The Asian Century is Underway – helped by Covid-19

The Asian Century is Underway – helped by Covid-19

It is May 2010 and I am lecturing to a group of young American undergrads in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

They are on a study abroad programme, hosted at a local university. The title of the 12-lecture programme is ‘Gender Identity and Sexuality in Thai Society’.

For all 28 students this is their first time in Asia, indeed for most, their first exploration of a world beyond the Eastern Seaboard of the USA. Like the vast majority of young Westerners visiting Asia for the first time, they are simultaneously mesmerised, delighted, confused and disturbed by their encounters with a very different reality.

But whatever culture shock they experienced on an individual level, all could fall back on the comfort of knowing that America Ruled.

They had little doubt that being white, middle-class, educated young Americans, they were privileged and entitled. They were the world’s elite, invested with a subliminal cultural confidence placing them, and all other Americans, firmly at the top of the global power hierarchy. They arrived in Asia with this assumption packed in their luggage.

Being a provocative type of lecturer, I felt it my duty to prick this particular bubble.

During this lecture I invited the group to imagine a scene in the not-too-distant future. It is J.F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, and an almost continual stream of Asian-based airlines are arriving full of Chinese tourists. These tourists disembark, totting their expensive luggage and wearing their designer gear. Nothing especially remarkable about that you may say, except for one single difference to previous Chinese arrivals to the USA over the centuries.

These Chinese tourists feel superior.

They arrive in America not wide-eyed by its enormous wealth and prosperity nor cowed by its brusque, individualistic culture. No, these Chinese tourists arrive with an unbridled sense of supremacy. These visitors are the ones who feel privileged and entitled.

They see themselves as the global elite.

These Chinese consider the Americans pretty much as Americans have considered the Chinese, indeed all Asians, for centuries; as a second-class people, with an inferior culture and lower level of sophistication and prosperity.

Not surprisingly, my innocent group of young Americans, raised to believe they were representatives of the ‘best and most powerful country on earth’, found this scenario hard to imagine and even harder to accept. Indeed, to them it was incomprehensible that China could ever usurp America as the world’s leading power. They could not comprehend a situation whereby Asians would look down on them. That would be to completely overturn the American narrative of ‘God’s Greatest Country’. Their inability to see a new reality was not necessarily due to arrogance but rather because they’d come to believe the story they’d been told about America’s hegemonic relationship to the rest of the world.

However, my aim was not to get my students to accept this scenario, but to recognise how unacceptable the scenario was to them. And for them to ask themselves why they felt it to be so disturbing.

That was the question they needed to answer. If they could.

I was able to conjure up this future because, having lived in South East Asia for a number of years, I’d already spotted the signs of change. I felt sure it was going to happen. When, in January 2015, Joseph E. Stiglitz duly predicted that this would be the ‘Chinese Century’ and that Americans would need to wake-up to their new second-class global status, it was a conclusion I’d arrived at some years prior. What neither myself nor Stiglitz foresaw, however, was a nasty little virus emerging out of a wet-market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late in 2019, and the resulting pandemic accelerating this global power shift, leading to a remarkable and abrupt exposure of the falsehood that ‘America Rules’.

If I had those same students in front of me today I wouldn’t need to prick their sense of unquestioned supremacy because being intelligent young Americans, they’ll already be aware that bubble has burst. They will be waking up, though maybe not yet quite sure just what they’re waking up to.

The Dilemma

However, if you imagine this historic global shift to the East leaves all Chinese delighted and dancing in the streets, waving their red flags with new-found vigour, then you’d be mistaken. It leaves a great many Chinese – especially the older, urban rich – with an acute dilemma. When you’ve been raised on the colonialist status quo, had it embedded into you since birth that West is good, East is second best, then it is a massive shock to suddenly discover the object of your admiration and aspirations disintegrating before your eyes.

Andrew is a 40-something Chinese US dollar millionaire. He doesn’t look nor indeed feel a wealthy man – all his friends and family have money. Plus, to acquire his wealth Andrew works seven days a week and has done for many years. Which makes him an unassuming, humble but very alert guy. His ceramics factory in Foshan, a city of 10 million in the Pearl River Delta region of China, produces the floor tiles for the world’s homes. Last year, his 18-year-old daughter, Lisa, graduated from an international school in Guangzhou and was accepted for a place at Boston University majoring in Biochemistry, commencing this year. I actually helped guide Lisa on preparing for study in the West.

Not only has Lisa not yet arrived in Boston (Covid-19 put a stop to that), her family are now seriously doubting the wisdom of even going to America to study.

They are asking themselves a simple question: for wealthier middle-class Chinese students like Lisa, what advantages does America have over China when it comes to higher education?

The dilemma is that they cannot find many advantages, and those they do find have to be offset against some very stark and unpleasant realities.

Like millions of Chinese middle-class families who have for decades built their hopes of generational success and familial social advancement on degrees from prestigious Western universities, Lisa and her family are now having to undertake a drastic and unexpected reappraisal.

Because for the first time in living memory, the West not only looks unattractive to families such as Lisa’s, it is also decidedly unwelcoming.

The loss of attraction and desire

The Guangzhou international school that Lisa attended for most of her childhood had a single marketing angle; to prepare and enable Chinese students to enter the best Western universities. Andrew never had any doubts that Lisa would do her first degree in the West. The choice was only between the UK, Canada and the USA. Money was not a problem. A family holiday in the US settled the issue – Boston was the ideal city. For one thing, Lisa wouldn’t feel culturally isolated. In the 2018-19 academic year, Boston University hosted over 10,000 of the 1.1 million international students in the USA, a third of these students being Chinese.

All that, however, is changing.

Right now, Lisa cannot leave for Boston due to travel restrictions, but as Andrew puts it:

She may not go at all. We are all rethinking the situation since the pandemic. For many Chinese, the USA, in fact the West, suddenly doesn’t look as attractive a proposition for university education as it once did”

Western universities don’t yet know just how big a drop there will be in international student enrolment, but it will be severe. In the UK alone, the number of Chinese applicants for a Tier 1 visa (a common route for wealthy students to study in the UK) is down 72% in the first three months of this year. And the reason, closed visa offices aside, is a series of self-inflicted blows to the image of the West as the centre of cultural, political and educational sophistication, enlightenment, liberal values, academic excellence, tolerance and critical thinking:

  1. Brexit
  2. Trump
  3. Anti-Chinese sentiment
  4. Asian-focused Racism
  5. Endemic violence (race riots and mass shootings in the USA)
  6. Leadership failure (especially over Covid-19)
  7. Anti-immigration rhetoric
  8. Restrictions on the foreign student work programme (US)
  9. Trump’s attack on STEM Chinese grad students and researchers
  10. US denying entry to Chinese students/scholars with supposed links to China’s military
  11. Xenophobia fuelled by Trump calling Covid-19 the ‘Chinese virus’
  12. US universities raising fears of Chinese students being engaged in espionage
  13. The closing down of Confucius Institutes across the Western world
  14. The rise of right-wing extremism in Europe, UK, USA
  15. Attacks on Chinese in Canada, UK, USA and European cities
  16. Economic depression across the Western world

Any one or even several of these blows are unlikely to dissuade the average Chinese middle-class family from wanting their child to attend university in the West. After all, the Chinese have coped with far worse during their history. But when taken together, and set against the rising standards of Chinese universities, the gateway to the West is no longer as appealing or desirable as it was even 12 months ago.

You can decide for yourself which of these 16 blows wields the most force on the Chinese (and Asian) psyche, but for me it is number 6: the collective failure of the US, Europe and UK in the face of Covid-19, made vivid when set against the relative ease by which most Asian countries handled the pandemic, especially China. This view is echoed by Raffaele Flackett, a director of BE Education a company helping Chinese students find placements in British schools:

“Even if [UK] schools were to open tomorrow and coronavirus were to be eliminated I still think there would be a certain amount of distrust, and its aimed mainly at our government. The UK government and its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has been viewed negatively by many in China.”

Covid-19, and the pathetic Western social and political responses to it, are certainly emerging as a key reason why wealthy Chinese families no longer have the same desire to emigrate, educate their children, or invest in the West.

WeChat groups across China are currently flooded with comments such as these:

“Many of us are very surprised at how poorly some advanced countries in Western Europe have handled the pandemic. We always thought that both the quality of life and health in Western societies were far better than in China, but now our views have changed.” (Alice Tan, business owner based in Guangzhou)

“The death rate, economic shutdown, and recessions in America and Europe have had a great psychological impact on China’s middle class, discouraging their interest [in moving].” (Bill Liu, a Guangzhou-based agent helping wealth Chinese emigrate and buy property overseas)

“I cannot help but worry about whether my son will be discriminated against in the foreign school – whether he can get the same respect and opportunities compared to a few years ago.” (Gua Hua, a Shenzen resident whose son was due to start university in California this autumn)

“It casts a psychological shadow for us. We originally planned to send our 7-year-old son to Canada for junior school next year or the year after. I had hoped he would adapt to the Western environment from an early age. However, the economic impact of the pandemic [on the West] has made us pessimistic.” (Jade Zheng, who owns property and a business in Shenzen)

Sure, you can blame individual politicians (Donald Trump and Boris Johnson immediately spring to mind) but perhaps the cause is deeper rooted than simply the failings of two blustering, inadequate political leaders.

The Chinese government has many problems, but the pandemic makes me feel that foreign countries’ governments have even bigger ones. We (Chinese) will all have second thoughts [about the attractions of the West] from now on.” (Richard Shen, a white-collar worker for a foreign firm in Shanghai, whose family run two chain restaurants in the city)

The Asian Century Underway

I began my educational career as an athletics coach in the 1980s. During most of that decade running and sports coaching was my primary interest. One of my athletes was my younger brother, Peter, a marathon runner who went on to compete for Great Britain in the Gothenburg World Championships (1995) and Atlanta Olympic Games (1996). As a coach I understood the importance of self-visualising success – before you set foot on the athletics track you’ve already visualised your winning lap, your winning throw, your winning jump. This simple form of self-hypnosis encourages self-belief and confidence. One is unlikely to achieve great things unless one can first visualise one achieving great things.

The Americans had this self-belief for most of the 20th century – my American study-abroad students embodied it. The British had it for several hundred years prior to that. But neither the Americans nor the Brits have it today.

As ‘foreign policy whizz kid’, Parag Khanna explains in his seminal book ‘The Future is Asian’ (2019), the world is becoming Asianized. We had Europeanization during the nineteenth-century, Americanisation during the twentieth-century. Now it is the turn of the Chinese, Asia, Asians.

In the twenty-first century, Asianization is emerging as the newest sedimentary layer in the geology of global civilization…Asian businesspeople strut around the world, Singapore and Japan have overtaken Germany as “most powerful passports”, around the world students are learning Chinese and Japanese, entrepreneurs are launching businesses in Asian metropolises. The Asian way of doing things is spreading.’ (p.21)

And Khanna wrote this at least twelve months before Covid-19 finally undid any lingering Western assumptions of innate superiority.

This new paradigm is aptly captured in the title of the flagship publication of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy: Global-is-Asian.

Implications for International Schools in Asia

Harrow International Schools were one of the first major UK private school franchise to establish themselves in the international school market, with Harrow Bangkok opening in 1998 followed, over the next decade, by schools in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Shanghai.

But this expansion is now accelerating. 2020/201 will see five – yes, five – more Harrow international schools open in China.

Harrow is not alone in recognising and tapping into the international school market potential in Asia – every other major international school franchise is following suit. By contrast, the UK private school sector is in a state of crisis.

As one senior manager of a ‘big International School player’ put it:

“My company’s international schools are not short of enquiries from parents not wanting to send their children back to the UK. The British (and American) governments are scoring constant own goals on the world stage, meaning that the independent schools in the UK and US are going to have an even harder time of things. Asia is now rubbing its hands with glee and welcoming students with open arms. The franchised schools in China, and elsewhere, are well placed to benefit from the UK’s situation – we are already starting to see that happen.”

Anyone connected with the UK independent school sector will be hearing of schools going into liquidation or in financial difficulty. The same downward trend towards the financial rocks is also visible in private colleges in the USA and Canada. Neil Roskilly, CEO of the UK Independent School’s Association, which represents about 540 UK private schools, recently commented:

We see schools close every year. Will there be more as a result of this [Covid-19]? Yes, I suspect so unfortunately, because they don’t have huge reserves.”

International schools in Asia, especially China, could benefit from a ‘perfect storm’ now starting to sweep the international education market.

The new-found confidence and self-belief of Asians, combined with the demise of the West as an attractive and safe destination for international students, can only result in an increase in international school enrolments across Asia. As we are already seeing, parents are anxious to keep their children in Asia rather than return to the UK, USA or Europe, at the same time continuing to value the quality education and ‘free thinking opportunities’ provided by the world’s best international schools.

The question then arises, where will these students go when they graduate from their international schools? Which countries, which universities, will be most attractive to them?

It is highly likely that the next few years will answer that question.

But already there is evidence of a turn away from the West, with urban rich Asians critically reappraising any assumptions they once held that the West, especially its culture and politics, is the model for Asians to follow. In short, at some point in the near future an existential line will be crossed – we may be crossing it now – and that line will be when Western is no longer seen as the default orientation for ambitious Asian global citizens blessed with material and cultural capital.

At that point, young Asians will stop heading to Western universities in large number.

If and when that happens, then it will be one more sign that the Asian Century has truly arrived. At that point, just as my American students accepted their supremacy over Asians, then the latent colonialist mindset will have been well and truly busted, leaving the West to reflect on its reduced, inferior, status.

And, if you are a Westerner reading this, feeling embarrassed about the news coming out of the UK and the US, then perhaps that sign isn’t too far in the distance…

Originally published by Educational Digest International, 6th June, 2020

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