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Three takeaways from the Yenching Global Symposium 2018

April 18, 2018

Last week I travelled to Beijing to attend the Yenching Global Symposium (YGS), an annual gathering of young China experts hosted by the University of Peking. The event comprised lectures, field visits, and panel discussions on China’s global role and the world’s influence on China. Looking back at those four days of intense networking and engaging discussions, I would like to share some interesting observations: 


1.   Chinese innovation is attracting more international attention. 


As an international affairs professional, most of the China experts I know come from the policy-politics spectrum. However, many of this year’s YGS delegates had all sorts of professions, including medical doctors, entrepreneurs, engineers, and scientists. What they all have in common is that they are looking at China as a leader and model in their respective fields.


As China aims to become an innovation superpower, it is investing heavily in artificial intelligence, renewable energy, pharmaceuticals, biotech, quantum information technologies, space exploration, and many other fields. China is now the world’s largest producer of scientific articles, and is the second-largest performer in terms of R&D spending. As a result, China is becoming one of the most attractive countries for foreign professionals and entrepreneurs. Even though there are still barriers for foreigners, the Chinese government is increasingly taking measures to attract and retain highly qualified international talent.


2.   Chinese NGOs are going global. 


One of my favourite activities of YGS was visiting the offices of Zhicheng Public Interest Lawyers. Zhicheng is China’s largest public interest legal aid organisation, and it mostly works on migrant workers’ rights and children’s rights. Anna Niu, one of the lawyers and researchers at the centre, gave us a detailed explanation of the organisation’s work, including its international outreach. She explained how this year, in collaboration with Alibaba Group, they hosted the A20 Global Social Leadership Summit on Child Advocacy, attended by children’s rights organisations from all over the developing world. The China-led Global Partnership for Children was created after the Summit, serving as a dynamic platform to promote global child protection cooperation.


For me, this was an eye-opener on how China’s internationalisation goes well beyond state actors. Chinese NGOs are also increasingly playing a role in China’s global rise. While there are no official statistics about the number of Chinese NGOs that are already working abroad, a conservative estimate exceeds 100. The best example is perhaps the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation, which now has projects in 12 countries in the developing world.


As Xi Jinping calls for Chinese people to ‘expand cooperation and work together with the rest of the world to make greater contributions to humanity’, it is likely that more private and public funding will become available for NGOs to operate abroad. Thus it is a safe bet to say that in the near future we can expect to see Chinese non-profit organisations taking a more active role in international affairs.


3.   China is investing in foreigners to tell its story. 


Many experts agree that China’s economic size is not yet matched by its global influence, and this is partially due to a dominating Western narrative on China. Thus, influencing international perceptions and discourse about China remains one of Beijing’s top diplomatic challenges.


YGS is hosted by the Yenching Academy, an elite postgraduate college of Peking University, which offers fully funded programmes to young global leaders. Tsinghua University also has a similar programme, hosted by the Schwarzman College. These are just two examples of the many scholarships that are now awarded by the Chinese government to students from all over the world. As a result, China has become the world’s third most popular destination for international students.


Apart from higher education, China is also investing heavily in the creation of Confucius Centres. Modelled after the British Council, or the Alliance Française, these centres aim to promote Chinese culture and language worldwide. So far, there are over 500 Confucius Centres in 142 countries, and more than 7 million students have already taken courses on Chinese language.


China understands that education can be its most powerful soft power tool, as it has been for the US or the UK. International students can foster a greater understanding of China abroad, advocate for a more balanced narrative on China’s rise, and enhance China’s international stature. Thus, as China continues to invest in boosting its international image, we can expect it to become an even more important player in the education field.


A final thought


These are just some of the many ideas and observations that I had during my trip to China. YGS was a truly thought-provoking event, and I would encourage more young professionals with an interest on China to apply for next year’s symposium. All costs, including air travel, are covered by the organisers (talking about soft power). It is therefore a great opportunity to engage in a fascinating debate on China’s rising global role. 

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