June 19, 2001

Overthrowing boredom – not the Communist Party

In 1989, students were at the forefront of the protests that ended in bloodshed in Tiananmen square. The protests called for democracy and reform, but they actually began with a demand for better conditions on Chinese campuses. Crowded dorms without electricity coinciding with high inflation and rampant corruption brought students and urbanites into the streets. Back then, the students climbing atop tanks looked to the west for inspiration and support.

In 1999, students were at the forefront of another mass protest. This one being against the U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. They burned flags, threw stones and called for Clinton's head on a platter. Most recently, after the plane fiasco off Hainan, students again grumbled, but did not take to the streets the government persuaded them it was not in their or the nation's interest and they agreed.

A lot has changed in a decade.

Instead of worrying about students burning down Chinese government buildings, the Communist Party has to keep them from burning down foreign (read US) government buildings.

But campus conditions haven't changed much. Students still live eight to a dorm that would house two in the US. Electricity is turned off in many universities after 7 p.m. and it is not reliable to begin with. Students study outside or in the library the one light bulb hanging from the ceiling just doesn't put out enough light. They get up at 6 a.m. for morning exercises, stand in line for hot water, then get ready for 8a.m. class. There is a curfew even for postgraduates at 11pm (11:30 on Friday and Saturday) and if you are not inside on time, tough luck, the door lady won't let you in.

The conditions depend on the income of the university and the region, but curfews, electrical and water problems and overcrowded dorms are common throughout China. Universities which receive money directly from the State Education Commission enjoy a few perks, such as foreign teachers, exchange programs, pretty buildings and parks and big dance halls. But even these "key" schools serve low quality food in their canteens and house eight to a dorm.

China still is not democratic, save for scattered village level elections. Corruption is still around even after the execution of several top officials for accepting bribes last year. Chinese media still distorts reality and jobs are even more scarce than they were in 1989.

So why aren't the students camped out underneath Mao's face in Beijing?


Being a student in China is a rough job. As soon as kids enter middle school, around age 13, the fun ends and the servitude begins. Day in and day out Saturdays and Sundays included students rise at 5:30 (or earlier, depending on the school) and either prepare for class or have dawn class. They attend classes from 8am to 5pm. Almost all children have parent-organized extra-curricular activities such as piano lessons, dancing, arhu lessons, English etc. until bedtime.

Then it starts all over again. Classes are geared toward one goal: passing the high school entrance exam. A high score means entry into a better high school, which in turn means a better chance at gaining a spot in a university. Today, spaces in colleges, universities and other post-secondary adult education programs total about 6 million. There are almost 100 million young people of college age and less than 5 percent of them are enrolled in a university or college.

The competition is extremely fierce less than half of a class will reach high school and less than a fourth of a high school class will get into a university. If students thought middle school was tough, they were taught the meaning of the word during high school. Students often live in the high school and spend every waking hour with noses in books. Studying involves rote memorization and recitation of exam material.

"We became study machines," says Li Jing. "My world revolved around the classroom, the dorm and the eating hall."

When "Black July" rolls around (the term for College Entrance Exam month) students are delirious and desperately waiting for word of acceptance. They all have dreams of college life laced with girlfriends and boyfriends, freedom, intellectual stimulation and relaxation.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. Students are forbidden from having relationships (although this doesn't hinder them in the least) and curfews are strictly enforced. If a student misses enough morning exercises (at 6 am), their grades are docked. The exam system is still firmly in place and, as described above, dorm life is decidedly unappealing.

Universities are also extremely competitive. Students face unemployment, low wages (or sometimes none at all if they happen to be a teacher) and no job security like in the good old days when they graduate.

"The competition here may kill me," said Ma Feng one day. "But if I die then it is a good thing for China because then someone better than me has survived."

Classes still lack interest and innovation: "Deng XiaoPing Thought" and "Marxism-Leninism" are sleepers as well as the basic computer skills and applied economics courses which all students are required to take. English is also required and the College English Test is the bane of most students' existence. English curriculum in high school and middle school is poor and it doesn't improve much at the higher levels, but that's for another column.

Students cannot pick their major. Upon taking the College Entrance Exam, students list three universities and three majors. Many students pick one major and one university they want, and two they don't really care for. Tuition is lower for majors the nation "needs" such as soil science, accounting, teaching, chemistry and computer science so students invariably pick one of these.

By the time students reach college, the last thing they want to do is rush into the street to protest corruption, leaky dorms or bad canteen food. They care little for politics and just want to relax a bit, go to the net-bar and chat all night, eat and drink with friends and laugh.

Students today are quite aware of the inequities of the Communist Party and the media, they just don't care about these things as much as they care about having as much fun as possible before they are thrown out of college and into a job market that can't support them.

Text-only printable version of this article

Sascha Matuszak is a teacher living and working in China. His articles have appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Minnesota Daily, and elsewhere. His exclusive Antiwar.com column appears fortnightly.

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After 1989, "human rights" and "China" became two inseparable topics. The plight of men like Wei Jingsheng was made public in the west and hardened US policy toward China. Contacts were severed, Green Cards were handed out to all overseas Chinese and Congress began using MFN status as a lever to influence the Chinese Communist Party. Tibet found its way into American (hiphop) culture with the Beastie Boys leading the musical charge to "Free Tibet" and the Taiwan issue gained new importance and danger.

In the 1990s, economics began trumping ideology and national security and relations grew warmer during the Clinton years. The US and China were negotiating China's entry into the WTO, a goal China had been reaching for since the mid 1980s and everything seemed rosy.

But behind this lay the perceived threat of an ascendant China to US global domination. Human rights questions, Taiwan and Tibet kept relations frosty and the NATO bombing of Serbia chilled them even more. Then the US government accused Wen Ho Lee of spying. (The accusation turned out to be a big mistake.) Then the Embassy was bombed and Chinese took to the streets to protest what is still considered to be an unprovoked, deliberate attack on China. The Dalai Lama visited the US and Taiwan President Chen Shui Bian visited once and is on his way again this time with the red carpet rolled out for all to see.

"Why does America support dividing China?" asks English major Li Biao. "Because they don't want to see China become strong."

When Xiao Bush took office, things got worse. Chinese had already gotten used to the idea of China as a rising power and many believed the US would try to keep China from becoming strong. Any opposition to this argument has been washed away by Hainan, NMD and Rumsfeld declaring China to be a rival instead of a partner. Chinese are now convinced that the US is an arrogant bully hell-bent on world domination and containment of China.

Although most Chinese view WTO membership as a good thing, students are quick to point out that "the US likes to use the economy and diplomacy to take over a country, only if these don't work will they use force." Chinese realize that US business is frothing at the mouth because, as capitalists, they need markets to exploit and China's labor resources, raw materials and undeveloped enterprises make it ripe for the plucking. US opposition to Beijing's bid for the 2008 Olympics is another sore spot students see it as just another example of US interference and arrogance.

As US Sino relations have worsened, students have become more patriotic and less inclined to listen to criticism of the Communist Party coming from the US, not because the criticism is unfounded, but because the motives are seen as nefarious rather than benign.


Students today and their parent's have little in common. Their parents are often workers or farmers and lived through the Cultural Revolution. They were either sent to the fields for education after high school or joined one of the countless groups of students, workers and farmers killing each other during the late 1960s and early '70s. Very few have a college education universities were closed down during the Cultural Revolution.

The older generation bears physical and mental scars. They grew up very poor and they remember eating dirt and plants in the 50s and 60s during the famines. For them, making money is paramount. They instill into their kids a work discipline that was forged by years of hardship that today's kids can't even begin to fathom. In 1970, 100 yuan was a fortune; today, parents send their kids 500 yuan a month to cover living costs. Back then, computers and televisions were dreams. Now everyone has a T.V. set and even peasants have access to a computer.

Students today have numerous uncles and aunts but not a single sibling. These kids are given everything when they are young and the hopes of an entire generation of old folks rests on their shoulders. The one child policy enforced since 1979 gave birth to the xiao huangdi, or "little emperor." Little emperors are considered selfish and lazy by their parents and little emperors consider their parents to be old-fashioned and tyrannical.

Neither view is accurate. Students are loath to disobey their parents, out of love and respect as much as fear and parents are tyrannical because they realize what it takes to be successful in China. But the communication gap is large and widening with each new CD acquisition, with each date, with each new fashion statement.

The older generation has seen first hand the nature of the Communist Party and it's the old men who grumble in their wine cups and spill their guts to a foreigner. The younger generation leaves the room or takes grandpa into the bedroom after he's had too much wine.

The new generation is the first to live in a globalizing age. They listen to all sorts of music, dye their hair, wear earrings, leather and tight scandalous dresses. They wear make-up and dance all night, have flings and take an ecstasy-like drug. Students love Japanese singers and think Korean guys are sexy.

In chat rooms across China, the younger generation is saying whatever they want to whomever they want and avoiding punishment. Kids today want to travel, have a good job and experience the life they missed as kids and their parents never glimpsed all their lives. The students are the forefront of a revolution, but it isn't political and its aim is to overthrow boredom not the Communist Party.

This generation of Chinese students is fully aware of the short term effects of WTO entry, the schemes of Xiao Bush and his buddies, the unemployment dragging China down and the corruption and propaganda that oozes out of the Communist Party. They just choose to sideline these matters for now in favor of a little good living.

But when these kids grow up and begin taking positions of leadership throughout the country, the effect could be far more important than a lone man atop a tank.

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