|AU: Daniel, I want to turn a little bit to a more general look at higher education in China. Listeners may remember a conversation I had back in episode 1.7 with Yi-Lin Chiang about her book Study Gods which talked about the fierce competition to get into top institutions in China. I think if you’ve read books like that, then you think that maybe the Chinese meritocracy standards are similar to those in North America or Europe. Get into a Harvard or a Stanford and then get a great job and then success. But you’ve written on meritocracy in the Chinese context. In one recent article you said that what really makes the Chinese political system distinctive is a commitment to the idea of political meritocracy, namely the idea that political systems should aim to select and promote public officials with superior ability and virtue. So, my question is about what’s the role of university education in identifying people with ability and virtue? Or does ability and virtue just mean people’s ability to carry out tasks on behalf of the party? What’s the role of university education in the pyramid of ability and virtue?
DB: As you mentioned, it’s political meritocracy, so it’s really the selection of public officials. So, there’s not this idea that resources should be distributed according to meritocratic criteria. It’s really a political idea, meritocracy and more and more since the period of reform. There’s been a very strong emphasis on educational qualifications when it comes to the selection, especially mid- to high-level public officials. So, arguably the kind of least corrupt, not arguably, I think I can say this with great deal of confidence: the least corrupt institution of in China is the university examination system. I mean, it has many problems. The most obvious problem is that those who are from the countryside often don’t have access to good schools and good teachers that can prepare them well for the national examinations. But, the examinations themselves are quite free and fair without a kind of corrupt process. So first and foremost, that’s the thing: to get into university according to these examinations and it’s super competitive. I read the book that you referred to. I think she refers also more to people who go abroad but in China it’s quite narrow. It’s really performance according to the examinations to get into universities. And then, if you want to serve as a public official, it’s important to be a party member. And that’s a very, very highly competitive process within the university as well. And more so in 1980s, I knew many people from China and actually the high performing students often didn’t want to be party members was viewed as somehow undesirable or tainted or something that the best performers didn’t want to do. But now it’s the opposite. It’s super competitive to get into the party because that provides opportunities especially to be public officials and in Shandong province as mentioned, unlike other parts of China, it’s really the dream of almost all the students to be a party official. So, it’s very competitive to get into the party. The party is a bit misleading, let’s just call it the ruling organization. And after that, then once they graduate from the university, they have to pursue the examinations to be public officials. Those are also super competitive. But as you probably know, in the past, most universities and most graduates from top universities like Shandong University would want to do the examinations to be higher level public officials. But now there’s this very bad unemployment problem for university graduates. So more and more, so my students, for example, at Shandong University would want to would do the examinations to be city level public officials, which they didn’t use to before, just because now it’s hard to get jobs outside the once you graduate, which wasn’t true even five or six years ago.
AU: It’s still the major first step on the ladder no matter what.
AU: Prior to being at Shandong, you were at Tsinghua University in Beijing. And that’s interesting because politically, it’s founded by Americans using their share of the Boxer Rebellion indemnity. It’s the equivalent of Oxford in the UK, or Todai in Tokyo, in the sense that it produces such a significant fraction of the country’s senior politicians. Can you tell us a bit about this institution? What’s its history? How did it get to be so important in in national politics and culture?
DB: Well, so before the Revolution, it did have a tradition in the humanities and many of the great philosophers and political reformers taught at Tsinghua University. But in the 1950s it became the kind of humanities part became shied off and it became more of a university that focused first and foremost on science technology. But starting in a period of reform in the late seventies, early eighties, then it became, once again, a comprehensive university. So, in the early days of reform, in the 1980s and ‘90s, most of the public officials were trained as, especially the high-level ones, were trained as engineers. Tsinghua was a premier engineering university in China. So, many of those who were successful at Tsinghua went into politics. But now more and more there’s graduates from other fields who become leading public officials. Just to give you an example, the former president of Tsinghua University, who’s trained as an environmental engineer. Now he’s the party secretary of Shanghai. He’s very talented and well-liked, and he’s probably on the fast track to political power as well.
AU: You alluded a little bit to some tensions there between STEM fields and humanities fields. Right. So, in Beijing proper as you say the humanities were hived off from one university and then more or less given to Beijing University, or Beida, that’s where those disciplines are focused now. I write a lot about rankings. I’m on the board at the academic rankings of world universities in Shanghai. And of course, the one thing everyone’s seen in the last 15 years or so, is the massive investments in stem fields at Chinese universities. But there is another tradition as you said, scholars like Ruth Hayhoe and William Kirby have written eloquently about the importance and rich history of liberal arts in China. So, you ran a social science and art school in in China. What do you think? Is there any chance that higher education in China would swing back in the direction of the humanities at some point? Has the pendulum swung as far as it’s going to go in terms of stem or might it come back?
DB: I don’t think it’s one or the other. I mean, China is one of the few countries in the world where there’s been massively increased funding for the humanities over the past two or three decades. So, I think both tendencies have gone hand in hand and the government itself seeks its legitimacy more and more in the pre-20th century imperial and also pre-imperial history. So, there’s more and more funding, not just for Marxism, but for studies in Confucianism, and in Chinese history, and archeology. Even in my faculty, we had many problems. I mean, I’ve described them in the book, not just inefficiency, but growing political interference and growing censorship. My book is pretty frank about the problems, but I must say we never had problems of lack of resources. If we wanted to hire good people, we had the money for it. If we wanted to send students abroad, we had the money for it. That wasn’t the problem for us. The problems for us were different. They were more political in nature.
AU: I’m curious on gender relations on Chinese campuses. One report I read recently suggested that only about 5% of presidents at research universities in China are women. And of course, there was the appearance of Me Too movements on Chinese campuses, that was a major story in the immediate pre-covid years. Ones that seemed to rattle the government quite a lot, which seemed contradictory from a party that used to talk about how women hold up half the sky. Now, a lot of your book is about authority on campus and where it stems from. What are the sources of authority? How does gender play out, in terms of campus authority or campus culture in China? And is it different from North America or Europe?
DB: This was actually one of the most depressing parts of my job. There’s great diversity in China. Hong Kong, where I am now, is probably the most gender friendly part of China. Shanghai may be second, and Shandong is arguably the most patriarchal part of China, and I don’t want to blame the Confucian heritage, but it’s more what we can call vulgar Confucianism, the way that Confucianism has been interpreted in a kind of non-philosophical, vulgar, sociological way where men are supposed to be dominant and women are supposed to stay home and do the housework and care for the children and so on. That still has great influence in Shandong University. That said, our president for most of the time I was there was female but she was really the counter example, so to speak. Of course, I often went out of my way to try to recruit female professors and to give opportunities to female students but it wasn’t always easy. Sometimes there were obvious prejudices and it’s getting worse in some ways because when there was a one child per family policy there wasn’t an assumption that we would have very lifelong responsibilities caring for a child but now that you can have two or more children, sometimes it’s assumed that women are going to do the caring, and therefore are going to have extra responsibilities in the home, and therefore they can’t devote themselves much to the job. So, in some ways it’s getting worse. The prejudice against women. I regret to say.
AU: Just to sum up, when do you think we’ll see another Canadian dean at a major Chinese university?
DB: Who knows, right? I mean, things could change in 20 or 30 years, and I think they will. I don’t mean to sound too pessimistic, but assuming that we get beyond the exist existential threats that we all face like climate change and unregulated nuclear weapons and AI and so on. But the past few years in terms of political openness, have been two steps backward, one step forward in China. That’s not a good sign for Canadians or anybody else who wants to serve and learn about China in academia especially. But I think among the young people and among intellectuals, there’s still a great desire to engage and to learn from abroad. So, I think once there’s a bit more of a political opening at the higher levels, I’m still optimistic that there will be more of the exchanges and experiences of the sort that I describe in this book.
AU: That’s all we have time for today. Daniel, thank you very much indeed for joining us today.
DB: Thank you.
AU: That was Daniel A. Bell, author of the “Dean of Shandong, Confessions of a Minor Bureaucrat at a Chinese University” available from Princeton University Press. It just remains for me to thank our excellent producers, Tiffany MacLennan and Sam Pufek, and you, the listener, for tuning in. If you have any comments or suggestions for future episodes, please drop us a line at [email protected]. We’d love to hear from you.