It wasn't just the demanding in-class questions. Giving challenging presentations and taking nerve-wracking oral exams were also the most difficult activities for Jiang Wei, a Chinese civil servant, who spent a year studying for a Master's degree in European politics and policy at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium.
The 27-year-old was one of thousands of participants in the China-Europe Public Administration Program that started at the end of 2003. The program provides assistance to China's economic and social reform activities, increases understanding between China and the EU and exchanges public administration knowledge between the two sides.
Although Jiang did not have an easy time at the university, he believes the experience was rewarding.
"The program gave me an opportunity to learn the theories of public administration systematically and understand the political systems of European countries," Jiang said one recent morning as he accompanied a foreign delegation on a bus trip to the Great Wall. "More importantly, it helped me develop crucial skills for analyzing problems to find solutions."
After Jiang received his degree, he returned to his job at the Department of International Exchanges and Cooperation in China's Ministry of Personnel, and the program chalked up another success.
Harry List, the program's European Co-director, was also optimistic about the achievements he and his colleagues made over the past four years. "We have fully met the objectives in our work plan," he said. "We have even done more."
To date, some 3,000 people have been involved in various activities in the program in China. Thirty-seven short-term study visits to Europe have been organized, while 25 scholars and government officials have completed long-term study visits ranging from one to six months. Four young civil servants, including Jiang, took part in yearlong Master's degree programs at European institutions.
Four senior public administration forums have been held in Beijing, where European experts shared their knowledge and experience with their Chinese counterparts. This year's forum, with the theme "Public Sector Reform and the Improvement of Government Performance," drew more than 400 participants from China and Europe on November 13-15.
Lu Linxiang, the program's Chinese Co-director, said there is a "fundamental difference" between European and Chinese teaching methods used to train civil servants. Unlike their Chinese counterparts who usually spend most of their class time explaining key points in textbooks, European professors use various interactive approaches to enhance the capacity of the students in such fields as case studies, brainstorming sessions and presentations, he said.
Lu believes that the program will have far-reaching implications for China's government reform and the improvement of Chinese civil servants' capabilities and has benefited the country on both conceptual and technical levels. Given the Chinese Government's long-term focus on economic development and investment utilization, the program's first senior forum created a sensation when it put forth the forward-looking notion of "social services" in 2004.
"Today, however, the concept is gaining currency as the China emphasizes public health, education, housing, urban development and crisis management," Lu said.
According to Du Zheng'ai, a researcher at the China National School of Administration (CNSA), training civil servants internationally is an emerging global trend.
Along with economic globalization, Du said that many problems have transcended national borders and cannot be addressed by a single country alone. "Receiving training in foreign countries can help broaden the vision of civil servants and make them more capable in the era of globalization," he said.
The CNSA, China's national training center for mid-level and senior civil servants, senior executives of major state-owned enterprises and policy research fellows, cooperates with more than 40 countries, including the United States, Britain, Canada, Germany and Australia. It offers a wide range of international projects to trainees. For example, it has signed collaboration agreements with the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Georgia in the United States.
The school has also established cooperative ties with British organizations and universities. Among them, Britain's Overseas Development Administration provides funds for academic seminars, official visits and book donations, with the University of Birmingham serving as the organizer. The CNSA and the United Kingdom Civil Service College have exchanged official top-level visits.
In the past decade, the CNSA has sent more 3,000 students overseas to receive training in public administration or as part of exchange programs such as the China-Europe Public Administration Program. It also has trained more than 600 foreign civil servants mainly from developing countries.
The China-Europe Public Administra-tion Program has benefited other countries, especially some East European ones. At the program's annual forums, officials and scholars from countries such as Latvia, Slovenia and Bulgaria, always find they have much in common with their Chinese colleagues.
"Like China, these countries are in transition from a planned economy to a market-oriented one and are therefore interested in China's experience in this regard," Lu said. "Developed West European countries can get some insight from China's approach to development as they work together with China on the program as well."
Being a diversified bloc, the EU has a special advantage in cooperating with China in the field of public administration, List said. He explained that China finds the EU interesting because it is like "a Chinese meal" in which there are dishes of different flavors to choose from.
Different European countries have different social and historical backgrounds and their public administration systems develop in different ways. According to List, the China-Europe Public Administration Program makes sense because it helps China find its own way while taking into account the experiences of other countries instead of copying European or American models.
That's precisely how Jiang felt. The courses he took in Leuven presented the various social systems in Europe without providing a uniform model.
"We do not want to copy European practices," Jiang said. "We want to learn what the Europeans have done so that we can draw on their successes and avoid their failures."
Chinese civil servants have yet to improve their team spirit and ability to make oral presentations, Jiang said. He believes it is particularly important to offer training to young civil servants.
"Overseas training can have a lifelong effect on them," Jiang said.
A Fruitful Program
The China-Europe Public Administration Program is funded mainly by the European Commission and co-financed by the Chinese Government. A consortium of seven partners led by the European Institute of Public Administration in Maastricht, the Netherlands, implements the program on the European side. The program's major Chinese beneficiaries are government-affiliated schools of administration at central and provincial levels, the Ministry of Personnel and the State Commission Office for Public Sector Reform.
The China-Europe Public Administration Program also offers assistance in developing training methodology and management. It has piloted methods for selecting and assessing civil servants and measuring the performance of public administrators for a number of local government agencies across China. Considering the satisfying achievements, the EU has decided to launch another joint project with China in early 2009 after the current program concludes at the end of this year, List said.
The program has also introduced European public administration techniques to China. According to Lu Linxiang, the program's Chinese co-director, the country is adapting the European assessment system, under which the performance of different government agencies can be compared on a quantitative basis. As in business organizations, the efficiency of government agencies can be assessed by "by costs," he said.
The EU funds assistance programs in many countries in Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia. Compared with programs in Africa, which are typically "development aid," programs in China are more within the framework of "cooperation," said Harry List, the program's European Co-director.
"If you have close contacts and exchange your experiences and knowledge on different levels, you can achieve a greater level of understanding and cooperation in the future," List said.