Last week, four young people became the first students from China to receive a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, which began selecting candidates from the Middle Kingdom for the first time this year.
Chinese media has celebrated the news, calling the scholarship — which funds graduate-level study at Oxford — the “world’s hardest-to-get” and the “Nobel Prize” of academic awards, said the Wall Street Journal.
Toning the descriptors down a notch, getting a Rhodes Scholarship is indeed exceedingly difficult.
Only about 90 are awarded globally each year, with applicants having only a 0.7 percent chance of getting it.
Notable Rhodes Scholars with links to China include Bill Clinton; Tony Abbott, former prime minister of Australia; US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter; Susan Rice, the first African-American woman to be US ambassador to the United Nations and currently the US national security advisor; Los Angeles mayor Gil Garcetti; and James Fallows, China expert and long-time national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly.
That said, it took the Rhodes Scholarship more than 110 years to come to China, the first destination country of the Rhodes Trust’s “Second Century Plan”.
“The expansion of Rhodes Scholarship into China is important both for China and for Rhodes Scholarship,” Simon Rabinovitch, secretary China, Rhodes Scholarship, and himself a Rhodes alumnus, told CCTV.
“It’s supposed to bring together leaders of tomorrow. It’s essential to bring China into the portfolio to make the Rhodes Scholarship relevant to the 21st century.”
But however prestigious the scholarships might be, beyond the high level of academic achievement and potential for leadership, what is most striking is the core social values that all four winners share.
Gong Chenzhuo, who graduated from Shanghai Fudan University’s school of international relations and public affairs this summer, wants to someday create an NGO that helps marginalized groups in China.
“I aim to establish a non-profit organization to help rural students and disadvantaged groups in China, and I believe my time at Oxford will equip me with the necessary skills to raise capital and manage people,” Gong said.
Tsinghua University student Ren Naying, an LGBT activist and co-founder of the China LGBT+ Youth Network, has set her sights on establishing theoretical foundations for gender studies in China.
“We need to establish protections for LGBT people to stop discrimination in the workplace and universities and in marriage. We need to raise awareness of gender. It’s very essential we do this from very early stage,” Ren told WSJ in an interview.
Zhang Chunying, another Rhodes recipient, is studying for a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University, having previously earned an honors degree in economics and English at Zhejiang University.
Post-Oxford, she dreams of creating a media organization in China that will provide a platform for keeping track of and appraising public policies.
Zhang Wanyu is a law student at Peking University, ranked first in her class and who excelled as an exchange student at Stanford Law School.
Her hope is to help make Chinese constitutional law meaningful and equally just for all of China society — city dweller, rural resident, businessperson, laborer, petitioner or dissident alike.
Each plans on leveraging their time at Oxford to tackle social issues that could be at odds with China’s no-nonsense, “my way or the highway” government.
Earlier this year, there was some concern about whether the Communist Party would try to exert pressure on the selection process to exclude university students whom the authorities view as critical of the government, the New York Times noted at the time.
“Over the decades and around the world, a small but significant proportion of Rhodes scholars have been people protesting their own country’s government or working to change its policies,” NYT quoted Fallows from The Atlantic as saying.
“A test of the quality of the Chinese program is whether it would be able to consider such candidates,” he said.
Charles Conn, who manages the scholarship program and is a former Rhodes scholar, said the Chinese government would play no role in selecting or approving candidates.
All four Rhodes Scholarship recipients will start their postgraduate study at Oxford University in England next October.
The scholarship is funded in China with donations from the Hong Kong-based Li Ka Shing Foundation, mainland donors and the University of Oxford.
Each scholarship covers all tuition, health insurance and travel costs and provides a personal stipend for room and board. The value of each is about US$81,000 a year, said Conn.
Concurrently, Hong Kong’s most recent Rhodes Scholarship recipient is Serena Dai, a senior at Chinese University of Hong Kong majoring in molecular biotechnology.
Hong Kong’s Rhodes scholar program has sometimes been mired in controversy, with CUHK students receiving more than two-thirds of the 27 awarded since the first Rhodes scholar for Hong Kong entered Oxford in 1986.
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