Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-564cf476b6-4htn5 Total loading time: 0.4 Render date: 2021-06-20T07:57:12.660Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "figures": true, "newCiteModal": false, "newCitedByModal": true, "newEcommerce": true }

Change, Contradiction and the State: Higher Education in Greater China

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 January 2021

Terry Bodenhorn
Former college dean, library director and professor of modern Chinese history at a public university in China from June 2010 to August 2019. Email:
John P. Burns
University of Hong Kong. Email:
Michael Palmer
SOAS and IALS University of London.
Rights & Permissions[Opens in a new window]


Copyright © SOAS University of London, 2021

This special issue examines various aspects of higher education in the People's Republic of China (PRC) and other parts of Greater China. An important concern of the issue is the relationship between higher education institutions (primarily, universities) and the policies, authority and controls of the state, while necessarily also giving attention to the rapid social and economic changes that are important contextualizing dimensions of this relationship. As the essays contributed to this issue illustrate, the “political economy” of higher education in contemporary China encompasses a variety of divergent pressures, and these forces are sometimes in conflict.Footnote 1 The importance of education as a key cultural dimension of Chinese society has long been recognized, but there is limited research on the manner in which universities and other institutions of higher education are now being shaped by the political goals of governments and by contextualizing socio-economic forces. In mainland China, the party-state under Xi Jinping's 习近平 leadership is intensifying its aspirations for China's leading universities to become world-ranked. Similar ambitions are found elsewhere in the Greater China region. At the same time, governments are encouraging and facilitating mass participation in universities and other institutions of higher education. These axiomatic aims do not necessarily cohere and may indeed in some respects conflict with each other.

During the first three decades after 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) governed higher education in a very centralized and rigid manner. Authorities organized personnel in higher education into danwei 单位 (work units) and accorded them only very limited academic freedom. Since the mid-1980s, however, reform policies (including the rehabilitation of intellectuals) have opened up space for institutional autonomy in areas of enrolment, finance and decision making. In 1985, a decisive step was taken to upgrade the Ministry of Education into an education commission in order to ensure that such a wide-ranging programme of reform (which included nine-years of compulsory basic education and a large sector of senior secondary vocational-technical education) would be implemented.Footnote 2

When the transition from elite to mass higher education commenced in the late 1990s and then beyond, policies pointed to the importance of university autonomy and a supervisory state.Footnote 3 It was anticipated that higher education access and quality would be enhanced and develop synergy with the unfolding programme of economic reform. While centralization remains the dominant force, local government departments dealing with higher education and institutions of higher education have come to enjoy some degree of academic autonomy. The Higher Education Law of 1998 specified that provincial governments would coordinate and administer local higher education institutions and that the state would encourage all social sectors to support their reform and development. Universities became independent legal entities with autonomy in teaching, research, admission, international exchange and cooperation, management of facilities and finances, administration of faculty and students, and the restructuring of internal governance.

The expansion resulted in a “massification” programme that drew on both public and (substantially) private sector resources to create study opportunities for many millions of students who would probably have otherwise not enjoyed access to higher education.Footnote 4 The Ministry of Education has retained control over a number of leading universities while the vast majority of higher education institutions that formerly operated under the authority of central government ministries were placed instead under provincial and local education bureaucracies. A number of issues raised by this programme of educational reform are considered in the contributions to this special issue of The China Quarterly.Footnote 5

A distinctive feature of the system of higher education in mainland China is the position of the CCP. In all publicly funded institutions of higher education and in the majority of privately funded higher education establishments, too, there is a CCP committee that leads the institution and supports the president in administering its affairs.Footnote 6 The Law on Higher Education (2015, revised) stipulates that: “The president of the higher education institution shall be the legal representative of the institution,” and Article 41 of that law confers responsibility for teaching, research and administration on the president. However, most presidents are themselves Party members and serve as the second most significant member of the institution's Party committee. The latter body typically approves the appointment of deans and the directors of functional bodies such as the teaching affairs office as part of its pre-eminent position in governance of the institution. That pre-eminence is expressed in Article 39 of the 2015 law: “In higher education institutions run by the state, the system shall be applied under which the presidents take over-all responsibility under the leadership of the primary committees of the Communist Party of China in higher education institutions.” As a result, in many practical ways the institution's Party secretary tends to be the more important decision maker. The extent to which Party secretaries have the managerial experience in higher education and the intellectual ability and interpersonal skills required to effectively fulfil such a central leadership role will determine the likelihood of achieving the institutional mission.Footnote 7

Effective coordination and cooperation between the Party secretary and the president is key to the smooth functioning of the institution.Footnote 8 Nevertheless, the pre-eminent position of the Party secretary enables the Party to implement its policies. The Party secretary is obliged to adhere to the principle of democratic-centralism and to maintain the paramount position of the Party committee in the institution, as well as to support the president within the parameters of Party policy.Footnote 9

In addition, as is well known, institutions of higher education have come to reflect China's expanding economy and engagement with the global economy and international institutions. They have therefore become involved in various internationalized higher education services and programmes. Initially, in the 1980s, internationalization meant primarily borrowing from and interacting with the “West,” especially through overseas study, as China sought to learn from industrialized capitalist economies such as the United States and the United Kingdom. By the early 2000s, however, China had learned as much from South Korea, Singapore and Japan about their rapid economic growth and watched with interest how mass higher education sustained the economic development of their Asian neighbours.

Internationalization was combined with the aim to introduce diversification in higher education and to present and elevate Chinese civilization worldwide as part of the campaign for national rejuvenation (fuxing zhilu 复兴知路). For example, thousands of Sino-foreign ventures in higher education were created, and China established over 500 Confucius Institutes to promote understanding of Chinese language and culture in over 140 countries. International students (especially from East and South-East Asia) flowed into the PRC, while Chinese students continue to study abroad in increasing numbers. The internationalizing process has also included participation in collaborative research projects and international university consortia. At the same time, internationalization is often viewed as a threat to state sovereignty that has to be limited accordingly.Footnote 10

Higher education institutions in China have responded to the demands of a knowledge-based economy through the introduction of entrepreneurship education, university–industry–business collaborations and society-wide knowledge exchange and volunteerism among students in public service. In addition, China's policies of authoritarian liberalism and political capitalism encourage education in the pragmatics of business administration. The past two decades have seen business schools in China become the most important area for the provision of courses in humanities and social sciences. A case in point is the highly successful China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in Shanghai, a cooperative joint venture supported by the European Union and PRC authorities. Business schools have also taken a lead in incorporating and promoting quality assurance standards in their curricula and management, and MBA graduates enjoy superior job prospects as a result.Footnote 11

Although there has been serious study of the organization, delivery and trajectories of university education in the Greater China area,Footnote 12 the three co-editors of this special issue believe that the insights generated by that literature could be usefully enhanced by the understandings they have developed through their own direct and extensive administrative and teaching experience in Greater China – all three editors have served, inter alia, as deans in universities in this region in the recent past. Other contributors to the special issue include experts in education studies with reference to China, experts who possess substantive subject expertise, and experts with higher education administrative experience. The essays offer an interesting and impressive mix of disciplinary strengths, with all the contributors enjoying direct or indirect experience of higher education in the Greater China region. Most essays focus on mainland China; there is also one essay on Hong Kong and one offering a comparative account across the Greater China region. The contributions broadly fall in three main areas of analysis: historical and general, specific issues of social justice, and universities that are in a loose sense on the periphery of the mainland system.Footnote 13 The special issue concludes with a reflective essay contributed by Professor Ruth Hayhoe, a very distinguished scholar of Chinese higher education whose comments on the unfolding project have been most helpful. In preparing this special issue, we have also been greatly helped by, and are grateful to, the Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong for hosting two meetings, both of which were invaluable in the evolution of this project – an international conference, held 13 and 14 September 2018, and a follow-up workshop on 29 April 2019.Footnote 14

Control and Context

The issue opens with an essay by Gerard Postiglione, “Expanding higher education: China's precarious balance.” This contribution offers a panoramic account of higher education developments in the reform era. The paper examines the implications of elitist policy initiatives, such as the 211, 985 and “double top” (or “double first-class,” shuangyiliu 双一流) university projects, which intended to make some of China's leading universities internationally more competitive. The development programme over the past two decades has involved universities being generously supported by the government (especially, in STEM disciplines in a few flagship institutions), but also held back by such problems as an over-rigid state bureaucracy and the pervasive influence of a personal ties culture. So, while China's higher education system has impressively expanded the student population, there remain significant difficulties in the areas of university governance, academic culture and assessment of quality, and a disjuncture between subjects taught within university and the needs of the employment market. Even though leaders have understood that enhancing economic competitiveness will require the development of more creative and independent thinking on the part of academics, the system has tried to accomplish this without the kind of institutional autonomy found in competitor systems in North America and Europe. A further complication is that reform efforts have become hamstrung by a felt need to deal with the problem of graduate unemployment. Authorities have generally characterized the primary goal of higher education as support for sustainable economic growth and moving China to a high-income economy within a diversifying labour market. There has been some progress in promoting commercial innovation. Government has encouraged universities to support and engage leading companies such as Alibaba, Tencent, Huawei and TJI. These tech leaders have been remarkably successful in expanding their role in the Chinese economy. This achievement reflects in substantial part the Chinese party-state's excellence initiatives in higher education, which have made science-based innovation a dominant policy in constructing internationally competitive universities.

Despite the enormous changes taking place in the development of higher education institutions since the late 1990s, as well as the radical changes introduced in the early 1950sFootnote 15 and then subsequently in Maoist policies,Footnote 16 it is possible to see significant continuities across the 1949 demarcation. Understanding of some of these continuities, especially in the case of mainland China, is facilitated by our second essay, “Meritocracy and the making of the Chinese academe, 1912–1952,” which Bamboo Yunzhu Ren, Chen Liang and James Z. Lee contribute to this special issue. Their paper explores changes taking place in higher education in the Republican period, and the relevance of these changes for understanding the situation in China today as well as China's place in the global transformation from an industrial to a knowledge and skill economy. Important dimensions of the contemporary scene date back to the Republican period reforms and earlier, especially the adaptation of the imperial tradition of meritocratic recruitment – both in university admissions and in post-graduation employment. The reliance on meritocratic selection by objective tests mitigated much of the impact of advantages of nationality, politics and property. In some ways, the Republican experience was a precursor to later global trends because of its emphasis on meritocratic selection. One broad change resulting from the Republican initiatives was the shift in student recruitment, primarily from male children in a national, rural population of landed gentry to the children – daughters as well as sons – of urban merchants and industrialists resident in the developing economic centres such as the Yangtze River Delta and Pearl River Delta regions. Although progress was made in achieving greater diversity, reducing the impact of nationality, gender, wealth, location and work, social and spatial inequalities nevertheless remained. Moreover, a gendered employment market as well as more generally the Republican state's search for “wealth and power” encouraged a concentration, especially in the leading universities, of male students in STEM subjects.

Several contributors give particular attention to the manner in which “autonomy” and its counterpart, “control,” are manifested within institutions of higher education and examine various political, economic and social dimensions of higher education through general accounts and sometimes also case studies. Areas touched on by contributors include political penetration and the role of the political authorities, governance, finance and personnel management. They discuss the relationship between higher education and elite formation as well as pressures arising from the quest for global standing, commercialization, a search for social justice and inclusiveness, and interrelationships between these factors. Other authors look more closely at policies and practices which impact ethnic minorities.

Of course, the relationship of universities and other institutions of higher education to political authority varies within Greater China from direct and centralized control (on the mainland), to arms-length control through a UK-like University Grants Committee in Hong Kong, to a shifting pattern in Taiwan. With political democratization, the Taiwanese state relaxed the KMT system of rigid control over the higher education system and pursued a process of limited decentralization of higher educational institutions. In Greater China, political authority is exercised to varying degrees through, for example, the appointment of key leaders of universities, the reservation of key positions for Party members in the case of the mainland, the appointment of members of university boards of trustees and councils, funding, and the influence of the state on how funding decisions are made, and so on. Within universities, we find variation in the exercise of political authority on the basis of regime type (mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong) and also discipline, especially STEM versus the social sciences and humanities.

These structures and processes of control do not exist in isolation but are also subject increasingly to pressures for change from widening environmental factors, including the commercialization of education, demographic shifts and globalizing forces. Another pressure for change, as we have noted, is the drive in nearly all systems to establish a select few universities as contenders for the global status of a “world-leading” university. Mainland China, despite current policies that amount to anti-foreignism in nearly all aspects of social life except the economy, is at the forefront of this drive. More generally, the differing systems increasingly compete with and within each other for students and do so not only for financial but also for political and ideological reasons. And they do this with Japan, Singapore and the West also offering alternative and prestigious opportunities.

Terry Bodenhorn's article, “Management and ‘administerization’ in China's higher education system: a view from the trenches,” fills an important gap in our understanding of the internal structure, operations and processes of control in universities and higher education institutions in mainland China. Hitherto, there has been only limited exploration of the nature of the relationship between institutional autonomy and university internal management structures and practices. The article, which to a significant extent is based upon important personal experience together with analysis of relevant Chinese-language discourse, examines in addition the relationship between mid-level academic administrators such as deans on the one hand and university-level administrators and administrative units on the other, and shows the ways in which the former are controlled by the Party and university authorities. This control places significant limitations on the ability of faculties, schools and so on, and their staff, to achieve important academic goals and maintain high academic standards. His analysis demonstrates an important problem – mid-level administrators bear heavy responsibilities but lack the necessary authority and opportunities for participating in relevant policy and decision-making processes, even when the outcomes of such processes have a direct relevance and impact on their work. Another serious complication is the dual administrative structure, which serves as a tool of the party-state for controlling the higher education system but which also reflects a deep-seated authoritarian management style typical of both traditional Chinese bureaucratic conduct and CCP dominance of the system.

The essay draws very effectively on the critical discourse within the Chinese educational community on the processes of “administerization” and “de-administerization.” Policies and practices of “administerization,” broadly speaking, involve tight party-state control over the academic activities and the administration of universities, whereas “de-administerization” seeks to reduce the scope of Party authority and instead aims to empower experts and to recognize the importance of professional academic values.Footnote 17 The emphasis upon the authority of leaders, given the sometimes whimsical manner in which leaders construct policy and make decisions, creates problems of sustaining initiatives and complicates university decision making and implementation processes.

The contribution by Jun Li explores what he sees as a distinctively Chinese alternative approach to the issue of “autonomy.” His paper offers a view very different from that laid out by Bodenhorn. Specifically, the essay characterizes “self-mastery” (zizhu 自主), a principle given particular emphasis in the work of Ruth Hayhoe,Footnote 18 as significantly different in a number of respects from the notion of “autonomy” as found in higher education institutions in the Western world. Li argues that “self-mastery” is an important feature of the “Chinese University 3.0.” This emerging Chinese higher education model began to take shape in the 1990s and has four key dimensions: self-mastery, intellectual freedom, a humanist mission and institutional diversity. These characteristics, which owe much to the Confucian “Doctrine of the Mean,” help to shape the “Chinese University 3.0” in ways significantly different from universities found in many other parts of the world. The essay points to a number of recent policy and legislative documents – including, for example, the 2015 revised Higher Education Law – to show how these values infuse official policies. The Higher Education Law portrays self-mastery as a fundamental governing model for higher education institutions. This model empowers university leaders, within overall CCP control, in such areas as governance, human resources, finance, curriculum and programme design, research and international collaboration. In Li's view, self-mastery has been a highly significant factor in the remarkable growth of the university sector in China over the past two decades or so. Applied to Chinese universities, therefore, the concept of self-mastery enables university presidents, administrators, faculty and other personnel to enjoy a degree of “procedural autonomy” within which they exercise powers sufficient to deliver day-to-day administration as well as to promote innovative learning, teaching and service initiatives, despite (or in collaboration with) the controlling CCP.

The Party's continuing dominance is, however, also reflected in various ways in the spatial arrangements of universities and other institutions of higher education. In his contribution entitled “Whither the global in Chinese higher education? The production of space in China’s ‘new era’ universities,” James I. McDougall assumes the role of cartographer, mapping and analysing the construction of physical and symbolic space within mainland Chinese universities and the organizational hierarchy which permeates such spacing. The essay examines how spatial mapping of the campus and the diagrammatic mapping of university hierarchies reveal a strong penetration of Party and state in university work. Perhaps the most obvious spatial example of developments in the past few years has been a “territorial” growth of higher education, in particular with the creation of university cities, often created in the “safe locations” of the outer boundaries of large urban areas, in order to assist in accommodating the rapidly expanding student population. McDougall notes how higher education reforms have in comparative terms been an impressive achievement, providing quality education at a relatively low cost, and are driven by progressive policy goals. Safe locations also offer effective coordination between central educational powers and local authorities. But at the same time, this expansion also reflects a Leninist press of domination from the centre and provokes various forms of local resistance – spatially expressed, for example, in the manner in which students and others choose to use campus space for such purposes as improper bike riding, aggressive use of motor scooters, sprawling kiosks for student associations, clandestine romantic meetings, and so on. Moreover, in order to lay claims to traditional Chinese culture and thereby to buttress national identity, there is a self-orientalizing use of geomantic values (fengshui 风水) and Daoist symbols. In the “new era,” some of the local, unofficial, expressions have become controlled more tightly by university authorities. Indeed, these authorities have been quite aggressive in their approach to campus spatial arrangements, embedding them with ideological statements and representations of the “new era” such as the importance of core socialist values. Looked at closely, the campus may be seen to be alive with hegemonic and counter hegemonic symbols and practices.

In 2015, higher educational reforms were intensified by the introduction of the “double top” university plan.Footnote 19 This is a party-state strategy conceived to develop comprehensively a group of elite Chinese universities and individual university departments into world class universities and disciplines by the end of 2050. This is the third and latest of the major initiatives in higher education intended to enhance significantly the standards of mainland PRC universities (following on from the now withdrawn 211 and 985 projects, introduced in 1995 and 1998, respectively). The “double top” (top subjects, top universities) programme reflects the broad agenda in Xi Jinping's drive for national rejuvenation and an integrated education-politics philosophy. In the new initiative, a small number of leading institutions are expected to be pioneers in the leadership's drive to secure world ranking for China's universities. The “double top” initiative strengthens party-state control of the university system and undercuts the aspirations and self-interested conduct of individual academics that might bring “decay” to the overall system. At the same time, the system in several important ways maintains control – for example, by careful supervision of academic grant funding, promotions and competitive ranking processes.

Hong Kong certainly provides such competition. John P. Burns’ paper, “The state and higher education in Hong Kong,” explores the issue of how this city is able, relative to its size, to create so many high-quality universities. Adopting a path dependency approach, Burns identifies critical turning points in the evolution of local universities since 1911. In the aftermath of the Second World War, colonial officials re-focused higher education towards the local populace and away from its earlier imperial pretensions, while Hong Kong's changing place in the global economy pressed the local state to expand university places, emphasize research and to introduce managerialism in an environment of relative autonomy. Since 1997, when China resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong, the relationship between the state and the universities has been increasingly contested. The central government has sought universities in Hong Kong that contribute to China's national development project but which do not destabilize society either locally or on the mainland. The local government has, to a varying extent, aligned itself with this project while, with some variation, attempting to keep the universities relatively free of state control. Political conflict in Hong Kong, however, has spilled over into university governance.

Issues of Equality and Justice

As we have stressed, two crucial strategic aims in the party-state's development of higher education in recent years have been the creation of “world-ranking” universities through such schemes as the 985 and 211 projects and “double top” programme on the one hand, and the extension by “massification” of higher education to a much greater number of students on the other. Although concentrated investment in elite institutions prompted by the first aim has intensified differences in the status of universities, it is also the case that students from a wide range of social backgrounds have been able to benefit from the greater access to higher education created by the second aim – the massification policies pursued over the past two decades. In order to assist in particular students from poorer families, various grants and subsidies have been made available to such students (and therefore, in effect, to their families). However, a number of papers on this issue demonstrate that massification and associated changes have not necessarily promoted greater social justice in the sense of equality of opportunity, fairness and equitable resource allocation. The paper by Ren, Liang and Lee, noted above, points to the robust efforts made in Republican times and more recently to promote a fairer and more meritocratic approach, which would in turn promote a greater degree of equality and social justice. The different contributions by Qiang Zha, Michael Palmer and Ling Zhou also look at several social justice issues in some detail.

Qiang Zha's article, “Equality and equity in Chinese higher education in the post-massification era: an analysis based on Chinese scholarly literature,” explores the evidence to be found in mainland Chinese domestic discourses on issues in the development of higher education following the introduction of the policy of massification in the late 1990s. This major policy change might be thought of as aimed at enhancing possibilities of greater equality and equity (in the sense of procedural fairness in the system). However, the paper indicates that progress has been slow. Domestic debate tends to focus on four main issues: massification, the costs and financing of higher education, access to higher education, and issues of social stratification and mobility. Their relative importance has changed over time, and the concern with equality issues is seeming to fade. As we have seen, a particular problem is that since the late 1990s, policies have sought not only to expand student numbers but also to focus investment on elite institutions. This investment has, however, contributed significantly to growing inequality, as wealthier families from more affluent areas have been more able to secure places at elite universities. Increases in tuition and fees, too, have meant that students entering non-elite (mainly local) universities have tended to pay relatively more but to receive comparatively poor-quality education. Reflecting these difficulties, the domestic discourse has shifted its predominant focus from issues of equality (especially that of access) to those of equity (understood as providing students with an education appropriate to their individual needs and learning abilities in order that they be successful). Continuing problems of resource inequality between schools in rural and urban areas, lack of balance in quota arrangements between rural areas and cities and corruption in admissions processes have resulted in ever-decreasing possibilities of social mobility through higher education for rural students. It is not at all clear that efforts to improve the position of rural students would in fact have a significantly beneficial impact.

Michael Palmer's paper, “Lowering the bar? Students with disabilities in PRC higher education,” also explores issues of equality, focusing in particular on the situation and treatment of persons with disability in mainland China's higher education system. Palmer specifically points to provisions in the 2015 revised Higher Education Law which provide that citizens – including persons with disabilities – enjoy the right to receive higher education. However, the extent to which the law and social practice enable students with disability to secure their educational rights and interests is limited, even though the Higher Education Law specifically enjoins Chinese higher education institutions to accept students with disabilities who apply for places if such applicants meet the relevant admission requirements. There are various ways by which the institutions circumvent this requirement in their admission standards and processes, which characterize students with disabilities in an exclusionary rather than inclusive manner, putting them in a “box” which separates them from ordinary students. Meaningful proposals for reform, based in part upon the results of empirical research, do exist. However, the political culture of mainland Chinese university campuses and general social attitudes to disability are likely to undermine any attempt to implement such proposals successfully.

Ling Zhou's article, entitled “Access to justice in higher education: the student as consumer in China,” examines the shifting policies of expanding and privatizing higher education and the relationship between the development of private higher education and the need to regard students more as consumers in the changing Chinese context. Her analysis examines, first, the legal and policy framework by means of which private higher education institutions gradually emerged from the mid-1990s onwards, and then it identifies some of the problems that have arisen with the expansion of private higher education. These include the difficulties that students as consumers of this private education face, especially when trying to make complaints and to assert their rights. With the aid of the analysis of several cases, Zhou is able to show that a continuing problem is a reluctance to create meaningful avenues for access to justice for the student as a consumer, with cases being dealt with either in terms of contract law or through administrative processes consistent with China's general inclination to paternalistic governance. This puts students at risk: if they receive substandard higher education in profit-making private institutions, they may well fail to obtain adequate compensation for the inferior treatment they have received. Alternative avenues such as an ombudsperson for higher education are considered to be too independent, although a better system might emerge in the long run from the introduction on a wider scale of the student charter system that is beginning to gain a foothold, especially in the private sector. Zhou argues that the welfare of students, in particular their ability to access educational justice, may well be improved more promptly and effectively if China's Law on the Protection of Consumers’ Rights and Interests (2013, revised) is made applicable to higher education cases in which the student is the aggrieved party.

The ability of lawyers to deliver justice depends in part on their principled standards of legal practice. In their essay, “Legal professionalism and the ethical challenge for legal education: insights from a comparative study of future lawyers in Greater China,” Richard Wu, Carlos Lo and Ning Liu examine the education of lawyers and the issues of the ethical practice of law across constituent parts of Greater China (but not Macau). They look at ideals of legal professionalism in the Greater China region on the basis of a survey of the career orientations and values of law students in Beijing, Hong Kong and Taipei. One major conclusion of their comparative analysis is that there is a need for greater attention to legal ethics in legal education as part of the efforts to enhance the development of legal professionalism. Their findings also suggest that the differing legal education systems in the studied region impact on the values of law students – future legal professionals – and also their future career orientations. As a result, differences are detected between students in mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Mainland students are relatively more focused on pursuing financial rewards while Hong Kong students are relatively inclined to give attention to issues of legal ethics. Taiwanese law students are also more inclined to observe ethical rules than are their mainland Chinese counterparts, which is perhaps attributable to the more democratic context in which the Taipei students are educated and expect to practise law. The authors conclude, however, that in all three jurisdictions there are ever-increasing financial pressures from the commercial world and that much greater attention to legal ethics is needed in legal education if legal professionalism is to take root in the Greater China region.

Minority Higher Education

Mainland China has pursued education policies that include substantial support for the perceived educational needs of ethnic minorities since liberation in late 1949. Support has included special provision for institutions of higher learning as well as secondary and primary schools and, since the 1980s, additional funding and resources from central and provincial governments and other supportive measures. Nevertheless, as the contribution from Miaoyan Yang and James Leibold demonstrates, minority higher education faces a number of stresses and strains.

Yang and Leibold's article, “Building a ‘double first-class university’ on China's Qing-Zang Plateau: opportunities, strategies and challenges,” explores efforts by university leaders in the Tibet Autonomous Region to take advantage of possible new opportunities introduced by the “double top” programme for university development. These possibilities are enhanced by a degree of additional space that the “double top” system provides local institutions in responding to opportunities in higher education in China. Looking in particular at the case of “Highland University” in Lhasa, which, in the eyes of a number of its own students is a second-rate university which only attained its 211 status because of ethnic minority preferential policies, the authors show the difficulties faced by higher education institutions in Tibet. Local efforts to secure the possible benefits offered by the new system have proceeded along two main lines. First, Tibet's sensitive geopolitical situation as a “national security buffer zone” is emphasized, as is the felt need to maintain stability (weiwen 维稳) in the Qing-Zang Plateau and to place Party work high on the list of administrative priorities at “Highland University.” Second, the party-state's policies supportive of ethnic minorities are invoked, and academic specialities that can be justified as appropriate for Tibet (and which bring comparative advantage) such as ecology, ethnology and Chinese language and literature (including Tibetan) are emphasized within the university's curricula. Both state and local authorities promote Highland University as the centre for international Tibetan studies and construct a narrative about the importance of Tibet and Tibetan culture. Partnering with elite inland and coastal universities is also pursued. But significant difficulties remain, including an inability to recruit high quality staff (especially given the low local salaries), policies that undermine international collaboration (so that, for example, academic staff who write about Tibetan issues find it politically risky to publish in international journals), and an emphasis on political correctness in staff development that makes it difficult for some of the more talented faculty members to progress in their careers.


In her reflections on the articles in this special issue, Ruth Hayhoe suggests that the higher education issues revealed can be usefully seen in terms of three broad areas of difficulty: the links between the state and higher education (traditionally very strong in Chinese political culture), the emerging legal framework of higher education (how the higher education regulatory context and institutions fit into ideals of the rule of law, and how theory and practice diverge) and accountable governance (inevitably problematic in an authoritarian regime). She also reminds us that the theory and practice of higher education reform in the mainland and in other parts of Greater China cannot be ignored, given China's growing global significance. Professor Hayhoe further suggests that despite the many difficulties in the contemporary scene identified in the essays and elsewhere, China's experience might yet be important – building in part on European university traditions, in particular the French école normale – to further develop the Chinese shifan daxue 师范大学 (normal university), with its emphasis on moral formation, inter-disciplinarity and teaching over research. Integrated more firmly into global educational development, this Chinese higher education institution has the potential to provide an education for students that better promotes the ideal of the responsible citizen.

It is clear that significant changes have taken place over the past two decades, contributing in many ways to success in China's developmental project. From imperial times through to the present, great value has been placed on education in China, including its universities. Despite this cultural strength and the significant reforms and improvements in higher education over the past two decades, the party-state has not been able to address successfully a number of issues, including those in university governance, social justice and ethnic minority higher education. The party-state has itself moved away from an emphasis on equality of opportunity to the strengthening of key universities and subjects. In addition to this policy factor, there are wider social economic and cultural factors contributing to growing inequalities The Chinese government is also concerned with ideological factors and the felt need to maintain citizen support of the state in the interests of political stability and social harmony while also securing economic growth.

Conflicts of interest


Biographical notes

Terry BODENHORN served as a college dean, library director and professor of modern Chinese history at a public university in China from June 2010 through July 2019.

John P. BURNS is emeritus professor and honorary professor of politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong. He researches the politics and public administration of China, including Hong Kong.

Michael PALMER is professor emeritus at SOAS University of London, and Cheng Yu Tung visiting professor of law at the University of Hong Kong. He is also joint editor of the Journal of Comparative Law and editor of Amicus Curiae.


1 The term “political economy” is loosely applied here to mean the study of control, persistence and resistance in the development of higher educational institutions, especially universities. This special issue does not set out to provide a comprehensive “textbook” treatment of higher education in China but, rather, reflects a number of key concerns of the editors that can reasonably be subsumed under the rubric, “political economy.”

2 As Cheng Kai Ming (Reference Cheng and Kai Ming1986) observes, in May 1985 the Central Committee of the CCP held a national education conference at which it was decided to reform the educational structure. The “Decision” was published as a central document in Renmin ribao on 29 May 1985. On 31 May 1985, Renmin ribao also published a speech which Wan Li (then vice-premier) made just prior to the “Decision.” The two documents are widely considered by Chinese educators as the crucial policy documents for promoting structural reforms in education in the following decade or so.

3 Law on Higher Education 1998; “Outline of China's National Plan for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development 2010–2020,”

4 As the papers by, e.g., Postiglione and Zhou in this special issue indicate, the mass expansion of higher education has depended heavily on the non-state sector. In particular, minban and independent colleges have been crucial in meeting the new demand created by massification. See also Wang Reference Wang2014, 45–70.

5 Excellent and succinct overviews, albeit now a little dated, are provided in Postiglione Reference Postiglione and Pong2009 and Li, Jun Reference Li and Pong2009. See also Kwong Reference Kwong and Pong2009. Useful current analysis is found in Jin and Mok Reference Jin, Mok, Jarvis and Ka Ho Mok2019 and other essays in Jarvis and Mok Reference Jarvis and Ka Ho Mok2019; Collins et al. Reference Collins, Lee, Hawkins and Neubauer2016; Li, Jian Reference Li2019.

6 Wang Reference Wang2014, 98–99.

9 It has been argued, however, that the barrier to university creativity in China is not so much this CCP domination as the serious limits placed on communicative freedom in the civil environment outside the universities, especially in social and policy matters, and the limited support given to the humanities and social sciences within the higher education sector. See, e.g., Marginson Reference Marginson2011. It should be noted here that the CCP has not yet extended this system to Hong Kong.

10 See, e.g., Li, Jian Reference Li2019, especially 17–21; Shi, Jo and Li Reference Shi, Jo, Li, Collins, Lee, Hawkins and Neubauer2016; Li, Fuhui Reference Li2016; de Jesus Reference de Jesus, Collins, Lee, Hawkins and Neubauer2016; Li, Mei, and Chen Reference Li, Chen, King, Marginson and Naidoo2011. There is also a need for the research literature to give greater attention to the issues facing students returning to China after overseas study, exploring their job search and career development experiences post-return.

11 The creation of the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) is briefly described at See also Shi, Jo and Lo Reference Shi, Jo, Li, Collins, Lee, Hawkins and Neubauer2016; de Jesus Reference de Jesus, Collins, Lee, Hawkins and Neubauer2016.

13 Following the withdrawal of one contributor, the special issue unfortunately does not provide a specific analysis of gender issues – although, in particular, the paper by Bamboo Yunzhu Ren, Chen Liang and James Z. Lee does provide a number of very insightful observations on gender questions. See also Jiang Reference Jiang2010.

14 For reasons of space, we are unfortunately unable to include a contribution focused on Taiwan, but it is clear that in the evolution of higher education institutions during Taiwan's transition to democracy, there has been a significant and distinctive concern with the social responsibility of such institutions. We should also note that the transition has not been without its own difficulties. Kuo and Chan (Reference Kuo, Chan, Jarvis and Ka Ho Mok2019) offer an interesting analysis of policies and implementation in the area of research and development initiatives, and of the place of institutions of higher education in them. They point to significant gaps and duplications in the system, reflecting the problems of inadequate coordination and resulting financial weaknesses. Problems of poor performance and declining enrolment, in particular stemming from population changes, persist because there are no broadly accepted mechanisms for restructuring poorly run universities. See Kuo and Chan Reference Kuo, Chan, Jarvis and Ka Ho Mok2019; Lo Reference Lo2019; Hsueh Reference Hsueh2018.

15 More specifically, changes made in 1952 did away with private higher education institutions and introduced a more Soviet-style model of higher education, with CCP-dominated specialized colleges and technical institutions replacing comprehensive universities.

16 These included the suspension of national entry examinations for universities and undergraduate admissions, which were abandoned for a period of six years, and graduate admissions, which were dispensed with for 12 years. University teachers were criticized for their “backward” thinking. Between 1970 and 1976, in the later years of the Cultural Revolution, worker-peasant-soldier students (gong-nong-bing xueyuan) were those students who were admitted to and enrolled in institutions of higher education on the basis primarily of the “class background” of their parents.

17 Reminiscent of the red versus expert conflict of old under Mao.

19 Referred to also as “double first-class,” as in the essay by Miaoyan Yang and James Leibold.


Agelasto, Michael, and Adamson, Bob (eds.). 1998. Higher Education in Post-Mao China. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.Google Scholar
Cheng, , Kai Ming, . 1986. “China's recent education reform: the beginning of an overhaul.Comparative Education 22(3), 255269.Google Scholar
Collins, Christopher S., Lee, Molly N.N., Hawkins, John N. and Neubauer, Deane E. (eds.). 2016. Palgrave Handbook of Asia Pacific Higher Education. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
de Jesus, Edilberto C. 2016. “Cross currents in Asian high education.” In Collins, Christopher S., Lee, Molly N.N., Hawkins, John N. and Neubauer, Deane E. (eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Asia Pacific Higher Education. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 195210.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gu, Jianmin, Li, Xueping and Wang, Lihua. 2018. Higher Education in China. Singapore: Springer Nature Singapore.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Hayhoe, Ruth. 1989. China's Universities and the Open Door. Toronto: OISE Press.Google Scholar
Hayhoe, Ruth (ed.). 1992. Education and Modernization: The Chinese Experience. Oxford: Pergamon Press.Google Scholar
Hayhoe, Ruth. 1994. “Ideas of higher learning, East and West: conflicting values in the development of the Chinese University.Minerva 32(4), 361382.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hayhoe, Ruth. 1999[1996]. China's Universities, 1895–1995: A Century of Cultural Conflict. Hong Kong: Comparative Education Research Centre, Hong Kong University.Google Scholar
Hayhoe, Ruth. 2004. Full Circle: A Life with Hong Kong and China. Hong Kong: Comparative Education Research Centre, University of Hong Kong.Google Scholar
Hayhoe, Ruth. 2006. Portraits of Influential Chinese Educators. Hong Kong: Comparative Education Research Centre, University of Hong Kong and Springer.Google Scholar
Hayhoe, Ruth. 2015. China through the Lens of Comparative Education: The Selected Works of Ruth Hayhoe. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
Hayhoe, Ruth, Briks, Hilda, Gordon, Andrew, Kybartas, Ray, de Munich, J.M., Moody, Frank, Pan, Julia et al. (eds.). 1993. Knowledge across Cultures: Universities East and West. Toronto: OISE Press.Google Scholar
Hayhoe, Ruth, Li, Jun, Lin, Jing and Zha, Qiang. 2011. Portraits of 21st Century Chinese Universities: In the Move to Mass Higher Education. Hong Kong: Comparative Education Research Centre, University of Hong Kong and Springer.Google Scholar
Hayhoe, Ruth, and Lu, Yongling (eds.). 1996. Ma Xiangbo and the Mind of Modern China 1840–1939. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.Google Scholar
Hayhoe, Ruth, and Pan, Julia (eds.). 1996. East–West Dialogue in Knowledge and Higher Education. New York: M.E. Sharpe.Google Scholar
Hayhoe, Ruth, and Pan, Julia (eds.). 2001. Knowledge across Cultures: A Contribution to the Dialogue of Civilizations. Hong Kong: Comparative Education Research Centre, University of Hong Kong.Google Scholar
Hayhoe, Ruth, and Zha, Qiang. 2006. “China.” In James, J.F.F. and Altbach, P.G. (eds.), International Handbook of Higher Education. The Netherlands: Springer, 667691.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hsueh, Chia-ming. 2018. “Higher education crisis in Taiwan.” Centre for International Higher Education, 5 August, Scholar
Hu, Yongmei, Liang, Wenya and Tang, Yipeng. 2017. Evaluating Research Efficiency of Chinese Universities. Singapore: Springer Nature Singapore.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Jarvis, Darryl S.L., and Ka Ho Mok, Joshua (eds.). 2019. Transformations in Higher Education Governance in Asia: Policy, Politics and Progress. Singapore: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Jiang, Hua. 2010. “The Chinese Higher Education System and the Impact of Gender: The Structure of the Chinese Education System and Previous Research and an Empirical Study.” PhD diss., Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg, Germany.Google Scholar
Jiang, Hua, and Li, Xiaobin. 2016. “Party secretaries in Chinese higher education institutions: what roles do they play?Journal of International Education and Leadership 6(2), 113.Google Scholar
Jin, Jiang, and Mok, Ka Ho. 2019. “Asserting global leadership in higher education governance with strong government in China.” In Jarvis, Darryl S.L. and Ka Ho Mok, Joshua (eds.), Transformations in Higher Education Governance in Asia: Policy, Politics and Progress. Singapore: Springer, 101113.Google Scholar
Kuo, Yu-ching, and Chan, Sheng-ju. 2019. “Research, development and innovation: transformation in Taiwanese higher education.” In Jarvis, Darryl S.L. and Ka Ho Mok, Joshua (eds.), Transformations in Higher Education Governance in Asia: Policy, Politics and Progress. Singapore: Springer, 171196.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kwong, Julia. 2009. “Private schools since the 1980s.” In Pong, David (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Modern China. New York: Gale Cengage Learning, Charles Scribner's Sons, 495–97.Google Scholar
Li, Fuhui. 2016. “The internationalisation of higher education in China: the role of government.Journal of International Education Research 12(1), 4752.Google Scholar
Li, Jian. 2017. Conceptualizing the Soft Power of Higher Education: Globalization and Universities in China and the World. Singapore: Springer Nature Singapore.Google Scholar
Li, Jian. 2019. Global Higher Education, Shared Communities: Efforts and Concerns from Key Universities in China. Singapore: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Li, Jun. 2009. “Policy and administration since 1976.” In Pong, David (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Modern China. New York: Gale Cengage Learning, Charles Scribner's Sons, 495–97.Google Scholar
Li, Mei, and Chen, Qiongqiong. 2011. “Globalisation, internationalisation and the world class university movement: the China experience.” In King, Roger, Marginson, Simon and Naidoo, Rajani (eds.), Handbook on Globalisation and Higher Education. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 242255.Google Scholar
Lo, William Yat Wai. 2019Taiwan from ‘world class’ to socially responsible.International Higher Education 98(2019), 2728.Google Scholar
Luo, Yun, and Sun, Zhiqiang. 2011. “Woguo ‘985 gongcheng’ daxue dangwei shuji sushi xiankuang diaocha jiyue 34 wei daxue dangwei shuji” (A study of 34 Party secretaries in China's “985 project” universities: their personal qualities). Zhongguo gaojiao yanjiu 5, 3234.Google Scholar
Marginson, Simon. 2011. “The Confucian model of higher education in East Asia and Singapore.Higher Education 61, 587611.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Perry, Elizabeth. 2015. “Higher education and authoritarian resilience: the case of China past and present.” Harvard-Yenching Institute Working Paper Series, Scholar
Peterson, Glen, Hayhoe, Ruth and Lu, Yongling (eds.). 2001. Education, Culture and Identity in 20th Century China. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Postiglione, Gerard A. 2009. “Higher education since 2009.” In Pong, David (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Modern China. New York: Gale Cengage Learning, Charles Scribner's Sons, 482–86.Google Scholar
Postiglione, Gerard A. 2013. Improving Transitions: From School to University to Workplace. Mandaluyong City: Asian Development Bank.Google Scholar
Postiglione, Gerard A. 2017. Society, Culture, Education and Globalization in Asia: The Selected Works of Gerard A. Postiglione. London: Routledge Press.Google Scholar
Postiglione, Gerard A. (Forthcoming). China's Precarious Balance in Higher Education: Domestic Demands and Going Global. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
Rhoads, Robert A., Wang, Xiaoyang, Shi, Xiaoguang and Chang, Yongcai. 2014. China's Rising Research Universities: A New Era of Global Ambition. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
Shi, Jinghuan, Jo, Lyeong and Li, Jiayi. 2016. “Prospects of higher education in the Asian region with specific reference to China.” In Collins, Christopher S., Lee, Molly N.N., Hawkins, John N. and Neubauer, Deane E. (eds.), Palgrave Handbook of Asia Pacific Higher Education. New York. Palgrave Macmillan, 211226.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Wang, Li. 2014. The Road to Privatisation in Higher Education in China: A New Cultural Revolution. Berlin: Springer Verlag.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Zong, Xiaohua, and Zhang, Wei. 2019. “Establishing world-class universities in China: deploying a quasi-experimental design to evaluate the net effects of Project 985.Studies in Higher Education 44(3), 417431.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
You have Access

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Change, Contradiction and the State: Higher Education in Greater China
Available formats

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

Change, Contradiction and the State: Higher Education in Greater China
Available formats

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

Change, Contradiction and the State: Higher Education in Greater China
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *