China. That helped build some bridges.

In the United States, if we want to get the most out of having international students and particularly students from China, we have to make a major investment in it. We need to recognize that this is not simply a nice thing to do, but it’s a valuable thing to do.

To play devil’s advocate, why does this matter? Why should we care if there is a relationship between the United States and China within higher ed?

In the age of social media, people are being thrown lots of information that is not true or is exaggerated. Particularly when we get into these highly nationalistic, emotional moments, we need to make sure that people have a real, realistic understanding of one another. That can begin when people are young and their attitudes have not yet been hardened. They can make new friends and reconfigure their knowledge. But I don’t believe that this is just going to happen. This is something we have to orchestrate.

The climate for political and academic freedom in China has chilled. Do you think international campuses like Duke Kunshan can continue in this environment?

I am strongly convinced that the Chinese government wants to maintain joint ventures and other international collaborations, because they see them as advantageous to the growth and improvement of the Chinese higher-education system. My sense is that officials in the Ministry of Education also want to continue to maintain cooperation and exchanges with the U.S. The linkages are of value to both countries. Sure, there are some challenges, but I think these can be resolved as part of a new, better-defined framework of education cooperation that takes into account the transition from hierarchical and asymmetry to greater parity and symmetry in terms of the capabilities of the two nations.

DKU brings Americans and other international students to China, but the overall number of Americans studying there has declined by about 20 percent from the highest number, a decade ago. Given its economic, geopolitical, and cultural importance, shouldn’t more Americans be going to China?

Given the deterioration in the economic and political relationship, people don’t see it as a fruitful pathway. Students today think, Let me invest in something else, where I’m going to get a better return. They learn a computer language instead of Chinese, or they study another part of the world.

But I think there’s a new generation of young people out there who are beginning to recognize that for them to have a comprehensive picture of the global situation, they need to understand more about the Chinese case. Let’s say they study international environment issues or global energy problems. How do I integrate the Chinese situation into this larger, comprehensive worldview? What role does China play, either as a cause of the problem or as a potential source of the solution to a problem? By introducing more students through that route, we might be able to entice a few of them to invest at the next level, to learn the language, to go that much more deeply.

Let me circle back to where we began, with the pandemic. As someone who has been in the field for a long time, what do you think the implications are for international education? Do you think international collaboration will change significantly, or do you think in the end, this situation will be just a blip?

What I hope will happen is that everyone will realize that a pandemic like Covid-19 is a global pandemic. The virus knows no borders, knows no culture, knows no ethnicity. It is a common enemy. This is not a Lone Ranger problem.

Now, what is the reality? Nationalism is rising, and I think globalism is at risk. Many of the things that we took for granted as people engaged in global education — that there was simply no way that they were going to stop, because they were good and decent — well, we hit a brick wall.

But innovation is occurring because of necessity. Take the fact that international students haven’t been able to return to campuses. We have to figure out ways to get this cross-border flow restarted once it’s safe. But we have to append that with new ways of thinking about how to foster interactive engagement with one another that doesn’t necessarily depend on getting on an airplane. We can deliver more value through technology than we appreciated. If Covid-19 has done anything, if it has caused us to think outside the box a little more, then that’s a good thing.

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