Alec Ash

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By Alec Ash

In late May and early June, I interviewed professors Zhang Weiying and Pan Wei of Peking University (known as ‘Beida’). I wanted to know what the generation who grew up in the Cultural Revolution thought of the generation who grew up in the Consumer Revolution – and who could be leading China in thirty years. Here’s what they said.

* * *

Zhang Weiying is at the forefront of the ‘New Right’. In (much too) short, that’s the school of thought in China which favours free markets and a clean break from socialism. [1] Or as Mao might put it, capitalist roaders. Zhang helped to pioneer economic reforms in China in the early 80s, and believes that a propertied class is the foundation of civil society. (”Ownership”, he told me, “is rather a responsibility and respect for other’s property.”)

I asked Professor Zhang if he thought Beida could become a world class university (it was only 36th in this 2007 ranking). His first comment was that in just thirty years in China, the number of students enrolling in college in a given year has multiplied by twenty (roughly 30,000 in 1978, when universities opened again after the learning-free zone of the Cultural Revolution; 600,000 in 2009). And you expect Beida to be a world class university already?

He also mentioned government control in universities as a factor: Beida can’t diversify the curriculum without autonomy or academic freedom. But the problem runs deeper than that. Many of the faculty don’t encourage creativity in their students – the aim is rather to get the right answer (the “only one”). “New ideas are not encouraged. … If you go through this system,” professor Zhang continued, “you will become narrowminded.”

So is this what he thinks of Beida’s elite students, China’s future? No, of course there are bright sparks of independent thought (especially amongst his own students, of course…). But in the ‘post 80s’ generation as a whole, there is a worrying trend towards ziwozhongxin – self-centeredness. As the first generation of single children (the one-child policy came into effect in 1979), they “take everything for granted”.

One upshot of this, especially for the ‘post 90s’ kids who are not used to hardship (like the generation young during the 60s and 70s are), is that the pressure gets on top of them when they enter university or working life. Professor Zhang pointed to the spate of Foxconn suicides – all young workers who had joined the company just months before – as an example.

But he’s not despairing for China’s youth. After all, “they will grow up.”

* * *

Pan Wei is on the other side of the political spectrum, the ‘New Left’. He took his PhD at Berkeley, but back in China he was firmly of the opinion that China should follow its own path, not the West’s. His essay ‘Toward a Consultative Rule of Law Regime in China’ [2] is an interesting, provocative read, arguing that democratic elections are an unsuitable model for China.

When I put the same opening question – can Beida become a world class university? – to Professor Pan, he rejected its terms. Beida is a world class university if analysed within a Chinese framework, using China’s criteria. (I have to disagree: it really isn’t.) Assessing China from a Chinese perspective – and ideally using the Chinese language – is essential to him.

That’s why – I know I’m digressing – the NPC or renda shouldn’t be thought of as a ‘congress’, according to Professor Pan, because the term paints it as an organ of a Western political system, and so it inevitably comes across as a “rubber stamp” to Westerners. ‘Civil society’, by the same token, isn’t “suitable” for twenty-first century China. Rather, the danwei– work unit – and jiating – household/family – are.

A bigger problem at Beida that Professor Pan identified was the declining number of students from the countryside. According to him, 70% of PKU’s students were from rural areas in the 1950s. 60-70% in the 60s. Today, the number is less than 1%. I can’t check that figure – Chinese universities are secretive about figures which would be public in Britain – but the trend itself is certainly incontestable.

Onto youth. Professor Pan echoed much of what Professor Zhang said. Young Chinese, single children and without the history and suffering of his generation, “become weak”. The same memes of “individualistic” and “psychologically vulnerable” came up. Also an astute comment, I think: that, on the whole, they aren’t interested in their parents’ history (more so in their grandparents’). But you could rephrase: the problem is that parents aren’t interesting in relating their history to their children.

Another result of their upbringing, Professor Pan told me, was “nanxing de nuxinghua” – boys becoming more like girls (or at least ”zhongxinghua” – their neuterisation). A boy who is loved excessively (ni ai) can’t fight for himself. At this point, he declared that this results in more homosexuals. This, I should say, was delivered in the spirit of  observation not prejudice. I see no factual basis for it.

I won’t comment, except to add that Professor Pan also said something intelligent: that older people have always had issues with the younger generations.

Notes
[1] For a better description, Mark Leonard describes New Right and New Left, as well as profiling professors Zhang and Pan, in his book What does China Think?

[2] In Debating Political Reform in China, ed. Suisheng Zhao.

This essay originally appeared at Six; it is reposted here with permission.

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New Red Guards

“Far out to the East of Beijing, past the city’s fifth ringroad, the Cultural Revolution isn’t over yet. In a themed restaurant, performers dressed up as red guards sing and dance on stage, while punters (the average age under 30 on the night I went) lap it up. They’re cheering the time when their parents or grandparents may have been horribly persecuted.”

— Alec Ash, Six

Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a 16-photo series that Alec Ash has done for The China Beat on the theme of “Young China.” We’d like to thank Alec for his long-term commitment to this project, which began last September, and hope to bring you another of these gradual photo essays in the future. Head over to Danwei to see Alec’s most recent publication there, “Tiananmen Turns Twenty-One.”


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1. A trackback on Peter Hessler’s recent China Beat photo essay, “Behind the Wheel, About to Snap” led us to this Spanish-language review of his latest book, Country Driving. If you don’t read Spanish, there’s a button on the page that takes you to a Google translation of the review; while the translation hits a few potholes along the way, it’s a generally good rendition of a perceptive and well-written overview of Hessler’s book.

The site at which the review appears, ZaiChina, is new to the China blog scene; only a few weeks old, it aims to provide readers in Spain and Latin America with a window into what’s going on in China today, and translates articles from the Chinese press into Spanish. Among the first few stories posted at ZaiChina are the following titles: “Todos Contra el Hukou” (“All Against the Hukou”), “Educación o fútbol, ¿qué mejorará antes?” (“Education or Soccer, What Will Improve First?”), and “El mendigo más guapo de China” (“The Most Handsome Beggar in China”).

2. We also stumbled across this partial translation of a post originally written in Chinese that discusses some of the many China-oriented books on the market today. The author flags Peter Hessler’s work, as well as Lisa See’s nonfiction-influenced fiction (her most recent book is Shanghai Girls), and Jeff Wasserstrom’s writing, including his forthcoming China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know.

3. Francophone China Beat readers can now enjoy a translation of Ken Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Une Grande Divergence was released by publisher Albin Michel this week, and can be purchased at sites such as Bibliosurf.com

4. Late last year, web magazine The Quarterly Conversation ran a feature titled “Translate This Book!,” in which writers (and others in the publishing industry) were asked to name the book that they’d most like to see translated into English. Andrea Lingenfelter, who has translated titles such as Farewell My Concubine and Candy, suggested that Yang Dongping’s work, Chengshi jifeng (城市季风 City Monsoon), should be made available to non-Chinese readers:

I’d like to recommend Chengshi jifeng by Yang Dongping, which might be translated as “Urban Currents: Shanghai and Beijing in History and Popular Culture.” I’ve gotten a bit carried away with the title. The literal title, “City Monsoons” doesn’t quite get at the heart of the matter. Some people refer to this book in English as “A Tale of Two Cities,” which is witty but perhaps a bit misleading. Urban Currents/Chengshi jifeng is not a riff on Dickens, nor is it about torrential rains. Rather, it is a lively and extensively researched, scholarly and yet personal account of the long-standing and ongoing rivalry between Shanghai and Beijing, two cities whose cultural differences and relative merits have been hotly debated ever since Shanghai became a treaty port in the 19th century. In Chengshi jifeng, Yang Dongping explores what lies behind this intense urban competition. He delves into the history, society, economy, and culture of China’s two leading cities, while also discussing their roles in the popular imagination. Beijing and Shanghai have staked out or been assigned opposite positions in the popular mind, jingpai and haipai. Some may take these categories with a grain of salt, and others maintain that the differences are superficial; but Yang examines and interrogates a long list of polarities associated with these two cities: North vs South; yang vs yin (and the corollary opposition of macho vs feminine); hierarchical vs democratic; xenophobic vs cosmopolitan; distrustful of the West vs adoring of the West; conservative vs open-minded; socially stratified and rigid vs socially mobile; traditional spiritual values vs modern materialistic values; Chinese vs foreign. The list goes on. With a deep personal connection to and affection for both cities, the author, an academic, contrasts jingpai and haipai without taking sides. For readers of English, the book introduces deep-seated cultural patterns, trends and concepts that are part of the fabric of Chinese society, in addition to offering a wealth of historical information and interesting tidbits (e.g., what is now Shanghai was underwater until the 12th century; you could tell someone’s rank in the capital of Beijing by the height of the threshold of the front gate of their house). This book is well-known among North American scholars of Chinese studies (especially urban studies), and if it were available in English it would be widely taught in universities. Chengshi jifeng would also give people who do business in China more solid cultural footing. Non-Chinese may be tempted to see China as monolithic and homogeneous, but regional differences like those described in Yang’s book are the rule, not the exception, and they reflect the diversity and complexity of Chinese society and culture.

5. In early February, we ran an exchange between Alec Ash and Daniel A. Bell about the movie Confucius; check out a Chinese translation of the post here.

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