China’s learning: a potent anniversary

Li Datong
13 June 2007

Reflecting on historical events is becoming an increasingly sensitive activity in China. 2006 was the fortieth anniversary of the start of the cultural revolution. Well in advance, the authorities placed a ban on publication of any news to do with the anniversary, but one Beijing magazine pushed the envelope by publishing a piece on the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976. The magazine was severely reprimanded and the editor-in-chief was demoted.

2007, the fiftieth anniversary of the start of Mao Zedong's anti-rightist movement, is also a sensitive year. Again, the media has been banned from discussing the event, but an internet storm has been stirred up by the release of a public letter from over 1,000 people then branded as "rightists", who are now demanding an apology and compensation. On 4 June 2007 - the anniversary of the crackdown on the 1989 protests - the authorities received a dubious reward for their efforts in wiping all traces of Tiananmen from the public memory.

A one-line advertisement appeared in the Chengdu Wanbao newspaper in Sichuan province saying: "Pay respects to the strong-willed mothers of 4th June victims". The advert shocked the authorities, whose investigation revealed that the three people responsible for checking advertisements at the paper were all in their early 20s and had no idea what "4th June" referred to; they thought the advert was talking about a mining accident. It did not save three of their senior colleagues from losing their jobs (followed, it is reported, by four others).

Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and a former editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaperAlso by Li Datong in openDemocracy:

"The story of Freezing Point"
(12 September 2006)

"China: a ‘great nation'?"
(10 January 2007)

"China's contradictory signals"
(24 January 2007)

"Hong Kong's example"
(7 February 2007)

"Will China follow Vietnam's lead?"
(21 February 2007)

"Chinese political reform: official discourse, real meaning"
(7 March 2007)

"What China's new property law means"
(21 March 2007)

"The Chinese 'nail house': a Chongqing saga" (4 April 2007)

"'Public opinion' and China's Japan policy"
(18 April 2007)

"An end to exclusivity"
(2 May 2007)

"China's veteran voices of reform"
(16 May 2007)

"Chinese and American unions shake hands"
(30 May 2007)

An awakened generation?

There are exceptions to the rule. 2007 is also the thirtieth anniversary of the revival of the gaokao (university-entrance examination system) after it was abandoned during the cultural revolution. This received a lot of media coverage, although reports were careful not to mention the cultural revolution itself. It seems that the authorities did not see the topic as too subversive and saw no need to ban coverage. In fact, in the thirty years since the entrance exams were reintroduced, huge changes have taken place in successive generations of students.

China's universities closed with the start of the cultural revolution in 1966, and only started accepting new students again in 1972. But even then, entry was based on the recommendation of a factory, commune or the military. The only condition for recommendation was a good political record, and the aim was not for students to receive an education, but, in the words of Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung), to "occupy the bourgeois camp". University lecturers were in those days considered "bourgeois intellectuals" and had to be scrapingly respectful towards the students from factory, farm and military backgrounds. They didn't dare to actually teach them anything.

In 1977, with the backing of Deng Xiaoping, the university-entrance exam system was reintroduced after an absence of eleven years. This system, which selected students based on exam results rather than political background, gave the right to higher education to large numbers of good students who had previously been excluded due to poor political performance. Over half over the new intake in 1977 and 1978 was made up of students who had grown up in cities, but been forced to undergo re-education through working in agricultural areas. These people, who had spent long years among the poorest people in the country, had a deep understanding of Chinese society and studied extremely hard to make up for their "lost ten years". Today, their teachers still reminisce about the effort these two year-groups put into their studies.

This generation of students was known as the "awakened generation". They had been through the madness of the early cultural revolution, and personally experienced the hardships and unfairness of life. They were disillusioned with Mao's utopian fantasy, and had started to think independently about the direction in which China should be moving. Many of them had read western political theory and wanted to fight for democratic freedom. These students were an inspiration to successive intakes and produced many of the leaders of the Chinese democracy movement. Throughout the whole of the 1980s, the mood of the students could be used to predict the changing moods of wider society. Almost like clockwork, every other year there would be a wave of national student protests, leading up to the Tiananmen democracy movement of 1989.

The long-term consequences of the violent crackdown on the students' pro-democracy demonstrations are hard to fully define, even today. But one thing is obvious - that since the start of the 1990s, Chinese universities and university students have stayed well away from the political process. Following Deng Xiaoping's famous nan xun (southern tour) of January 1992 - when he reaffirmed the government's commitment to economic reform - the whole of China was swept up in a wave of pragmatism and the pursuit of financial gain; universities were no exception. Overnight, the "political celebrities" of the past were replaced by successful business leaders, and the aim of all graduates became to get a good job, or go abroad to study.

At the same time, nationalism was on the rise across campuses. Of the two major student protests since the start of the 1990s, one was in response to the United States bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the war over Kosovo (1999), and the other was to call for a boycott of Japanese goods during the row over school textbooks (2005). There was violence and damage to property during both demonstrations, but no students have ever been held responsible for these actions. The majority of Chinese students have absolutely no political views or demands.

Today, Chinese universities have been fully brought into the administrative system and can be seen as government institutions. The position of principal at a top university carries with it the rank of "vice-minister" and the heads of less prestigious universities are at the level of "bureau head". Academic ethics have been corrupted, and plagiarism is rife. In April 2007, North Carolina's Duke University announced the results of an investigation into thirty-eight freshman MBA students accused of plagiarism. Nine of the students were expelled, fifteen were made to repeat the year, ten were given a zero grade, and four were found innocent. This was apparently Duke University's biggest scandal for thirty years, and moreover the only incident of its kind at a north American business school in ten years. Regrettably, all of the students involved came from China. This incident almost entirely sums up the condition of Chinese higher education.

In the thirty years since the return of the entrance exams, huge changes have taken place in Chinese universities and university students. In the 1980s, university students were in short supply and still seen as special. But today, the job market is overflowing with graduates looking for jobs. Fewer and fewer are finding good jobs, as society seems to value them less and less. From time to time stories appear of graduates from top universities becoming butchers or shoe-shiners. Chinese universities, so strictly controlled by officialdom, have gradually become the government's own in-house training centres. In the long term, the price paid for this kind of education will be the moral character and academic contributions of Chinese students.

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