China is less open than ever

BY Mike Cormack   /  9 July 2019

In diplomacy as in life, people tend to expect reciprocity. That doesn’t mean having to carry out exactly the same actions, but if someone does something helpful, you generally want to do something in kind. And if you do something undesirable, you can’t complain if something unpleasant happens to you. It’s the way of the world, in areas as diverse as diplomatic horse-trading and parenting.

Yet China seems to be going out of its way to refuse any reciprocal exchanges. Everyone knows that the Great Firewall excludes substantial portions of the Western internet. (There is never any reason given, but the assumption that it must be on security grounds is spurious: how could Dropbox be a national security threat? Perhaps coincidentally, domestic firm Tencent has a rival cloud memory storage application. And I remain stubbornly sceptical that Spotify poses any risk to anyone).

This, though, is only one of the many ways in which China refuses reciprocity with the rest of the world. The US Public Company Accounting Oversight Board cannot examine the work of Chinese auditors reporting on US-listed Chinese companies. China argues that enforcing US laws on Chinese soil would violate its sovereignty and risk the disclosure of “state secrets”. (US Senator Marco Rubio has introduced a bill, the Equitable Act, seeking to overturn this). Similarly, Western banks and shops are increasingly using China’s UnionPay bank card (a state-run monopoly), while Visa and MasterCard remain hobbled in the Chinese mainland, despite pledging to opening its bank payments system by 2006. Permanent residency for foreigners in China remains vanishingly rare. (During the programme’s first ten years, from 2004, less than 7500 people succeeded in gaining it). Owning property or a business are bureaucratic quagmires.

And so to the latest example of China’s attitude to reciprocity. China’s national university entrance exam, the gaokao, is now increasingly being accepted for Chinese students seeking entrance to Western universities.  Cambridge, the University of British Columbia and the University of New Hampshire are amongst those now accepting the gaokao – which to be fair, has an English component to it, and is known as being fiendishly difficult. (Cambridge, for instance, will only accept students in the top 0.1% in their province.)

This feels, on the face of it, a reasonable move. Western universities accept many Chinese students – some 360,000 in the US and 106,530 in the UK in 2017-18 and 32,268 in Germany in 2016-17. Education is an area where countries can, if they are minded, recognise each other’s standards and bureaucratic procedures, and so ease the application process. It’s a recognition too of the value of another nation’s education system.

Yet, at the same time as the route into western ediucation is being eased for Chinese students, the Chinese government is actually blocking U.S. run AP History courses from being taught on the mainland. Reuters reported last week that:

Beijing on Thursday ordered a suspension of history exams run by a U.S. non-profit [company] for students seeking credit at American colleges, as the ruling Communist Party cracks down on educational material it deems unfriendly.

Five testing centres across the cities of Beijing, Guangzhou, Nanjing and Shanghai confirmed to Reuters that they would suspend the tests by 2020, after a directive from China’s education ministry.

The tests affected are in U.S. History, World History, European History and Human Geography, said the International Exchange and Cooperation Centre in Educational Measurement (IECC), a Chinese body authorized to administer the exams.

The asymmetry is stark. Beijing benefits, and the US gets nothing. Worse than nothing: a diminution of previous openness. US history – more specifically, the American reading of history – seems to be seen as a threat to China, or the Chinese government.

This shows is that the Chinese government believes that its rule is impermeable. It may have integrated its economy into the global system, but it nonetheless asserts that only its interpretation of history can stand. In history, ideology and ideas there is no Chinese free market, only state control. And the more that Chinese citizens are exposed to external influences, the tighter it strives to control this sphere. (Foreign Policy has noted how Chinese Students and Scholars Associations work through Chinese embassies to mobilize mainland Chinese studying overseas, for example to welcome Xi Jinping to Washington in 2015, and also to extend the Chinese government’s ideological control, for example to support the 19th party plenum in 2017 through viewing sessions and sending back photos or reports of the events.)

Anyone pointing out these facts often elicits the Chinese rejoinder that the writer or politician retains a Cold War mentality. But clearly it is the Chinese government which has failed to move on. It is really in Zhongnanhai where the free discussion of history is unwanted.

Let us know your view. Send a letter for publication to


     linkedin      Email