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By Andrew Moody | China Daily | Updated: 2019-05-13 09:13
Xue Lan, dean of Schwarzman College at Tsinghua University, insists education is also an essential part of China's continuing opening-up. [Photo provided to China Daily]

The Schwarzman Scholars program at Tsinghua University is aiming to create a better understanding of China, Andrew Moody reports.

Xue Lan says people around the world knowing more about China is an important part of the country's opening-up.

The 59-year-old is dean of Schwarzman College at Tsinghua University that offers the Schwarzman Scholars program, which aims to produce the next generation of global leaders from students around the world.

"When people talk about opening-up, they mostly talk about the economic aspects, like trade and investment," he says.

"My argument, however, is that to make this go smoothly you have to open up in other areas like education, in areas of culture and also people exchanges."

Schwarzman Scholars is inspired by the Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University, founded by the 19th-century British empire-builder Cecil Rhodes.

The new program was founded by the American businessman and philanthropist Steven Schwarzman, who is CEO and chairman of the Blackstone Group, a global private equity company. The highly selective program, which began in 2016, is a master's degree in global affairs, taking in public policy, economics and business.

The current intake is its third and has 135 students from 38 different countries, with only around a fifth from China. Most of the students are aged between 22 and 28.

Xue, who was speaking on the sidelines of the fifth China and Globalization Forum at the China World Hotel in Beijing recently, says the program is designed to attract top talent.

"It is highly selective and the cohort of students come from very different backgrounds. More than half are new graduates and the rest already have some work experience."

The reason why the college is based in China is for students to get a deeper understanding of the country that is going to be an increasingly major force in the world, something that might be considered vital for any future global leader.

"China has emerged rapidly over the past 40 years. So in terms of future global development and global governance, China is a force that cannot be ignored," he says.

"At the same time, you could also argue that China is the least understood by other countries. So that in itself is a very good reason why it is located in China."

The program consists of classes in three broad areas: leadership, global affairs and China itself.

"We also organize what we call a 'deep dive', which involves getting them to visit a specific place in China, to get to know what is really happening there, visiting companies, local governments and NGOs. This is part of what we want them to learn," he adds.

This brings up the question as to what specifically there is to know about China that is different from other countries?

"In the West, there are certain stereotypes or stylized summaries about what China is, and often this is so different from what is really happening in China," he says.

"Our challenge is to go beyond these stereotypes so that students begin to understand the complexity of China. We hope that students can partly learn that from our courses, but it is also a matter of learning from experiencing the reality of just being here."

Xue, who was formerly the dean of Tsinghua's School of Public Policy and Management, was appointed to his new role in September.

He was born in Beijing and his parents, both medical doctors, later moved to Tangshan, a city in nearby Hebei province. His education was disrupted during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) when he was sent to the countryside to be a farmer in Zunhua county, close to the Great Wall.

"It was initially very challenging, but when you look back, it was really useful in terms of getting to know what Chinese society was really like. I feel it was my first university, a social university," he says.

Xue was among the first generation of students to return to universities when they reopened in 1978, studying mechanical engineering at the Changchun Institute of Optics and Fine Mechanics.

After graduating, he worked for three years before going to the US, where he went to the State University of New York, Stony Brook, to get his master's and then to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to get his doctorate.

After a spell teaching as an assistant professor in the department of engineering at George Washington University, he returned to China in 1996. He joined Tsinghua, where he has remained ever since, establishing his reputation as a leading China academic as the dean of the university's public policy school.

"My main specialization has been in public policy but specifically in terms of science and technology and innovation policy," he says.

Xue is increasingly confident about Chinese higher education, with many students from around the world opting to study in China instead of typical destinations for overseas students, such as the United States and Britain.

"The recent data shows that last year there were close to half a million students from around the world coming to China to study," he says.

Xue says that many students see higher education as something beyond where you go to just simply learn Chinese.

"In the past, most people did, indeed, come to study in China to learn the language, but my guess is that people now want to go beyond that. They see it as a place to study engineering and science also. The biggest growth rate is in student numbers of those getting their master's degrees and doctorates here," he says.

Xue believes the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China this year is a moment to reflect upon just what progress has been made in Chinese higher education.

In 1949, there were only 150,000 students in universities, less than 0.1 percent of the population, and now the enrollment rate is around 45 percent. The oldest institute of higher education, Peiyang University in Tianjin (formerly Imperial Tientsin University), only dates back to 1895.

"It is a really good time for this generation to reflect on what has happened over the last 70 years in education and other areas. Although we have had more than 2,000 years of studying Confucius, so-called contemporary universities were only in their infancy in 1949, with only about 200 in the country," he says.

"Now we have almost 3,000. You have to look at the success that China has achieved but also the failures and what lessons can be drawn from them."

With Schwarzman Scholars, Xue wants to create a greater understanding between China and the outside world.

"It is fair to say that Chinese people probably know more about the outside world than people from outside know of China. However, they are not fully aware of China's image in the outside world. So in a way you see these gaps in terms of communication and understanding, which, I think, are huge."

With both Chinese and international students on the program, the hope is that some of this gap can be bridged.

Xue says the Schwarzman program will remain at Tsinghua for the time being and there are no plans to expand.

"It is a fascinating program and part of our learning process will be to improve it and refine it. We are fully committed to it and want to do it well," he says.

Despite its relatively small scale, although an annual elite intake of more than 100 is by no means minuscule, Xue believes it has huge future potential.

"It is relatively small, but its impact already goes beyond its size," he adds.

Contact the writer at andrewmoody@chinadaily.com.cn

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