Oh, boy, do the Chinese love Harvard!

Updated: 2014-07-28 20:37

By Thorsten Pattberg(China Daily)

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Oh, boy, do the Chinese love Harvard!

Real estate tycoon Pan Shiyi poses with the waxwork model of himself during an unveiling ceremony at the Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in Beijing, China, April 16, 2014. [Photo/Xinhua] 

It is no secret that the Chinese have a crush on Harvard. Naturally, high intelligence is drawn to elite universities like physical strength to top sports. Ivory towers now have come to salute outstanding Chinese applicants on a scale unprecedented in history. Harvard has de facto become a Chinese outpost.

It is not alone. Whether it is the University of California, Berkeley and Yale University in the United States, or Cambridge University in the United Kingdom, the top schools are brim full with Chinese prodigies or else engage in China-related research and cultural diplomacy. Good for China's elites, but there is a dark side to it, too - brain drain.

The latest piece of evidence comes from a $15-million donation to Harvard by billionaire couple Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin to establish a "Soho China Scholarship". This wasn't at all that newsworthy because Chinese donations like this to Harvard are somewhat common, but this one in particular sparked outrage (or was it a well-orchestrated publicity campaign? ) on Chinese social media.

As businesspeople, Pan and Zhang surely expect some form of return on their "investment", apart from the Soho name and patronage, probably by getting one of their own into Harvard (a family member, a relative, a friend, many friends? ). Most Chinese commentators would have little problem with that, as caring for one's family and friends is traditional in Chinese society. In fact, most critics would do the same if only they had the financial means. Their main concern, however, is this: Why not invest in China's education?

Chinese students (together with other East Asians such as Singaporeans, Japanese and South Koreans) have (on average) superior mathematic, reading and science skills. These are readily available facts. No one is in the dark any longer. Even the UN study of the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment, confirms that much: students from Shanghai, Macao, Hong Kong and Chinese Taipei are on top of the world. Why not their universities?

Beijing, meanwhile, is pushing hard to reverse the brain drain and, by extension. Tsinghua University, for example, has attracted a $300-million donation from the Schwarzman Group as part of its initiative to train "future world leaders". Not wanting to fall behind Tsinghua, Peking University has announced the establishment of its own "future world leaders" program - the Yenching Academy.

China needs, no wait, China deserves its own Harvard. It is entirely conceivable precisely because Chinese students have momentum and a competitive advantage (which currently spurns them into succeeding anywhere in the world). But as long as the elites in China don't believe in their own civilization and would rather invest their wealth in education elsewhere, nothing short of a miracle is needed to wake a billion people and this once so proud nation from its deeply historical slumber.

The author is a German writer, linguist and cultural critic, and has books such as The East-West Dichotomy, Shengren and Inside Peking University, and many articles on Chinese-Western relations to his credit.