China Power

China and the Geopolitics of Knowledge: Winning the Long Game

Beijing has proven itself adept at playing the long game, and its efforts are coming to fruition.

China and the Geopolitics of Knowledge: Winning the Long Game
Credit: Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash

An important piece of news went practically unnoticed in January 2018: according to Nature, China surpassed the United States in the number of articles published on Elsevier’s Scopus, one of the world’s top scientific databases. Although on average, Chinese publications are not as influential as North American and European studies, they do help set trends for many disciplines, and might well push the Western world into a peer-to-peer dialogue that would not be happening otherwise. As recent figures show, there has been a sharp increase of 37 percent in the number of citations of China-based authors in academic articles over the last five years. That serves as a telling proxy indicator for who is now massively investing in knowledge and will, in all probability, harvest the power of that knowledge in the future.

China’s scientific leap forward comes accompanied by a persistent effort to catch up with the best and the brightest in at least two related fields: innovation and higher education. When it comes to innovation, the World Economic Forum reports that China is now the second-largest R&D investor in the world, after the United States. In many metrics, such as patents, China is rapidly catching up to the United States.

In the domain of higher education, China now has four universities which stand among the world’s top 100 research-led institutions – namely Tsinghua (24th), Peking (39th), Fudan (43th) and Jiao Tong (61st) – according to Quacquarelli Symonds, Britain’s education consulting company. Just a decade ago, there were no Chinese institutions among the top 100.

This consistent drive to position the country in more favorable ways within the global academic and educational maps also manifests in both inbound and outbound student flows. While almost one-third of all Chinese educational emigres leave the country to study in the United States (around 225,000 every year), China is itself becoming an attractive destination for students, especially those coming from South and Southeast Asia. China’s mainstreaming endeavors have brought the country up to sixth place in the QS 2017 World University Rankings for overall higher education performance – a remarkably steep rise.

Another interesting dimension concerns China’s aggressive policy on English-language learning. Several years ago, it was suggested by a Cambridge University Press report that China had as many as 350 million English language learners, surpassing not only India but also the United States (which has a total population of over 323 million). Curiously though, China remains a country where English is not well or widely spoken — thus the country’s levels of idiom proficiency are low. While there are good historical, as well as linguistic, reasons to account for this relative handicap, one should be not doubtful of Beijing’s determination to completely alter this state of affairs within one or two decades.

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Take the case of research-led think tanks in China. An almost nonexistant entity in the country a few years back, they are now a relevant part of China’s foreign policy establishment and look actively engaged in the mission of making the “Chinese way” more palatable to foreign peoples and governments. Ideas such as “panda diplomacy,” “human rights as social harmony,” and the Belt and Road Initiative — which has proven useful for the sake of boosting China’s soft and hard power — are the products of ingenious political engineering and marketing, and definitely relied on cutting-edge social research methodology and large-scale opinion polls to come to life.

What’s more, China’s approach to knowledge is already bearing fruit in terms of making foreign policy. A collection of topics as cognitively sophisticated and even futuristic as the exploration and use of outer space, global demographics and big data analytics, information technology and connectivity, cybersecurity and espionage, sustainability and risk management, renewables and energy governance, financial economics, robotics and artificial intelligence, new materials, quantum physics and warfare, and so on, have become the bread and butter of Chinese career diplomats, thus catering to the country’s most urgent present and future needs.

China’s bet on knowledge is already paying off; but this game, which requires lots of strategic thinking and stamina, is to be played in the long run. In many ways, that sounds even better and more promising news for the Chinese decisionmakers, who are traditionally not given to fast cooking.