Folio News Story
January 6, 2006

China: the road to the future

University's ties to China are strong

by Geoff McMaster
Folio Staff

The West has only begun to grapple with China's phenomenal economic growth. Newsweek's international editor, Fareed Zakaria, calls the rise of China the third great power shift of the last 400 years, after the emergence of Europe in the 17th century and the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries.

This enormous sea change is now common knowledge. The Globe and Mail has devoted whole editions to China, last October posing the question in a banner headline, "Are We Missing the Boat?"

Twenty five years ago, however, it was far from obvious China would become such a major force to be reckoned with. Rae McDonald, director of international relations for University of Alberta International, credits former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed with seeing the potential for relationships in Asia in the early 1980s. Those relationships inevitably drew on the expertise of university researchers.

"Under Peter Lougheed, there was a real decision made in terms of international policy that the province's economic future lay not in Europe but, in Asia," said McDonald. "He also said you won't get activity unless you have people willing to make real connections" on a personal level.

Lougheed's government believed in "twinning relationships" between the province and sub-regions in other countries, providing the funds to bring people together.

Brian Evans, who taught Chinese history at the U of A for 35 years, served as a cultural co-ordinator with the Canadian embassy in China during the early 1970s and as the university's first associate vice president for international affairs, says the provincial government of the day was visionary.

"We were the envy of every province in the country," Evans said, citing a foreign development fund the Alberta government had established.

Along with sister-province agreements with Japan and Korea, Alberta has had a formal tie with the Heilongjiang province of China since 1981, and a co-operation agreement that focuses on mutual areas of interest including agriculture, energy, forestry, science and technology, medicine, education, sports, and environmental protection.

The U of A itself has been reaching out to China on its own at least since the early 1970s, when China's economy was struggling. The faculties of education and agriculture have long been involved in helping the country with some of its most urgent development needs.

That legacy is today most apparent in projects in education, such as the Hebei Publications Project, which has produced one of 10 English textbooks approved for use across China, and in a partnership with the Ministry of Education to improve the quality of teaching in Western China.

In agriculture, an agreement between the Faculty of Agriculture, Forestry, and Home Economics and four Chinese universities allows Chinese students to complete the final two years of their degrees here. Another project co-founded by Drs. Sam Chao, Carter Tseng and Larry Wang, has helped stop erosion along the upper Yangtze River in Yunnan Province.

China's rapid economic growth has also ushered in a wave of profound social change, especially in the last decade. Despite the communist government's notorious resistance to outside political influence, it nonetheless take a pragmatic approach to adopting ideas that will strengthen its economy, says Lihong Yang, international relations officer for University of Alberta International.

"The whole structure in Chinese institutions we are working with seems to be accommodating to the perspectives of the West," said Yang. "Yes, they do have the party secretaries (in schools) and a different kind of governance system, but when they do decide to open up, they have seen the benefit of having people open up their world view, or sending people overseas to bring back that experience." The U of A now has about 1,500 alumni in China.

Thanks to a deal struck by former president Rod Fraser, the U of A's School of Business has been training candidates for China's top administrative positions in government and universities through its National School of Administration of China. That arrangement brings in 35 - 40 trainees per year, competing with the top schools in the U.S., Australia and Europe, says Yang.

But the business school's relationship to China goes back at least 20 years, says Dr. Rolf Mirus, a business professor and associate vice-president (international). Back in 1983, with money from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the school joined a twinning of eight Canadian business schools with eight universities in China that had a potential to develop their own programs. The U of A was twinned with Xi'an Jiaotong University, now regarded as having the strongest business research program in the country.

"We found very receptive minds and exchanged about 200 people over the 20 years of the project," said Mirus, who was involved with the project for about 18 of those years. "The Chinese had such a huge need to tap into our expertise. They were very keen, worked very hard, and had very good academics who picked up the ball and ran with it."

McDonald says the potential to further expand our relations with China is enormous. The recently established China Institute seeded with a $37 million donation in Chinese art and textiles by Sandy McTaggart and matched by the provincial government will likely drive those relations.

The China Institute "will provide a framework, a kind of umbrella to capture what we do, and make sure we have a vision for what we're doing in China," said McDonald. The institute will also create a new Centre for Chinese Studies, to foster a better understanding of a complex culture.

The latest hot new collaboration is one between U of A scientists and "state key labs" in China, which employ the country's best researchers and grad students, says McDonald. A new agreement will soon link the U of A with five labs in energy, the environment, nanotechnology, materials engineering, and rural and renewable resources.

And with the Olympic Games approaching, there are also opportunities to collaborate in sports education and management. In fact, the top Olympics researcher in China is a U of A alumnus, says Yang.

"It's exciting to work with China now because you can do so much," said McDonald. "And if you're trying to do the right things, and you try to hit all the right notes, you really can move quickly."