Canada must not allow the latest political and economic tensions to compromise educational opportunities for Canadian students in China.

The legendary ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu wrote in Art of War that “if one knows the enemy and knows oneself, one needs not fear the result of a hundred battles (知彼知己 百战不殆).” With Canada now caught in the new cold war between Washington and Beijing, is China now our enemy? Many see it that way – with some even equating it with the Cold-War-era Soviet Union – though an equally strong argument could be made that China is an ally with whom we should face threats such as disruptive technologies, economic crises and climate change.

But we can’t afford to let political and economic challenges compromise the long-term opportunities in China for young Canadians.

Relations between Beijing and Ottawa are increasingly fraught. People all over the world have been shocked by China’s detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. The restrictions on our exports are also exacerbating tensions, and this situation is not likely to improve in the near future. As the world’s second largest economy, China is increasingly influential on the world stage. It is our second largest trading partner, like it or not, so our long-term prosperity and the effectiveness of our foreign policy largely depend on our relationship with Beijing.

Compared with its peer countries, Canada has been underinvesting in sending students abroad. Other countries are investing in their youth so they can gain knowledge and experience.

In the US, as early as the 1960s, during the Cold War, perhaps the tensest period in recent US history, the US Department of State chose not to cut engagement with the Soviet Union, but to invest in American youth so they could to gain competencies about its enemy. It created the Critical Language Scholarship program, and the program is going strong in 2019. Every year, the program educates approximately 600 young students in 15 languages that the department deems critical for the US’s national security and economic prosperity, including Mandarin.

Former US president Barack Obama created the 100,000 Strong China initiative in 2009 to encourage young Americans to learn about China. Still in existence, its goal is to “grow the number of US K-12 students learning Mandarin to 1 million by 2020.” In the UK, the British Council launched Generation UK in 2013. This program aims by 2020 to send 80,000 students to study and work in China. Supported by the UK government, more than 40,000 young people have gone to China under this program.

The number of young people Canada sends to China does not stack up well in comparison with these efforts. The most important Canada-China national outbound mobility programs for students are the Canada-China Scholars’ Exchange Program and the Canada Learning Initiative in China. But these programs are underused. Only 40 Canadian university students went to China in the 2014-15 academic year, according to the Canadian Bureau for International Education. That compares with 163 who went to France, 101 to the UK, 93 to the USA, and 70 to Germany. More needs to be done to ensure the next generation of Canadians are confident, skilled and culturally prepared to engage with China in diplomacy, trade, science, education, tech and beyond.

With growing fears and anxieties over the deterioration of the Canada-China relationship, there is a real risk of these numbers decreasing further. Fewer Canadian students are likely to seek educational and employment opportunities in China because of negative public perceptions and safety concerns. In the US, there are already signs that the country is taking the path of disengagement from China. Recently, several American graduates of the Yenching Academy, an international program based in Peking University, were questioned by the FBI. Undoubtedly this move has made American students studying in China nervous.

Up until now, Canadian post-secondary institutions have been playing the “long game” and continuing their relationships with China in spite of political tensions. Nevertheless, we are hearing through our contacts in post-secondary institutions and government that Canada might be following the US’s example. This is a dangerous route for Canada to take; in the long term, it could further compromise our relationship with one of the most influential players in the world today.

Ironically, this is a great time for young Canadians to be seeking opportunities in China. There are numerous international scholarships that are not being utilized, as well opportunities like the Schwarzman Scholars and the Yenching Scholars programs. These programs, created to bridge the cultural barrier between China and the rest of the world, enable young Canadians to be part of a global cohort of leaders.

As Canadians who benefited from these two programs and lived, worked and studied in China, we believe that opportunities like these are of the utmost importance for Canada’s long-term interests. Through our academic and professional endeavours and experience in China, we appreciate how complex and unique the country is, how different it is from Canada.

Canada’s 2019 budget allocated $149.9 million over five years and $8 million per year on an ongoing basis to the International Education Strategy with the aim of supporting post-secondary students and young people to pursue opportunities to travel, study and work abroad. It is to be hoped that, as the strategy develops, sending students to China will become a priority.

Now more than ever, we should be following Sun Tzu’s timeless wisdom. There is an urgent need for Canadians to invest in “China competencies” today, regardless of whether we consider China a friend or a foe. Now is not the time to scale back on our engagement with China. On the contrary, if we want to win our “hundred battles,” we ought to be scaling it up.

Photo: Shutterstock / By Smarta


Do you have something to say about the article you just read? Be part of the Policy Options discussion, and send in your own submission. Here is a link on how to do it. | Souhaitez-vous réagir à cet article ? Joignez-vous aux débats d’Options politiques et soumettez-nous votre texte en suivant ces directives.