China: The Dragon in the Room for Independent Schools

UK-based independent education providers could come to be seen as ‘colonial and unwelcome’ in China, writes Andrew Lewer MP

There is a growing nationalism in China that proclaims the country to be the best at everything – including education. This is gathering momentum and is likely to lead to a reduction in Chinese students seeking an overseas education; it may also lead to a suspicion of those who choose not to educate their children in China. A further real concern is that this nationalistic viewpoint will also have an impact on non-Chinese schools based in China.

UK-based independent education providers who have established satellite schools around the world have brought British educational excellence to a diverse range of cultures, as well as providing a valuable source of revenue for the domestic base of the school. However, there is a stark realisation that they may come to be seen as colonial and unwelcome in China. Although the Chinese Communist Party’s attitude to UK schools in their territory is hard to predict as yet, I believe it would be prudent for these schools to take steps while they can, rather than wait for increasingly uncertain outcomes to be imposed upon them.

“Visualise your brand above the gateway to an institution where it is forbidden to speak of Tiananmen Square.”

There is the risk of outright takeover, but there is also a greater risk of reputational damage. Consider the impact of your school’s name being associated with education in a country where state control of what can and cannot be taught, and which books can and cannot be read, is dictated. At what point does it cease to be appropriate, morally or in business terms, to operate in a field so personal and enmeshed in human identity and freedom as education, in an environment where those freedoms are not even possible in a limited sense?

Visualise your school brand above the gateway to an institution where it is forbidden to speak of Tiananmen Square in 1989, and where a joke about political leaders could see you imprisoned. The answer, in my view, is the point at which an authoritarian state (uncomfortable, but manageable) becomes a totalitarian state. And that point in China has been more than reached. I believe that prospective parents of UK schools will increasingly ask why you have a branch of your school in Communist China, in the same way they would have asked why you had a school in South Africa in 1975 or in Italy in 1938.

“Outright or at least immediate withdrawal may not be possible.”

Individual schools and groups will need to decide how to deal with the situation. There are a variety of complex ownership and licensing arrangements that British schools have entered into regarding Chinese satellite schools or with their Chinese partners. As a result, outright or at least immediate withdrawal may not be possible. But preparing to sell the site, working out what to do about the brand licensing, not making planned additional investment in China (and perhaps making it in Malaysia, Vietnam, India or West Africa instead), and other investment decisions need to be made – and time may well be of the essence.

There was a period when one could argue that investments in China were being made not just for profit (nothing wrong with that in a free society, but note the caveat), but as part of an effort to bring China out of its bleak Maoist era and into a world of choice, and at least some freedom. These were legitimate views in the 1980s, then curtailed by Tiananmen Square, but again from the mid-1990s and into the early President Xi period. Understanding, and now sympathy, with those who have schools in China is therefore possible. However, it is very much less possible with regard to schools who choose to continue to make additional investment when the values that inform UK independent education – including enquiry, liberty and boldness – cannot be espoused there.

The flip side of the above is the question of Chinese ownership of British schools, a trend that has been gathering pace in recent years, but which may well now have ground to a halt. I have written before, as an historian, that a cause of great sadness is to hear of a school, especially one of great age, closing its doors for the last time. A very recent closure announcement, that of St Mary’s, Shaftesbury, appears to have happened because Chinese investors pulled out. One can surmise that this was related to the chilling of UK-China relations, especially after the Huawei decision.

It has to be considered whether Chinese ownership of your school will appeal to parents in the years ahead. Reassurance is likely to be the best approach, rather than overly advertising the fact: ‘Where East Meets West’ may have been an appealing strap-line two or three years ago but has to be questioned now. This potential non-desirability does not relate in any way to Chinese culture but rather, as it did with Huawei, to the fact that in the totalitarian state China has become there is no strong and meaningful distinction between private ventures and the state. It could be said that there never really was a very well delineated line, even before the rule of President Xi.

What will be a concern for those leading, working in, and whose children attend schools already owned by the Chinese is whether the apparent ending of their expansion into the independent sector will be followed by a contraction or stagnation, or whether the running of the school will go on broadly unchanged. I have no crystal ball on that one.

“I will not be packing a suitcase to visit China any time soon following publication of this article.”

For both mainland and Hong Kong Chinese students choosing to continue their education in the UK there is another major issue to face – one that goes to the very heart of teaching and to the values of UK independent schools. It is also an issue which has a potential and serious impact for all students, both overseas and domestic. That is, the imposition of the Hong Kong Security Law and its mainland equivalents.

The Hong Kong Security Law contains a chilling extra-territoriality provision which states that actions, activities or opinions deemed hostile to the Chinese state, even when carried out on the sovereign territory of other nations, are crimes and leave one liable to arrest in Hong Kong or China. It means I will not be packing a suitcase to visit China any time soon following publication of this article!

It also means that schools are going to have to be very alert to the dangers of self-censorship. Educational establishments must continue to provide all their students with free, fair and robust exposure to debate and ideas. This is an essential element, not only of UK independent education, but UK education in general. But how will this be managed in practice?

“Self-censorship is pernicious and corrosive.”

Many teachers will be familiar with the situation when a child has to step out of a school photograph intended for a newspaper or Facebook page for child protection, divorce or other sensitive reasons. Are we going to have Chinese and Hong Kong students step out of classroom debate, for fear they will be exposed to ideas that will get them into difficulties back home, or that they will express them on social media which will then be picked up by “the authorities”? Worse, are we going to avoid debates and issues school-wide that might not be approved of by the Chinese Communist Party (it’s a LONG list), or at least stop publishing them on school social media platforms for fear of putting Chinese and Hong Kong students at risk and potentially discouraging parents from these regions spending their money with your school? This cannot be.

Self-censorship is pernicious and corrosive. My wife is Venezuelan, and I have seen first-hand the way my relatives and friends in Venezuela now speak and e-mail when they think they can be overheard or intercepted by state agencies; it is diminishing in every way. We owe it to all who study in a British independent school to be crystal clear to them and their parents that ideas, challenges, democratic debate and the broadcast thereof will take place; and that all must participate if the education being provided is to be true to itself and to British values. To do otherwise is to have become cowed by, and thereby a tool, of the Chinese Communist Party.

Although I have my opinions about the nature of the current Chinese regime and have not hesitated to share them, the more important issue for independent schools is how to recognise the reality of the changed circumstances in British politics (and mirrored to a greater or lesser extents across Europe, North America and Oceania) towards China. Whether or not you support these political changes, you should give serious thought as to how your school should react to them. Do not allow the stresses imposed by coronavirus, whilst elephantine in scale, to be so overwhelming that this other pressing concern becomes the overlooked dragon in the room.