The U.S.-China Decoupling Is Coming for Academia

The U.S.-China Decoupling Is Coming for Academia
Students at the China Executive Leadership Academy listen to a classroom lecture in Jinggangshan, Jiangxi province, April 9, 2021 (AP photo by Emily Wang).

Discussions in Washington and Beijing about U.S.-China decoupling, both potential and actual, often focus on diplomacy, technology and trade. But while the growing tensions between the two strategic rivals are most visible in these areas, decoupling is also taking place in other, often-overlooked dimensions of the relationship, including in the academic and intellectual realm.

In late May, China’s Ministry of Education and the Chinese Communist Party’s Propaganda Department jointly released an action plan to develop a distinctly Chinese approach to the academic disciplines of philosophy and the social sciences in China's higher education. A report in the state-run People’s Daily newspaper explained that the plan aims to operationalize recent remarks by Chinese President Xi Jinping calling for “accelerating the construction of philosophy and social sciences with Chinese characteristics.”

In fact, it’s a project that Xi has championed since at least 2016—but it’s clearly gaining momentum as a priority. Just a week before the new plan was reported in state media, Shi Taifeng, the recently appointed head of the influential Beijing-based Chinese Academy of Social Sciences think tank, gave a speech similarly emphasizing the importance of building “philosophy and social sciences with Chinese characteristics.” Shi, a close ally of Xi’s, previously served as party secretary of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, where he spearheaded controversial education reforms to impose Mandarin language education on ethnic Mongolian students.

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