Romance! Money! Intrigue! It's Model UN ... in China

Here's what happens when a popular youth diplomacy organization takes on Chinese characteristics.
modelun.jpgStudents prepare for a Model UN conference in Geneva, Switzerland. (M. Jacobson-Gonzalez/ITU)

Model United Nations (MUN), a popular college- and high school-level extracurricular activity in the U.S. and Europe, has come to China. Students play delegates to simulated UN committees and compete for "best delegate" awards. This activity took root in China when the first collegiate MUN team was formed at the elite Peking University (PKU) in 2000. More collegiate MUN clubs were formed over the next few years, although it is at the high school level that the activity experienced explosive growth.

Model UN first appeared in Chinese high schools in 2005. After a group of PKU students attended the Harvard MUN conference, they decided to organize the first national MUN conference for high school students in China. Over the next five years, the PKU conference enjoyed financial and organizational backing from the American United Nations Association until the economic crisis curtailed it in 2010. During those five years, the PKU conference was the gold standard for high school conferences in China, and the activity gained popularity among Chinese teens.

The Government Gets Involved

Between 2005 and 2010, high school MUN conferences rapidly proliferated. Many of the older delegates gradually became core organizers and chairs of later MUN conferences. While most MUN conferences in China were organized through private or academic enterprises, government-affiliated MUNs have also flourished. The Beijing Ministry of Education requires each high school to send at least five student representatives for a MUN endorsed by it.

Yancan Li, a former MUN participant from Beijing, said that at such "official" MUNs, "probably only 20 percent of the attendees knew anything about MUN." Yet in her opinion, that conference was very successful. The government official in charge of organizing the entire conference formed the chair committees by mixing and matching students from PKU and Beijing No. 4 High School, one of the top high schools in the city. "We had at least six figures in financial support from the municipal government and Beijing No.4 High School. The conference, full of flashy flags and nametags, was successful because the government invested so much in it. We had a high-tech circular camera to take in all of the hundreds of attendees and officials. At the closing ceremony, I stood there in front of all the municipal Party officials and other high school students, even though I was only a high school sophomore. I felt so honored."

Yet Li recognized that her privilege gave her the opportunity to attend the event. "This could not have been possible if we were not privileged to be students from No. 4 High School," she said.

A Form of Civic Education?

Does participation in MUN, which emphasizes understanding of political process and international relations, instill more civic awareness in China's high school students, whose lives are consumed by preparation of gaokao, the college entrance exam that decides their fates?

In Li's opinion, many of the students involved in MUN were already politically aware. "I don't know about other schools, but at my school we circulated books like The Tiananmen Papers and George Orwell's 1984. I know a few cases of 50-cent Party members [slang for supporters for the Chinese government] as well," Li recalled.

Yet another former MUN participant, Jia Li, argues that the popularity of MUN in China reflected political awareness, but did not cause it: "Doing [MUN] never struck me as a form of radical enlightenment like emerging from a cave of ignorance." A graduate of the University of Hong Kong and a current political science master's student at Taiwan's National Chengchi University, Jia maintained there was "a process of self-selection, by which the politically aware and active students chose to participate in MUN activities. The students who were unaware stayed outside of the circle, and thus remained unaware."

Dengyang Liu, a junior at Dartmouth College, argued that MUN served as a civic education project. When he organized MUN conferences in 2010 and 2011, Liu felt that he "was spreading civic values to delegates from around the country. This is very meaningful for China, and its influence has grown exponentially in less than a decade."

"MUN provides an important alternative to systematic education in China. Through constructing consensus, we could instill civic values. These components already exist in classrooms in the U.S.," he observed.

Model UN Becomes Commercial

Between 2005 and 2010, national MUN conferences such as those organized by PKU and the rivaling Fudan University in Shanghai drew the best high school students from around the country, who competed for limited spaces. Through financial sponsorship by corporations, many of these students' fees were subsidized or even covered in full, further increasing the draw of the events. Over time, lesser-known national conferences, as well as regional and even local conferences for high school students, began to spring up and gradually spread to second-tier and even third-tier cities.

The work of Weland Education Company is one reason for MUN's quick growth. Established in 2008, Weland is a commercial enterprise founded by some of Peking University's first MUN participants. Weland's business model consisted of providing training programs for students interested in participating in MUN, and shepherding students abroad to attend MUN conferences in the U.S. and Europe.

"MUN provides an important alternative to systematic education in China. Through constructing consensus, we could instill civic values."

Li Yuanyuan, a senior administrator, asserts that Weland was "the most important factor" behind the rapid development of MUN in China. MUN no longer attracts only the most prepared students from elite high schools. Students can now travel to the U.S. and attend a conference hosted by an Ivy League university by paying Weland $5,400. They can then use these experiences to pad their resumes, regardless of their actual level of preparation or engagement. Yet the activity still offers an outlet for Chinese students seeking the experience itself, a platform for political practice and exploration.

Wendy Qian is a U.S.-based contributor to Tea Leaf Nation. She has also reported for the China Daily and China Digital Times.

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