Schwarzman Scholars plan raises doubts over Beijing interference

The Schwarzman Scholars programme will see students look at deeply sensitive issues. Can it avoid Beijing interference?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 May, 2013, 7:04am

Stephen Schwarzman is already renowned in the global financial community for Blackstone, the investment firm the American co-founded in 1985. He will also be remembered now as a good friend of China, after his launch of a US$300 million scholarship programme dedicated to the world's No 2 economy.

The "Schwarzman Scholars" programme, which won blessings from US President Barack Obama and China's new leader, Xi Jinping, aims to attract 200 students annually, including 45 per cent from the US and 20 per cent from China, to study at Tsinghua University in Beijing, one of the mainland's most prestigious universities. Those who are admitted to the elite programme will be asked to focus on areas including public policy, economics and business, international relations and engineering.

The programme, described by Schwarzman as the largest charitable effort in China's history where the funds are coming largely from outside the country, has quickly attracted both praise and concern since it was announced late last month.

China-focused scholarship or educational programmes are seen as reflecting the fast-growing importance of China on the global political and economic stages. But critics say the key to making the programmes work is not only about how much money is raised but also about how to select the right talent and run the programmes without government interference.

Britain has been working with the Chinese government for many years on the Chevening scholarship, which is funded by the Foreign Office in London.

The scholarship is open to public applications in China, but it is also understood that part of the quota will be reserved for talent referred directly by the Beijing government, often including many mid-rank central or local government-level officials who are selected by the Communist Party of China.

Last year, 89 Chevening scholars from China studied in Britain, and most are expected to return to China after they complete their studies. Some past Chevening scholars returned to take up important positions in the mainland's public security and propaganda ministries, while a few others chose to stay abroad.

Schwarzman said he was inspired by the globally famous Rhodes scholarship programme, created in 1902 by the British statesman Cecil Rhodes. Past Rhodes scholars have included the former US president Bill Clinton, the former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke, the astronomer Edwin Hubble, the authors Edward de Bono and Naomi Wolf and the singer Kris Kristofferson.

Some of the subjects that Schwarzman expects his scholars to study are widely considered politically sensitive on the mainland, for example, research on public policy-related topics such as Beijing's "one family, one child" policy. Some Chinese scholars with a focus on the mainland's Aids situation are often monitored closely by the government.

Asked about concerns over freedom of research on the mainland, Schwarzman told the South China Morning Post: "I have no indication that the programme will be handled any differently than an analogous programme at any of the great universities in the rest of the world.

"The faculty will be especially selected and will be composed of both Western and Chinese professors. The design of the curriculum and its implementation will be overseen by an academic advisory board composed of leading academics from the top universities from around the world," he said.

Late last year, the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), one of the city's top academic institutions, announced a plan to launch a new campus in Shenzhen, which raised concerns among some local legislators and students about its academic independence. Many events in China's contemporary history, such as the pro-democracy student movement in 1989, are still not allowed to be discussed and debated publicly on the mainland. CUHK's vice-chancellor, Joseph Sung Jao-yiu, promised that its Shenzhen campus would enjoy academic freedom.

The New York University also has a mainland campus. It partnered the East China Normal University to establish NYU Shanghai in 2011. Other American universities, for example Yale, are also considering educational options in China, according to industry watchers.

One private equity industry veteran said: "I think we should give some due credit to Schwarzman for this big new scholarship programme dedicated to China. It will help people inside and outside China to know more about China and the rest of the world.

"He's a smart businessman and he chooses China … because the rise of China has become an inevitable global trend … he will not be the last foreigner to donate a big amount of money to China."