Undergraduate students at Duke Kunshan University (DKU) in China will be contributing written and multimedia content to The Chronicle to be published every other Friday. This column was written through the collective synthesis of opinions of first and second years of the Duke Kunshan campus’s undergraduate program, located outside Shanghai, China.
As Duke Kunshan University (DKU) enters 2020 amidst a backdrop of tense US-China relations and a deadly outbreak of the 2019 Wuhan Novel Coronavirus, it seems easy to overlook the voices and opinions of the thriving intellectual community at this Duke-degree granting institution. Despite these setbacks, students at DKU are eager to contextualize our unique situation and offer a nuanced view of our university.
Understanding that our setup within China can cause confusion or controversy, we would like to set the record straight. No student attending DKU was operating under the assumption that they would be attending a “normal” American university—including many who were accepted to Duke in Durham and chose DKU instead. DKU is not “a full-fledged American university,” but rather, a joint venture university between Duke University, Wuhan University and the City of Kunshan.
With over 40 nationalities and 18 Chinese provinces represented in our first two undergraduate classes, it’s difficult to oversimplify the myriad perspectives and approaches with which DKU students view their new home. The most fundamental underpinning setting us apart from other Chinese educational institutions is our academic freedom on campus.We are trying to build a place where all of our opinions can fit in.
Though 21st century China presents a seemingly endless array of contradictions and conundrums, Duke Kunshan students are intimately aware of such issues within and surrounding China—probably even more so than students based in the United States. On campus, topics of daily conversation and debate range from cross-strait relations with Taiwan to the unrest in Hong Kong. It’s critical to not view engagement with these topics from a Western-centric lens, since, in China, discussion of controversial political topics will be censored, and outspoken critique off-campus is dangerous.
DKU’s first-year core course “China in the World” thematically explores topics relevant to modern China, from the rise of eugenics to the trade war and the Belt and Road Initiative to the legacy of Civil and World Wars, and culminates in a project that creates realistic models for China in 2040. The sophomore core course, “Global Challenges,” pushes students to confront the complexities of climate change, nuclear disarmament, and cultural differences in regard to technology and privacy, all contextualized with modern-day examples.
Courses like “Global China: From Empire to Nation” and “The Social and Political Thought of Hannah Arendt” intentionally raise controversial questions of the Chinese identity: How are the events such as the Tiananmen massacre and the Cultural Revolution collectively remembered by Chinese society today? What attributes of 20th-century totalitarianism have found a new home in Xi Jinping’s communism? Political science classes at Duke Kunshan have become some of the most competitive to enroll in—and demand is only increasing. Through Chatham House Rules—a system of debate that ensures anonymity—students are able to express opinions and ideas impossible to find at other Chinese institutions, such as Shanghai’s Fudan University, which recently eliminated the phrase “freedom of thought” from its charter.
Students at DKU hail from a multitude of religious backgrounds, including Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and more. They fall everywhere along the political spectrum; from the liberal wing of the CCP to die-hard conservatives. But, if you were to skim through the list of clubs at DKU, you would be hard-pressed to find one expressing or promoting a political ideology or religion. One of the compromises made when establishing DKU was that there would be no political or religious clubs, typical for Chinese universities, where only the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is allowed as a political organization. Students work within the gray areas of Chinese policy, meeting in groups to discuss their views, and practicing their religions at designated temples, mosques and even a church across Duke Avenue from campus.
And what of organizations relating to politics, or international affairs? Having a Young Democrats or Republicans would be out of place when a mere fraction of students are Americans. Among those at DKU, we have a branch of Duke East Asia Nexus—which regularly meets and sends students to the annual Duke-UNC China Leadership Summit. Beyond these more official directives, last semester students informally gathered to watch the Democratic Primary Debates, and come spring, Kunshan students are organizing a mass absentee ballot dropoff at the Consulate-General in Shanghai. To simply insinuate that the only way to express political and religious freedoms is through an official, university-sponsored platform is misguided.
What’s more, to condemn these governmental or administrative actions is to view the situation from a privileged point of view—from that of an outsider—not in any way bound or beholden to the policies which govern our lives as students. Are most of us satisfied with these restrictions? Of course not, and attempts have been—and will continue to be made—to change them.
Here on the ground, we’ve seen firsthand the unprecedented level of engagement between all parties aiming to bring DKU to its current state—an established global center for Duke. Is our situation perfect? No. But there’s also something to be said for students attending DKU to be more qualified to make hypotheticals about the future of China than those on the outside looking in. Instead of presupposing that we’re an experiment doomed to fail, why not take it as a motivator to create spaces for liberalism in a currently illiberal atmosphere?
Operating under the pretenses that the Duke Kunshan Project is an attempt to simply transplant America’s Duke to China is inherently misguided: it’s simply not the institutional goal. DKU isn’t trying to “Americanize” China—we’re reshaping paradigms to focus on engaging students from all over the world within a comprehensive university that allows us to connect and learn from one another. Such lofty aspirations of encouraging cross-cultural connections through an immersive, interdisciplinary educational and extracurricular experience certainly sounds like a cluster of vague buzzwords—but they’re our reality.
To purport Duke Kunshan as a vanity project or a proxy for Chinese interventionism in Duke’s affairs is misrepresentative of the collective ambitions of its founding stakeholders—not to mention the students, faculty, and staff who come eager to shape, support and embody the globally-competent set of next-generation leaders we desperately need. We welcome members of the Duke community to visit the campus, reach out to DKU students online, and see for themselves how DKU is playing an active role in the future of liberal arts in China—and beyond.
This column was written in part by a group of contributors, and other first and second year students offered their input as well. Here a list of contributors:
Sang Na Baek
Editor's Note: This piece was updated at Friday at 1:30 p.m. with additional contributors.
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