In 1793, the British envoy Lord Macartney travelled by boat to Beijing to visit the emperor. The sail bore the humiliating words that formed the condition for an imperial audience with Qianlong: "Tribute bearers from the vassal king of England." When Macartney finally located him 150 kilometres from the capital, the emperor refused all requests for trade. The august Qianlong sent the following message to George III: "We possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country's manufactures."
Two hundred and eleven years later, British universities are awash with Chinese students keen to learn all they can from the vassal kingdom. In 2001 Chinese were the largest student minority in the UK. From 4,445 Chinese-domiciled students in 1998/99 (2.1 per cent of the foreign-domiciled total) to 20,710 in 2001/2002 (8.5 per cent), the number grew to 35,135 this academic year.
What does this fresh pool of Far Eastern talent seek in Britain? China-born Shen Cheng, who studied for her PhD at King's College London, argues that "British education encourages children to develop their own abilities: to think, reason, judge, analyse and synthesise by coaching rather than teaching." Chinese study techniques emphasise committing facts to memory over discussion and deliberation. Repetition exercises are standard fare; so is total deference to teachers. The British seminar approach - of encouraging students not lecturers to drive the debate - comes as a shock.
A degree from a British university is an especially useful ingredient of a CV in China. English is the second language in China's schools and some Chinese feel enmity towards the United States, or simply antipathy to its culture. Visas are easier to come by than for the US, and fees in the UK are lower than across the Atlantic, especially as most British Masters degrees last only a year. In addition to this the British Council runs several schemes to help Chinese students fund their studies.
Despite some scholarships and awards, most Chinese students are parent-funded. This often entails a huge amount of pressure, especially given China's post-Mao "one child" policy. Overseas students at Nottingham pay at least £7,200 a year, though often the cost is several thousands higher. Zhang Nan, a 22-year-old student from Henan Province, is doing an MA course in museum studies at Nottingham. She tells me she is under heavy pressure from her parents. "They sponsor me to study here. It is a big sum for Chinese people . . . I always feel I must succeed." This devotion to studies is a trademark of Chinese students abroad.
At Nottingham University's faculty of engineering, 224 of the 892 overseas-domiciled students are Chinese nationals. The university takes 4,558 foreign-domiciled students each year - 1,028 of these have Chinese passports.
Professor Alan Dodson, head of the department of civil engineering, describes his Chinese students as being of "usually excellent ability, particularly mathematical ability", as well as "committed and industrious", although he does say that they tend to be weaker in practical classes. While many British students are idling away the hours in pubs or at parties, their Chinese counterparts often work into the early hours.
In fact Nottingham has taken the China connection to another level, building a new campus in Ningbo County, Zhejiang Province. Students will spend 50,000 yuan (£3,800) a year for the four-year course in computer science or business studies. These fees are far below ordinary non-EU student fees in the UK, though still far above local levels. Professor Dodson's department has recently signed an agreement with China's University of Mining and Technology for 15 students a year to attend an MSc course in his department. Similar initiatives are under way at Napier University in Edinburgh and the University of East London, to name just two.
But for the Chinese, there is also an interest in British culture. In London, the Chinese theatre company Yellow Earth puts on its very own Lear's Daughters. At Nottingham, Zhang Nan expresses a new-found fondness for football and English puddings while Wang Ting, a Masters student of communication studies at Leeds University, enjoys British literature above all. Churches in university cities, including London, are swelling with Chinese. Zhang Nan explains, "Lots of Chinese people believe in religion," though Shen Cheng says: "Part of the reason is for a free English course . . . and to know God and the Bible."
Back in Beijing, Wu Dezu, student editor of China's most prestigious university newspaper - Beida Qingnian (Peking University Youth) - quips: "I think young Chinese men know more about David Beckham than Tony Blair." He likes Shakespeare and Francis Bacon, U2 and Eric Clapton, but says that "the Beatles and Sex Pistols are classical for rock and punk fans".
For all the advantages and interest attached to study in the UK, Chinese students here still feel the weight of cultural dislocation more keenly than most. Modern metropolitan solipsism and the dominant drinking culture present the fiercest challenges. In China's eastern seaboard cities, excessive drinking is often viewed as a hallmark of the less well-heeled. Zhang Nan cites "too much drinking" as the worst aspect of British culture; Shen Cheng argues that policies should "encourage more and more people to work rather than live on benefits". Wang Ting complains that British society is "highly commercialised".
These students are the cream of their generation. To make it to a university in the UK they had to meet a panoply of criteria - intelligence, savvy, connections, top exam results, parental savings and luck, as well as a convincing command of English. But although academia is the obvious route to the UK, it is not the only one.
Another Chinese student, who asked to remain anonymous, explained to me that locals from Fujian Province, on the south-east coast, are successfully applying for political asylum in the UK in order to improve their CV with a spurious British "MA" - intending to go back home once they've obtained it. With a poor level of English and no local connections, many are forced to work in terrible conditions for roughly a pound an hour. "They don't know anything about politics and they are from one of the richest areas in China," explains the student. "When they come here their life is tough. But it would take a PhD to begin to understand this phenomenon."
Those who make it home are lucky. Most cannot face the shame of failing to pay back - let alone profit through - the sums lent them by family members. The June 2000 North Sea disaster, in which 58 Chinese illegal immigrants died of suffocation in a lorry as it was ferried from Zeebrugge to Dover, knocked "UK ticket" prices in China down by a third. But even this "bargain" had a negligible effect on migrant numbers.
Still others secure places at British universities by purchasing bogus GCSEs, A-levels and other UK qualifications in China itself. In 2001, Beijing police lifted the lid on a growing trade. In some cases students would sit exams in their paymaster's place. In summer 2001, the Daily Telegraph reported that Warwick, Bournemouth and Luton had become special targets for fraudulent claims, thanks to their proximity to London and their relatively low fees.
Despite their counterfeit competition, British universities have profited nicely from the Chinese student influx; but this seems about to change, as Continental institutions are beginning to fit their courses to Chinese requirements, even offering English-language MBAs.
The real sadness, however, is that Chinese enthusiasm for the UK is matched only by British ignorance and apathy over an emerging superpower in the east. The vice-chancellor of Durham announced the closure of its department of east Asian studies (probably the UK's best) late last year, and the government is withdrawing funding (small though that was) for the MPhil in Chinese studies that it set up just five years ago, a course founded with the aim of increasing the paltry number of British Sinologists. None but epidemiologists and businessmen know anything of Chinese affairs. With the exception of the Times and the FT, the UK press pays scant attention to China. Occasional references to a "waking dragon" are Napoleonic and orientalist at best. At worst, their mythical associations unwittingly betray just how little we understand this modern giant. At Leeds University, Wang Ting complains: "I think many British people are not interested in the world outside."
Fortunately, the Chinese themselves are prising our eyes open. Initiatives to celebrate Chinese New Year (tacky cousin though the London attempt this year was) are introducing British people to a culture at once totally foreign and entirely prescient. At Cambridge today, every 36th student is China-born (including Taiwanese), though the count for ethnic Chinese is far higher. The university - with 17,359 students in total - has a China Society, a Chinese Culture Society, a Hong Kong and China Affairs Society, "Abacus" (a cultural society), a Chinese Chess Society, Chinese Orchestra, Chinese Students and Scholars Association, Taijiquan Society and a Taiwanese Society. In London, Yellow Earth, already planning Chinese opera tours and various local and regional partnerships, has also begun separate projects for Chinese directors and writers, drawing on the talents of Britain's many "BBCs" (British-born Chinese).
Back in 1793 the Chinese court showed contempt for Lord Macartney's demands despite his arduous journey. Emperor Qianlong's parochialism is perhaps forgivable - opportunities for contact with the west were few and far between and the emperor was used only to dealing with true "vassal kingdoms" on his borders. But in the modern world - with global news, the internet and a global network of flight paths - to disregard China is astonishing. And as the country evolves into a major superpower and market, the ignorance is not just odd - it's lunatic.