Political education

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Several days ago I posted an account of the distorting effect of the "political" component of Chinese higher ed -- essentially, the need to parrot back parts of Marxist analysis and the  dictums of past leaders. This is apart from all the other concerns about the incentives and emphases of the educational and testing system itself, as thrashed out in many postings here.

[For application of political nostrums in an amusing way, see Simon Lewis's recent violent-noir novel Bad Traffic, about a regular non-English-speaking tough-guy Chinese cop who finds himself in England trying to track down his missing daughter. In the middle of gun fights or when wincing after blows to the head, he steadies himself by reciting boilerplate from his political classes. "His ears rang from the [gun] blast and that din added to a sense that he had stepped outside time. He hauled his mind back into the present. The contradiction between the working class and the peasant class in socialist society is resolved by the method of collectivization..."]

Now, from a young Chinese person who has recently graduated from college in Beijing and is headed to grad school in the US, a startling account of another sort of political effect on higher education: the levee en masse of university students to participate in political ceremonies, notably those in October commemorating the founding of the People's Republic in 1949.

ALL freshmen of our school are mandated to join the 60 Anniversary National Day parade. They will be taken to a special training ground set up outside of Beijing where training will continue from early July (after final exams) till Oct. 1st. Those who are tall and fit will be selected to march; those who are not selected will have to be trained as volunteers. Students are threatened by their Party Advisers with not being able to graduate if refuse to join the National Day parade.
Over 1,000 students are required from our school, XX University, and [one other], but since our school has a small student body, the entire freshman year will be drawn out. The combination of losing summer vacation and one month of sophomore year study is not only bad for morale, but will greatly affect their study. Normally, Chinese students only have a two-week military training upon enrollment or in the beginning of sophomore year in Septembers.

The students are upset and angry, but they dare not defy the school - and for the school, they cannot defy the order came from above. School authorities are not happy with such activities interfering with their teaching. [One dean at the university] told me that last year, because the junior and senior year students all joined the Olympic volunteer work (which is a requirement for us), but missed out on the crucial chance of internships to gain the work experience of relevant field; plus the training of volunteers caused a majority of students to miss at least several weeks' courses, 2009 graduates are not very competitive on the job market. She said now of course we blame on the global economic crisis, but she knows that even without the crisis, this year's students have not done nearly as well as last year's both academically and work-wise - we were made weak on the job market because of the Olympic fever.

I'm very concerned for the freshmen of our school because Beijing's desire to show off will deprive them of the summer vacation with their family, a month of scheduled study, and most importantly, their energy and concentration in study for the next semester. This may not be the smartest thing to do... yet I'm telling them to write an open letter to authorities and stage a peaceful protest. But I know this is their fight, not mine.

Side note: through most of last year, the ramped-up, "it's a sensitive moment" security measures in Beijing were justified in the name of the upcoming Olympics. Through this year, they have been tacitly understood to come from the impending 50th anniversary of the arrival of Chinese troops in Tibet in 1959 and the 20th anniversary of their arrival in Tiananmen Square in 1989. More recently, the announced rationale for special security has been the struggle to protect China against the flu menace. And now, tightening is necessary in preparation for the mammoth National Day observances this fall on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC. Americans will recognize this as the permanent "Threat Level Orange" variety of security theater, in which the threat level is easy to raise but nearly impossible to lower.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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