Most people in China never see the inside of a lecture hall.  UNESCO reports that less than a third of the college-aged population attended school in 2011. Moreover, the government continues to control the flow of information, even in universities.  Accordingly, China thinks what its elite thinks.

However, even though the elite who control information continue to learn in liberal, American classrooms, Chinese political ideology remains stable. While the introduction of liberal thought may be expected to trigger broader liberalization, there is no such trend.  Sociopolitical inertia constitutes a magnificent barrier to progress.  Chinese students, even those who entertain plans to challenge the status quo, consider it a futile battle and a poor life-decision.

Applying Pressure

The rate at which Chinese students are attending American universities has increased, buoyed by the One-child policy and increased wealth. The Chinese are now by far the largest international contingent studying in the United States. In 2012, there were over 650 Chinese students enrolled in Harvard schools, 200 more than second-place India. This increase in the number of applications stems from the value of an American degree in China. Some Chinese students say the motivation comes from status, whereas others argue parents actually want their children to be taught to think more freely.

Amy, a freshman at Harvard from Beijing, notes that some fellow Chinese students “viewed this opportunity as something good for their careers.” She felt pressured to apply to the United States by a school culture that expected top students to seek berths at famous institutions.  She and those of her classmates joining her in the application process became a kind of clique, tutoring each other on the minutiae of English grammar, and jumping through the various hoops demanded of Chinese citizens looking to study abroad.  Since Kindergarten, Amy has studied English; an American degree was always on the horizon.

Nancy, another Chinese freshman, chose to study abroad because Harvard offers opportunities unheard of at home.  Her chief influence was parental.  Her dad wanted her to study outside of China because “he wanted me to leave that environment and go somewhere I can have the freedom to speak without having to fear that I might get into trouble for what I say or what I do.”  Nancy grew up hearing stories suggesting there was more to know about her government than it allowed citizens to learn.  Her father, she says, lived through the Cultural Revolution and witnessed Mao’s massive popularity, but “learned something more about the politics system through what he read,” finding an “inconsistency with what he was told and what he actually found out.”  From conversation during family dinners, Nancy, too, became acquainted with an alternative history to the one broadcast on TV.  For her, going to Harvard is a way to learn more, and the only way to learn freely.

Of course, the reasons are not black and white, but it is clear that incentives that drive students to apply differ. Some are intellectual, relating to the style of thought presented at Harvard. Others stem directly from the status associated with the Harvard brand.  Most importantly, they are decisions ultimately justified in terms of individual benefit.  Students want to change themselves more than they want to change their country.

Experiences of Freedom

In an interview with the HPR, Professor of sociology at the University of California Berkley, Thomas Gold, said that in the first years after détente the American elite and foreign policy community had a plan. Educating Chinese children, especially those heir to the upper class, would expose them to all of the West’s virtue, and, when a portion returns to their country, American education will have “planted seeds in their head about good relations with the US, and also the importance of democracy.” Gold added American leaders hoped the young, “avant-garde” Chinese would reorder society after “they moved into the elite.”  The real trend, Gold believes, heavily emphasizes personal economic freedom for the few at the top, with little radical consequence for the society as a whole, suggesting “they’re pro-democracy for an elite, but not pro-democracy overall because China’s not ready for peasants voting.”

For all the involvement of the community, and for the prospect of riches, Amy considers Harvard as, first and foremost, a place to grow as an individual. She singled out diversity as the most important method of education she has encountered in the United States.  She feels that some Chinese students at Harvard spend most of their time together and are pretty “tight,” but does not perceive any pressure to limit the dimensions of her social experience, considering it an “individual choice.”  She holds the same unencumbered view with regards to her future, explaining that she will continue studying and begin working either in the United States or China according to which better serves her academic and career interests.

Nancy, too, does not know whether she will cross the Pacific again.  She is taking a class on the Tiananmen Square massacre, and feels its implications deeply.  The freshman says, “I have learned much more at Harvard than I can actually learn in China,” explaining that Tiananmen is “a blank history” at home.  Nancy is considering trying to bring her knowledge back: “My instructor said ‘all of us can make a change if we want,’ but still, I grew up in China so we have learned to protect ourselves over all these years, so it’s kind of hard to jump out of the box an do something, so I still don’t know.”  After all, at Tiananmen, many were students before they were casualties.  Additionally, Nancy knows firsthand that the Chinese people do not know what they do not know, making a call for public uprising likely to fall on deaf ears. “My plan for now is that I still want to stay in America after college,” she admits with discomfort.  “It sounds like I’m escaping […] but I still want to do something for my country if I can.”

Interestingly, Amy believes Harvard to be both a blessing and a curse.  Citing the popularity of a television program that shows graduates of leading Chinese colleges failing at simple tasks, anti-intellectualism, or at least anger from some at the imperfections of academic icons, could negatively affect her after graduation.  There is a certain amount of controversy around and suspicion of fancy degrees by the average Chinese citizen.  In fact, coming from a country that does not grant its citizens as much liberty as some believe it should, Amy says, “the name brings with it a certain expectation that you cannot be free from.”

If Not China

The reality of the situation discourages attempts to overthrow longstanding norms in the world’s most populace country, even by those who occupy its highest stations and find its structure dissatisfying.  Perhaps American efforts to foster democracy in China were naïve.  Nonetheless, those sympathizing with liberal thought should be encouraged.  Chinese students studying in the United States may be unable or unwilling to use what they learn to reorder their society, but they still enjoy its inspiring benefits.  Neither they, the colleges educating them, or the global community with which they engage are worse for that.

Image courtesy of CC China Mainland


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