Ancient meets modern on the Silk Road

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Angelina Yuen

Universities are flocking to take part in their own Belt and Road projects. Angelina Yuen, vice president of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, tells John O’Leary how higher education is developing China’s infrastructure programme and benefiting from it.

China’s mammoth Belt and Road Initiative to connect with countries (and markets) across Asia, Europe and Africa by land and sea has also spawned international collaboration between universities at an unprecedented rate.

In particular, the University Alliance of the Silk Road (UASR), based at Xian Jiao’tong University, on the original route, has now reached 35 countries and regions, many of which are in regions unused to international collaboration. Although founded only in 2015, it already has 135 members and others are clamouring to join.

One of the most active participants – and one of the leaders of the 18-strong steering committee – is Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU). Professor Angelina Yuen, who leads for the university on the project as vice president for student and global affairs, outlined the scale of its activities at the QS-APPLE conference, in Taichung.

Professor Yuen, who is now vice chair of the alliance, said that increased accessibility made for smoother communication and collaboration between institutions, and the research and other forms of interaction promoted by the alliance would further the aims of economic and social integration.

The Silk Road was an ancient network of trade routes connecting the East and West that were central to economic and cultural interaction. The trade network stretched from the Korean peninsula and Japan, through China, Eurasia, to the Mediterranean Sea and Europe. Professor Yuen said the Silk Road played a significant role in the development of the civilizations along its network, opening political, economic and cultural relations, as well as promoting transcontinental trading of goods. “It facilitated the exchange of art, religion, philosophy, technology, language, science, architecture, and every other element of civilization,” she said.

In 2013, China announced the Belt and Road Initiative, sometimes known as the New Silk Road Initiative, as the modern equivalent, improving connectivity across Asia, Europe and Africa. Its stated objectives were policy coordination, facilitating connectivity, trade and investment, financial integration and cultural exchange.

The Belt and Road regions cover more than 65 countries in Asia, Europe and East Africa, which contain 62% of the world’s population, and account for 34% of the world’s merchandise trade. Already US$900 billion has been committed to building an immense infrastructure network.

Infrastructure developments already in progress include highways, high-speed railways, hydropower systems, container ports, transport systems and even new cities. The Trans-Eurasian Land Bridge has two routes – north and south – and there is also a transcontinental railway scheme in Africa, as well as a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Such infrastructure projects and improvements in transportation have greatly enhanced communication along the route and increased the possibility for collaboration. The availability of resources to support Belt and Road development has come with the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and numerous government and private schemes along the routes.

Professor Yuen said that respect for cultural diversity and social inclusion had always been among the core values of higher education. “The social, cultural and religious diversity of countries along the New Silk Road will provide abundant but challenging opportunities for higher education institutions to develop culturally appropriate educational practices and partnership models.”

“In many countries along the Silk Road, there is an urgent need for the development of talent at different levels and in different disciplines to support the anticipated social and economic development of their countries,” Professor Yuen said. “Higher education will definitely play a pivotal role in talent development in these countries and there will be ample opportunities for responsible international partnership.”

Already a number of countries along the route have relaxed visa and other policies to facilitate cross-border cooperation between universities. These include the establishment of overseas campuses, development of joint education programmes and increases in student and faculty exchange opportunities. Advice and practical assistance is also being provided to support the development of higher education and research where it is still scarce.

Professor Yuen said: “There are excellent opportunities for higher education institutions to exercise their social responsibility by engaging in interdisciplinary research which will have a lasting impact on the economic prospects and quality of life of millions of people. The alliance hopes to enhance people-to-people bonds through international partnership to act as catalysts for positive social change.”

Meanwhile, Hong Kong PolyU’s aims in relation to the New Silk Road are to establish strategic partnerships and form research networks, and aid talent development through visiting fellowships and research attachments, student recruitment and exchange programmes. Among the early activities was a dialogue between academics from PolyU, and leading universities from China, Macau and Russia to explore niche areas of research and the nurturing of PhD students. An International Forum on “Nurturing Talent and Building Capacity in supporting the Belt and Road Development” was held in PolyU in 2016 with 20 speakers from Belt and Road countries, and was attended by over 400 participants from around the globe.

More recent initiatives include the CPEC Consortium of China-Pakistan Universities, which was formed in September 2017. In that month, too, the Xian Jiao’tong University PolyU Silk Road International School of Engineering (SRISE) was established to foster exchange and collaboration in engineering education and research, as well as engaging with professionals for national and regional development. It launched a university-industry collaboration project in November, with the Hong Kong Electric Company, the State Grid Corporation of China and SRISE coming together to train high-level talent in power and energy field.

PolyU also established its Faculty of Business – Belt and Road Centre in September 2017. Its role is to conduct interdisciplinary research and facilitate exchanges on business development and investment in the Belt and Road regions, as well as undertaking related consultancy projects. Among the universities establishing strategic partnerships with PolyU include Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University, Jagiellonian University of Poland, the Royal University of Phnom Penh, Nazarbayev University and Al-Farabi Kazakh National University of Kazakhstan.

There have also been new research networks and conferences and roundtables on high-impact topics, such as the International Conference on Logistics and Maritime Studies, and the International Summit on Belt and Road Innovation and Entrepreneurship, with Zhejiang University.

One major initiative has been the Cross-border Disaster Risk Reduction and Reconstruction Project, which includes an active leadership programme in the Earthquake Without Borders project, an international, transdisciplinary programme to foster disaster preparedness, mitigation and reconstruction. Universities from the Chinese Mainland, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Kazakhstan, Nepal, the Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and the United Kingdom are involved.

In 2017, three schemes have been established to facilitate research talent for Belt and Road countries to be attached at PolyU. These include the PhD Students Attachment Scheme, the Young Scholars Fellowship Scheme, and the Belt and Road Distinguished Visiting Scholars Scheme. In 2018, an outbound Visiting Scholarship Scheme for PolyU academics to be attached at universities along the Belt and Road have also been established.

To give students opportunities to gain cultural awareness and to appreciate cultural diversity through social engagement, the Silk Road International Summer School and the Silk Road Youth Leadership Programme have been launched since 2015. Professor Yuen said a key aim was to use higher education to help reignite the “Silk Road Spirit” characterised by peace, cooperation, openness, inclusiveness and mutual learning among peoples of the region.

The revival of the Silk Road has prompted numerous higher education initiatives, ranging from student activities, research, knowledge transfer, to entrepreneurship.

Professor Yuen is in no doubt about the value of the projects. “It’s a blessing for us to be educators at the present time because there are a lot of opportunities to realise our dreams and this Belt Road initiative is something we can use to do that. There are huge opportunities for transformational research.”

Professor Angelina Yuen is vice president (student and global affairs) of Hong Kong Polytechnic University. She is member of the University Grants Committee in Hong Kong and the Quality Education Fund, and serves on the boards of numerous charitable foundations and NGOs. She was appointed Justice of the Peace and awarded the Bronze Bauhinia Star by the Hong Kong Government. Professor Yuen has worked to advance professional education and research in the Chinese mainland since the late 1980s. She is an advisor to social work professional bodies and co-director of the China Social Work Research Centre at Peking University. She is also co-director of the Institute for Disaster Management and Reconstruction at Sichuan University, and vice chair of the University Alliance of the Silk Road, based at Xian Jiaotong University. She is the former president of the International Association of Schools of Social Work, and continues promote social work capacity-building programmes in developing countries around the world.