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

Here's what happens when a popular youth diplomacy organization takes on Chinese characteristics.


Students 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.

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.

The distinction between non-profit conferences and commercially-oriented conferences in China has also blurred. Certain conferences have even gone so far as to offer high school Model UN club faculty advisors kickbacks for requiring students to attend a particular conference. Given that students pay several thousand RMB (several hundred US dollars) for registration, both the teacher and the organizer can profit from this activity.

Dengyang Liu, a former MUN participant, complains, "There is no established norm [in this industry]...unlike in the [U.S.], where Model UN has been run by universities and students for a few decades."He continued, "Since the recent first MUN conference in China, only a few reliable government-led educational institutions have been able to muster sufficient academic and logistical resources to organize national conferences that adhere to high standards."

Recently, unofficial student-run grassroots conferences have begun to dominate the MUN scene. Dengyang explains, "High school students have quickly learned to link Model UN conferences with study-abroad educational consulting agencies to obtain financial support, given the similar demographic backgrounds of the participants." However, desirable academic resources, including well-trained chair members and access to college-level international relations curricula, remain scarce.

Part of Changing China

Money aside, some have concerns that MUN could be a poor educational model. Xiao Wu, an alumnus of Hangzhou's Foreign Language School and architect in training, said that when he chaired Fudan MUN conferences, delegates spent most of their time fighting for the opportunity to become a sponsor of a resolution so that they could be more likely to win an award at the session's close. As a result, there were several inadequate or even duplicated working papers and draft resolutions.

Since much of MUN consists of simulating political discussions, sensitive materials are subject to censorship. Topics specific to China would draw much more scrutiny than disputes such as the Iranian nuclear crisis. Even though student chairs enjoy some degree of autonomy for preparing the MUN topics, they must first obtain the approval of teachers from the hosting university or sometimes Communist Party representatives. Yancan thought that the degree of censorship varied depending on the venue's size and location. The government-affiliated MUNs would have the highest degree of sensitivity, followed by the ones hosted at PKU and Fudan. A particularly sensitive session, for example, involves a simulation of China's National Congress before the establishment of the Communist regime since debate about political reforms can easily allude to current controversies.

Unprofessional Relationships

Socializing has also becoming an increasingly significant component in MUN conferences in China. "(MUN) was the first time I could get to know people from different cities all across China," Max explains that MUN transformed his vision. Delegates fostered deep relationships with each other, some of which are not professional. Casual and often long-distance relationships became a prevalent spin-off product of Model UN conferences.

Jingyuan Qian also warns against some distasteful problems in terms of personal relationships at the MUN conferences. At one 2012 conference, "A male chair publicly announced to his committee that 'I am here to find someone,'" he recalls. According to a limited number of insiders' opinion, sexual harassment and possible problems of consent also exists in major MUN conferences, where chairs could pressure delegates in unwanted relationships. In the United States, students usually are under the custody of their faculty advisors or chaperones when they attend conferences, while in China, few schools have such a restriction.

The rapid development of Model United Nations in China in the past decade parallels the exposure of a younger generation to an unprecedented influx of Western culture and values. Chinese youth are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their interactions with the world. For many of them, MUN came at exactly the right time.

With its demand for English fluency and political awareness, its inherent values of democratic deliberation, and its global appeal, Model United Nations has emerged as a unique opportunity for outward-looking Chinese students to pursue in their curiosity. According to the 2011 Report on the Development of MUN in China, almost 40 percent of students that participate in MUN at the high school level sought to continue their education abroad. That is surely not a coincidence.

This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.