Even as Tensions Grow, U.S.-China Joint Venture Universities Have Room to Develop

The year 2014 marked the inauguration of the Sino-Foreign Cooperative University Union in China. This Union, serving as an exchange forum and currently comprising nine members of joint venture universities (JVUs), symbolizes the emergence of a significant international force in Chinese higher education. Almost a decade later, the complex geopolitical landscape appears to be testing the stability and sustainability of this growing force, particularly its U.S.-China members. Despite reservations about the emergence of a new wave of U.S.-China JVUs in the short term, these JVUs are essential contributors to the enhancement of U.S.-China intellectual ties, the promotion of educational attainment, the facilitation of humanitarian exchanges, and the advancement of China’s local economic and technological landscape. This article contends that existing U.S.-China JVUs have room to grow, even as bilateral tensions sour.

What is a Joint-Venture University (JVU)?

Joint-venture education programs between Chinese and foreign institutions are instrumental to the Chinese government’s endeavors to establish the country as an attractive study-abroad destination and bolster its reputation as a premier hub for higher education. These programs and institutions facilitate the exchange of high-quality educational resources, attracting a diverse range of international students. 

As of 2021, there were 2,356 approved joint-venture education programs and institutions operating across the country, among which ten JVUs have legal person status, with four of them representing U.S.-China collaborations. These four are New York University Shanghai (NYUSH, est. 2012), Duke Kunshan University (DKU, est. 2013), Wenzhou-Kean University (WKU, est. 2014), and the Tianjin Juilliard School (TJS, est. 2020). The first two universities are research-based liberal arts institutions jointly established by New York University with East China Normal University, and Duke University with Wuhan University, respectively. WKU is a partnership between Kean University, a public state university in New Jersey, and Wenzhou University. TJS focuses on music education and is a collaboration between the Juilliard School and the Tianjin Conservatory of Music. Available data shows that the ratio of Chinese to international students ranges from 70:30 to 50:50 at NYUSH, DKU, and TJS. Except for TJS, which offers only graduate, preparatory, and public education programs, the other three JVUs provide both undergraduate and graduate programs.

These JVUs deserve particular attention when compared to other cooperative programs, colleges, or centers due to their unique status as legal Chinese entities. To be specific, JVUs operate with a relatively high degree of autonomy. They function under self-selected and self-appointed administration. They hold the right to sign legally binding agreements instead of relying on the cooperating Chinese university to sign on their behalf. They are privileged to independently recruit students, using methods that differ from traditional Chinese universities, which rely heavily on China’s national-level unified evaluation standards. For instance, NYUSH and DKU employ a comprehensive admission process that considers personal statements, relevant experience and accomplishments, letters of recommendation, interviews, written tests, and mock classes. In contrast, the enrollment process of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, a graduate joint venture program between Johns Hopkins University and Nanjing University with no Chinese legal person status, is separately managed by the two institutions. Chinese students in this program are admitted from Nanjing University based on their results of the Chinese Graduate Entrance Examination.

JVUs operate on a blend of different revenue sources. For example, NYUSH aspires to accommodate 2,000 undergraduate students at full capacity. The budget allocation for NYUSH at that stage will be distributed as follows: 60 percent from student tuition fees, 25 percent supported by the city of Shanghai, and 15 percent provided through private philanthropic donations. Varied funding sources from distinct entities for JVUs alleviate the financial risks that could occur from the escalation of geopolitical tensions.

English is the only language of instruction for all degree courses at DKU, NYUSH, and TJS. At WKU, 90 percent of the credits are in English, and 10 percent are in Chinese. In all four JVUs, teaching staff come from both the U.S. parent universities and institutions elsewhere in the world. Undergraduate students have considerable flexibility in choosing their majors compared with their peers in traditional Chinese universities. Moreover, students have the opportunity to engage in academic forums sponsored by U.S. parent universities. Most of them are also encouraged to spend at least one semester studying at their U.S. parent universities.

As independent entities based in China, the establishment of JVUs requires deep engagement and consultation with the Chinese government which can expose them to increased risk and uncertainty based on shifting politics and views of engagement with the United States.

A Clouded Future? Pessimistic Views on the Fate of U.S.-China JVUs

Strained U.S.-China relations, prolonged travel restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, and concerns regarding human rights and democracy in China have given rise to pessimistic views regarding the future of U.S.-China education cooperation. These views can be categorized into three main areas.

First, the deterioration of U.S.-China relations has led to increased division and hostility between the two countries. Since 2020, more than three-quarters of the U.S. population has held a negative view of China, while China echoes this antipathy with more than 70 percent holding an unfavorable view of the United States. Contentious issue areas like trade disputes, technological competition, and Taiwan have contributed to a lack of trust and a decline in willingness to foster exchanges and cooperation. This has raised concerns about the viability of U.S.-China JVUs.

Second, the global outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic further damaged relations and resulted in travel restrictions and the cancellation of international flights. Many U.S. instructors and students left China in the past few years, leading to a loss of valuable teaching personnel and reduced diversity within student cohorts. As of the 2020/21 academic year, the number of U.S. students studying in China dropped sharply to 382, per the Institute of International Education. This figure is down 97.4 percent from a high of 14,887 in 2011/2012. Physical separation due to the pandemic has weakened connections between students and professors. Strict lockdowns, quarantines, and closed-border policies implemented by the Chinese government during the pandemic have also undermined confidence in China’s commitment to openness. Some U.S. students have turned to other Asian cities like Tokyo or Taipei for alternative academic opportunities, suggesting a possible decline in the attractiveness of U.S.-China JVUs.

Third, there are continued concerns regarding academic freedom and autonomy within Chinese universities. Cases of references to academic freedom and independent thinking being removed from university charters raise doubts about the degree of autonomy granted to faculty within U.S.-China JVUs, such as the ability of instructors to freely deliver instruction on sensitive or taboo subjects. Human rights controversies over issues like the treatment of ethnic minorities in China and the handling of Chinese student activists have intensified protests among U.S. universities, as evidenced by the Cornell University Faculty Senate’s vote to terminate its partnership with Peking University, casting doubt on the desirability of collaborating with the Chinese government on JVUs for U.S. institutions.

These three factors are significant headwinds to JVUs’ operations. But other factors suggest a rosier future for existing U.S.-China JVUs. The two sides’ vested interests in these unions, the resilience of educational institutions in the post-pandemic era, and ongoing efforts to reduce conflicts of interest between academic freedom and China’s national security may all support JVUs’ continued flourishment in China.

A Positive Outlook for JVUs in China

First, despite tensions, both the United States and China have vested interests in fostering cooperation through JVUs. U.S. universities view establishing campuses in China as crucial for providing global education, diverse learning, and innovative curriculum design. Many graduates from U.S.-China JVUs continue their education at prestigious U.S. universities or work for leading U.S. companies, highlighting the institutions’ role in providing pro-U.S. intellectual capital.

Additionally, after over a decade of investment in JVUs, U.S. universities would find it challenging to relinquish the significant financial and human resources involved. Despite Duke President Vincent Price expressing caution about renewing DKU’s agreement upon expiration, it is worth noting the extension of NYUSH’s operating license from 2021 to 2042 through the university’s application to the Chinese Ministry of Education. Furthermore, in August 2023, Duke President Price made his first visit to the Duke Kunshan campus since 2019, where he met with the Chinese Vice Minister of Education and the President of Wuhan University. During the visit, President Price stated that “Duke University will actively participate in U.S.-China educational exchanges and cooperation and will continue to promote the development of Duke Kunshan University, with a specific focus on global issues such as climate change and public health.” In these two cases, at least, U.S. parent universities see a benefit in sustaining a China presence in the long-term. 

China, too, has an interest in U.S. educational resources – with an aim to foster economic and technological growth as part of its National Talents Plan. Duke Kunshan University serves as a prime example of a local government initiative to bolster the county’s strengths in factory production and international investment. For instance, the Kunshan government expects that the introduction of gigapixel camera technology by former Duke Professor David Brady to Kunshan through the DKU channel can promote the formation of a new industrial chain in Kunshan, encompassing optical lenses, specialized cameras, and more. This would contribute to the transformation and upgrading of Kunshan’s manufacturing industry. As JVUs are viewed as catalysts for local development, the Chinese government consistently provides financial support to JVUs and encourages campus expansions. Additionally, the Chinese government actively integrates these JVUs into local development plans and lists them as important governance achievements. This indicates that China is unlikely to easily dismiss the long-term significance of U.S.-China JVUs in its future development and will seek to allow continuing operations of U.S. campuses in China.

Second, as the COVID-19 pandemic in China winds down, there are signs of renewed interest in China among international and U.S. students, reflected in the number of applications. DKU, for instance, experienced a remarkable surge in applications from international students in 2023, receiving a record-breaking total of 3,326 applications for 150 available spots. This is a 77 percent increase from last year and far exceeds the 1,800 and 900 applications received in 2021 and 2020, respectively. Fifty percent of the applications were from the United States.

In comparison, NYUSH has maintained a stable number of international applications, peaking at nearly 19,000 in 2021 despite the COVID-19 pandemic. This success is largely attributed to NYUSH being the sole university allowed to bring back international students to China during the pandemic’s height. It indicates that a considerable number of international students still do want to study in China. This year’s figure of 16,773 international applications, though slightly below the peak, still surpasses the numbers from 2018 and 2019 with admitted U.S. students hailing from 45 different states. Despite a shortage of statistics on the percentage of applications originating from the United States, one source suggests that the proportion of non-U.S. international applications witnessed a 53% increase during the 2021/2022 academic year. These trends suggest a potential revival in confidence regarding China’s educational opportunities among students worldwide, even if U.S. students’ interest is declining. 

Third, JVUs are subject to fewer concerns about the Chinese government’s interference in academic freedom. These concerns are mitigated in the case of JVUs by the institutions’ legal status and their track record of operating autonomously. The requirement for accreditation from U.S. educational associations to grant degrees from the United States imposes a restraint on the Chinese government’s intervention. To gain accreditation, the Chinese government must demonstrate to these associations that the degrees conferred to students in JVUs uphold the same standard of education as their U.S. counterparts. This necessitates minimal intervention from the Chinese government to convince the associations of the quality of education provided in JVUs. 

Based on interviews with administrators, faculty, and students at JVUs, there are no significant limitations on academic freedom imposed by the Chinese government within these institutions. Faculty members enjoy the autonomy to design their syllabi and select reading materials without restrictions. Some intentionally incorporate politically sensitive topics into their classes. Academic discussions on subjects such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea persist, despite limitations on public forums and conferences. JVUs provide unrestricted access to academic resources and the international internet through well-equipped hardware, including Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and direct connections to U.S. parent university libraries. This fosters scholarly research and exposure to diverse perspectives. While China has stepped up its focus on data and Internet security, there have so far been no observed instances of JVUs being cut off from international networks. However, some challenges remain, such as “professor self-censorship, mild administration censorship of student activities, questions about publishing, and visa denials.” Nevertheless, research suggests that JVUs are able to uphold norms and principles of academic freedom, and strive to create an atmosphere that promotes critical learning and thinking. 

In addition, while there is a noticeable increase in China tightening ideological control, JVUs have not experienced noteworthy events in this regard. The recently introduced “ideology/national condition/civic education” courses mandated by the state for Chinese students in JVUs have undergone significant modifications by universities, shifting the focus to encompass Chinese history, culture, and local private economy entrepreneurship. The civic education course at NYUSH includes visits to patriotic monuments. However, the course is a brief component lasting only a week within the four-year program. It does not encompass the study of Chinese leaders’ ideologies and does not contribute toward academic credits. In other words, while JVUs still operate within China’s political constraints, they have managed to carve out islands of academic freedom that remain above water. The Chinese government and the U.S.-China JVUs have achieved a delicate equilibrium in navigating the tension between Chinese national security concerns and the U.S. pursuit of academic autonomy.

Key Considerations for the Future Success of JVUs in China

While optimistic about the future of the U.S.-China JVUs, this article proposes the following aspects deserve attention in the interest of their continued health and development. 

For JVUs and the Chinese government, there are two recommendations. First, the ongoing accusations of intellectual property theft by China from the United States potentially lead to limitations on educational exchanges and cooperation in sensitive areas, as U.S. universities navigate relevant laws and regulations. However, the success stories of Tianjin Juilliard School demonstrate that constructive educational exchanges can encompass various fields, including the arts. The leading efforts of Joseph W. Polisi, President Emeritus and Chief China Officer of The Juilliard School, along with contributions from “numerous partners, school and local officials” across both China and the U.S., have turned the longstanding vision of nurturing future classical music talent in China and promoting people-to-people exchanges into a concrete and tangible reality. This showcases that meaningful dialogues to enhance collaboration between these global powers can be cultivated in areas of lesser contention as well.

Second, prioritizing communication and transparency with all stakeholders emerges as a key lesson drawn from the success of institutions like DKU. Denis Simon, the former executive vice-chancellor of DKU, emphasized the significance of maintaining open communication with the Chinese government in safeguarding academic freedom on the DKU campus. DKU’s experience in maintaining a high degree of autonomy attests to the positive outcomes that can arise when this proactive approach is embraced, underscoring its relevance to the interests of all JVUs and the Chinese government. By adopting this approach, both sides can effectively clarify demands, establish limits for compromise, and find constructive ways to resolve conflicts.

In terms of what JVUs themselves can do to secure an autonomous future, a crucial aspect to consider is the subjection of U.S.-China JVUs to Chinese laws and regulations, which might evoke unease among U.S. partners. The 1998 Higher Education Law emphasizes the leading role of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) committees in the country’s higher educational institutions and sets expectations for students’ exemplary “ideology and moral character.” The 2003 Implementation Measures for the Regulations on Chinese-foreign Cooperation in Running Schools specifies that educational joint ventures should not compromise China’s “sovereignty, security, and public interests.” 

However, the Chinese government has shown a willingness to relax certain requirements, particularly for independent JVUs with a significant number of international students. The enforcement of many provisions has been inconsistent. Examples of this include granting a board of directors, rather than the Party committee, a role in influencing academic affairs and allowing academic discussions on taboo topics to take place on campus. 

Nevertheless, JVUs should closely monitor the evolving political stance of the Chinese government towards foreign entities within China and its influence over academic operations in JVUs, including potential changes to curriculum design. China’s recent Foreign Relations Law underscores the Chinese government’s shift towards a more cautious approach regarding foreign entities. The political stance of the Chinese government serves as a crucial indicator for assessing academic freedom in JVUs and predicting their future development. It is essential to remain vigilant and proactive in addressing any challenges that may arise to ensure the long-term success and sustainability of U.S.-China joint-venture educational cooperation

Qingyi Yin

Former Intern, Freeman Chair in China Studies