Burocracia de nivel intermedio en una universidad china
Septiembre 29, 2023

Confessions of a Minor Bureaucrat at a Chinese University

Hello everyone. I’m Alex Usher and this is the World of Higher Education Podcast.

One of the hardest things in comparative international higher education studies is getting a sense of how other countries’ systems actually work. If you look at statistical compendiums – say, OECD’s Education at a Glance – there is a tendency to imagine all systems as identical because they all in one way or another push out a similar palette of outputs: bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, doctorates, research papers, etc. But even a few seconds spent in a foreign university gets you thinking: what is this place, and how is it run. It’s not just about differences in student admissions, or academic career pathways: among the hardest questions to answer is really: who runs this place. And how? Some university systems are decentralized almost to the point of anarchy. Other are very definitely autocratic. And to whose benefit are the universities being run? Faculty? Students? Managers? Political factions outside the university? And how would you know?

I find that the easiest way to learn about this kind of thing is by talking to people who have experience in more than one system. This method works well enough for countries where mobility is easy; it is less so for countries which are more isolationist and where the language is not widely spoken abroad. And above all that means China: there just aren’t a lot of western scholars who make it far enough inside the Chinese system to report back on the differences. Which is unfortunate given what a huge piece of the global higher education puzzle that country represents.

Today’s guest is Daniel A. Bell, a professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong. Originally from Montreal, he became a specialist in this study of Confucius from the angle of political theory, worked his way into a position at the famed Tsinghua university in Beijing before being named Dean of the School of Political Science and Public Administration at Shandong University. Shandong might not be a household name in the west, but it is generally ranked in the top 20 universities in China and is comparable globally to universities like Penn State, l’Université de Montréal, University of Sao Paolo or the University of Helsinki. It’s a big deal! Bell – so far as I know – is the first westerner to be given senior responsibilities of this nature at a Chinese university, and he has written a charming book about his experiences, called The Dean of Shandong: Confessions of a Minor Bureaucrat at a Chinese University, published by Princeton University Press.

In this interview with Bell, we touch on a variety of issues, including the Chinese understanding of merit, how gender issues play out at Chinese universities, but above all about his own experiences as an Academic Dean in China. One of the oddest things – from a global point of view – about Chinese universities from a global point of view – is the existence of two parallel power structures; one run by academics with the President at the top, and the other by the Community Party with a Party Secretary at the top. I asked Daniel about this and the answer I got I think changed my understanding of this distinction quite a bit. In his telling, the party side sounds very much involved in almost everything except academics, which in a way is not that different from North America with the split between academics on the one hand and administration and student services on the other hand. So maybe not quite as odd as it seems.

But enough from me: let’s hear from Daniel.

Alex Usher (AU): Daniel, how does a kid from Montreal end up as the dean of a major Chinese university? What’s the path from Montreal to China?

Daniel Bell (DB): Well, there’s a kind of true story that I’ll refer readers to the book, but the more boring academic story I’ll say very quickly. I did my degree at McGill, it was in psychology. In my last year it I took course at Charles Taylor and I thought, wow, this political theory is so fascinating and that’s what I pursued as a graduate student at Oxford, but I worked on communitarianism, and it was more a critique of liberal individualism. It’s more of an offshoot of liberalism. My first job was in Singapore and there we worked on Asian values. Asian values is a kind of empty term, but when we dug into it and it focused on Confucianism, I thought it was fascinating and many of the themes in communitarianism were actually developed in greater depth and diversity in Confucianism. So that kind of changed my approach. Then I gradually moved to the center of Confucianism, which is Shandong Province. I was offered the opportunity to be Dean of Shandong University, which is a premier university in a province of a hundred million people. I was offered the post by a party secretary. He’s a 76th generation descendant of Confucianism, and I had the task of on the one hand promoting Confucianism on the other hand of trying to internationalize the university.

AU: So, what was when you got to Shandong? I think you were at Tsinghua before that. So, you moved from Tsinghua to Shandong. The people know about you in Chinese higher education. What was the selection process and what were you told about the job before you arrived?

DB: I didn’t really have an administrative experience at Tsinghua. I was pure scholar. Tsinghua is a university that trains political leaders in China. So, many of the debates were about how to select and promote leaders with above average ability in virtue. I thought that was a fascinating debate and I wrote a book about that called The China Model. The title is a little bit misleading but it’s basically a defense of an ideal of political meritocracy, but I thought it would be interesting to explore the practice as well. So, at Shandong University, it was where I could try to learn about the system more from the inside. Now the selection process, frankly, was not that complicated. It’s the party secretary for the Qingdao campus of Shandong University. I mentioned the party secretary offered me the post and eventually I was admitted largely on the basis of his recommendation.

AU: Your book contains what I thought were some pretty amusing descriptions of departmental staff meetings or I guess they were school meetings and how it seemed like a case of collective governance. When it comes to the level of a department of faculty, how different in practice are Chinese and North American universities?

DB: So, I’ve never actually worked in a North American university and so I don’t really have a basis for comparison. But what I can say is that my initial expectation was that as a Dean, I would have substantial power to pursue this dual mission of Confucianizing and internationalizing the university. But from the very beginning, I realized that it was more of a system of collective leadership where I would work with the 4 vice deans and 3 party secretaries in very lengthy meetings where we would openly criticize each other and deliberate and try to forge some sort of consensus. But the meetings would last four hours and that was really my first hint that maybe I wasn’t cut out for the job.

I’ll just tell you very quickly when I wrote this book about the China model, I described, what are the three ideal characteristics of a good public official? One is high intelligence. The other is high emotional intelligence because you work with people a lot. The third is virtue commitment to serving the community. What I didn’t realize is that perhaps most important of all is a capacity for hard work. because you have to be – especially maybe in China, maybe this is a bit of a difference with North America – you’re always on call through this WeChat system. If you have a formal post as a public official, you’re basically working all the time. No weekends, no holidays. During COVID, the public officials at the university basically lived in the university full-time working to deal with the COVID policy. So, it was so exhausting, and basically, I realized that’s what I lacked is this capacity for hard work. I mean, I guess I work hard as an academic, but it’s still different skills when you work hard with people and solving real problems. So, I have great admiration for most of the public officials that I engage with. But I just didn’t have that capacity for hard work.

AU: You mentioned earlier that it was a party official who brought you into Shandong. And a lot has been made in the West about the fact that universities have a form of parallel governance. There are formal academic hierarchies embedded in the institution, but there are also parallel party structures. How would you describe the relationship between academic and party hierarchies in universities in general? And what was your relationship like with your party counterparts? Because I understand there was more than one.

DB: Generally, the academics are supposed to deal with academic issues and I was selected as a Dean to deal first and foremost with academic issues. Then the party officials, of course, they deal with political ideology, but as I write in the book, that’s only a small part of what they do. Most of what they do is dealing with problems that are unrelated to academia in a direct sense. For example, the party secretary, he basically spent most of his time building up this new campus from scratch because in Qingdao there was not a campus for Shandong University. He basically created the thing from scratch. When he first offered me the job, this was in 2012, there was just an empty field. I said, “well, mayor, thank you very much. I’ll think about it.” Five years later there was a full campus developed and so they also deal with what we might call psychological or harmonious issues like when there’s a in the case of our campus, there was a serious misfortune on campus and then the party secretary had to spend days dealing with a grieving parent. So, this is a sort of division. In principle, there are two tracks. In practice, much depends on the personalities involved. I mean, in China, there’s a general trend towards empowering more of the party secretaries. But at our university I got along quite well with people that I worked with, whether they were party secretaries or vice deans. So, there wasn’t overt conflict, but sometimes there can be really poisonous relations. So, the good side of this dual kind of track system is that there’s checks on each other, right? I mean, if I had a crazy idea, I would have to run it not just through the party secretary, but the whole collective leadership, including three vice party secretaries and there had to be some sort of agreement. But on the other hand, it would be hard for the party sectors to ram things through without agreement by those on the academic track. Now, the downside is that it requires a lot of extensive deliberations, which leads to a lot of inefficiencies and sometimes it’s hard to get things done, or where one party is staunchly against reform that can block things. Shandong University especially is famous for being probably the most bureaucratic place of the most bureaucratic country of the world. So, you can imagine the source of issues that we had to deal with often took a very long time.

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.

DB: Right.

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.


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