It is a chilly mid-March Thursday morning in Beijing, an unexpected cold snap brings snowflakes swirling around our heads as we are standing in line in front of the university hospital, waiting for the weekly PCR test to be performed. The semester started weeks ago, but students have still not returned to school after their Chinese New Year’s break two months ago. A new Covid wave in parts of China has led many Beijing universities to switch to remote teaching in an orchestrated attempt to protect the capital from an outbreak of the virus which would be brought along with the tens of thousands of students returning from their home provinces. Just a few days ago, their return was postponed further to a still indefinite date. There is, however, a newly arrived small Spanish speaking group waiting in line right in front of us. It turns out they are from Nicaragua and just finished a six-week quarantine period, three weeks in the city of arrival in mainland, another three weeks after coming to Beijing. Practically all other international students are from African countries and were already here before Covid started. China has not issued new student visa on ever since the pandemic started, and the fact that the Nicaraguan students managed to get in might be in relation with the country just having severed ties with Taipei and taken up diplomatic relations with Beijing...
This little impression of a very common Thursday morning depicts something of the characteristic surrounding The Beijing Center (TBC) is embedded in: Quickly changing domestic policies, the local effects of global politics and the challenges these influences bring upon our efforts to be in close touch with our students.
- Domestic policies – A Jesuit institution in China
Reminding ourselves of the experiences Matteo Ricci SJ (1552-1610) made in China 400 years ago, it should not be surprising at all: As a Jesuit institution in China, we feel welcoming and collaborative vibes towards us. Being a center dedicated to promoting cultural exchange, higher education, and research in China, we are not institutionally affiliated to but locally based at a Chinese university in Beijing, the University of International Business and Economics (UIBE). Since its foundation about 25 years ago by Ron Anton SJ and his team, our aim has been and is to contribute to an appreciative relationship between China and the West by opening pathways to more informed knowledge about and most importantly first-person experience of the other culture. Our primary activity and engagement over all these years has been educating and accompanying students during their studies at TBC for a period of one year, offering classes, excursions, student life activities, character formation.
Even though UIBE has not allowed its own students back to campus, our roughly 30 students were allowed to return. Local and temporary policies change quickly, especially when it comes to pandemic prevention. Chinese students live on Campus and for most part of their studies share dormitory rooms with four, five roommates, so universities are among the most vulnerable places when it comes to the spreading of a virus. It feels like we cannot know today whether university will lock down tomorrow, whether there will be in-person class and how many students can be there. The high sensitivity and flexible reactions that quickly changing prevention measures demand from institutions reflects a general tendency in China: Local policies are highly important and seem to be more influential than their legal base. Establishing legality in a way that assures institutional continuity is one of the fields where we as TBC are continuously learning how to adapt in creative flexibility. After all, assuring a stabile institutional foothold for the Jesuits in China is the most basic mission TBC is assigned and striving for.
- Global politics – Student exchange during pandemics
TBC originally enabled students from US colleges and universities to turn China into their classroom. This ended abruptly when Covid started, and it is not predictable at what point this direction of cultural exchange might resume. The Chinese word for crisis contains the character for risk – combined with that for opportunity. There are two great opportunities the Covid crisis brought along: We turned around the direction of exchange, now preparing Chinese students that study with us for two semesters to go abroad and study at an American university. In an atmosphere of political tensions between China and the US, we do find it meaningful to work below the threshold of official diplomatic relations on fostering a positive relationship, simply by allowing individuals from both cultures to get to know each other. The fact that now all our students are from China in return has an influence on TBC: it made us realize that the second great chance of these times lies in a greater localization and a shift of focus towards contributing to the academic and educational landscape in Beijing. Our desire is to establish a research platform and community among Beijing’s intellectuals open for encounter with their international colleagues, and thereby continue to walk on the path Ricci once taught us to follow: Friendship.
- Retreat – Ignatian Spirituality serving today’s China
Being gifted with a completely new sort of students, Chinese instead of Americans, we also feel the need to reinvent our pedagogy. Among other approaches we started experimenting with giving group based Ignatian retreats to Chinese students, and that means adapted to the context of current China. The basic question here is: Under what conditions can Ignatian Spirituality make a contribution in today’s China with its non-religious and socialist mentality? We are experimenting with translating the semantics of religion as well as the powerful dynamic of Ignatian Spirituality into a detranscendentalized language that can bear fruit in unexpected ways. Looking at the direction some Western countries are developing into, these experiments seem to be highly relevant elsewhere, too: How can Ignatian Spirituality serve (not: counter) secularized modern society?
- Invitation for Collaboration
A desire on our site is to remain in collaboration with other educational institutions in the Jesuit network. As soon as borders reopen, we will resume our educational activities that make China as one large classroom accessible to friends outside of Mainland. TBC might then be an interesting partner for universities that would like to grant a study experience in China to their students, as well as to individuals and institutions that would like to take part in our ChinaContact program, designing tailor-fit tours focusing on a topic chosen by themselves. Amidst travel restrictions we still offer to open paths to first-person experience of China for those who are not in China. One way that has proved to be fruitful is our Virtual Internship Program where we connect international students outside of China with matching companies based in China. Through online collaboration, international students can gain a perspective on Chinese working style and professional culture, start building their network in China and profit from what we as TBC add to the experience: A Chinese peer, Chinese classes, a batch of fellow interns from around the world, as well as professional and Ignatian accompaniment.
We are looking forward to the future, to the risks and opportunities that coming “crises” will bring upon us. After all, the abbreviation “TBC” will hopefully turn out to bear yet another meaning: To Be Continued.