Asia Life

China’s Ivy League Love Affair

Without investing in its own higher education, China will fail to slow its“brain drain” to Western universities.

China’s Ivy League Love Affair
Credit: Harvard via

It is no secret that the Chinese are attracted to the crimson red of Harvard. Intelligence is drawn to elite universities like physical strength is to top sports teams. With substantial evidence from the social sciences that East Asians, on average, enjoy proportionately higher aptitude scores, elite universities have now come to entice outstanding Chinese applicants on an unprecedented scale.

Harvard is not alone. Whether it is the University of California at Berkeley, Yale University, or Cambridge University in the U.K.: those top schools brim with Chinese prodigies, relatives, princelings, or else engage in China-related research and cultural diplomacy. This is good for China’s elites, but there is a dark side too –brain drain.

The latest evidence comes from a $15 million donation to Harvard by a billionaire couple, Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin, in order to establish a “SOHO China Scholarship.” This wasn’t entirely newsworthy because Chinese donations like this to Harvard are somewhat common. However this particular story sparked outrage (or perhaps a well-orchestrated publicity campaign) on Chinese social media.

As business people, Mr. Pan and Ms. Zhang probably expect some form of return on their “investment,” apart from the SOHO namesake and patronage; that could include getting one of their own into Harvard -a family member, a relative, a friend or even many friends. Most Chinese commentators would have little problem with that, as caring for one’s family and friends is an inherent component of the Chinese/Confucian tradition (even Xi Jinping, the country’s president, sent his daughter to Harvard). In fact, most critics would do the same if only they had the financial means. However, their main concern is this: Why are they not investing in China’s education?

Chinese students (together with other East-Asians such as Singaporeans, Japanese, and South Koreans) have (on average) superior mathematics, reading, and science skills. These are readily available facts. Even the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD)“Pisa Study,” confirms that much: Shanghai-China, Macao-China, Hong Kong-China, and Chinese Taipei ranked the best in the world in these subjects. Why not their universities?

Beijing, meanwhile, is pushing hard to reverse the brain drain and, by extension, the flow of yuan. Tsinghua University for example, has attracted a $300 million donation from the Schwarzman Group as part of an initiative to train “future world leaders.” Peking University in 2010 hired former Harvard Professor and Director of Harvard Yenching Institute, Tu Weiming, who was notorious for having “assisted” hundreds of Chinese scholars into Harvard, cultivating a vast, almost cult-like network of adulation, loyalty, and “guanxi” (connections). Not wanting to fall behind Tsinghua, Peking University has announced the establishment of its own “future world leaders” program -the Yenching Academy.

China needs and deserves its own Harvard (and Yale, Princeton, etc). It is entirely conceivable precisely because Chinese students have momentum and a competitive advantage (which currently spurs them into succeeding elsewhere in the world). But as long as the elites in China don’t believe in their civilization, and would rather invest their wealth in education elsewhere, nothing short of a miracle is needed to wake China from its deep, historical slumber.

Thorsten Pattberg, PhD (Peking University) is a German philosopher and cultural critic. He is the author of “The East-West Dichotomy,”“Shengren,”“Inside Peking University,” and numerous articles on Chinese-Western relations. He can be reached at: pattberg ‘at’