What are Chinese colleges like?

by Tim Swanson

For roughly three years I had the opportunity to live and work at two colleges out here in China. I could describe any number of observations but one that sticks out at this time is the role the Communist Party plays in curriculum.

While the days of the Little Red Book (Mao zhuxi yulu) and cult of personality may officially be in the past, the Party still maintains control over what is and is not taught in classes.

For example, at both colleges I taught at, each department had both a nominal civilian leader as well as a de facto Party leader. While I had little daily interaction with Party leaders (I did meet them several times a semester at faculty dinners and they were actually very friendly to me — gan bei!), this form of governance results in both direct overt censorship and self-censorship via “chilling effects.”

And because the faculty was limited to the Party approved curriculum, this hampered the instructors ability to inject new, different and simply foreign ideas into the classroom. Thus you cannot foster creativity in a classroom without first dealing with the elephant in the room — the entity whose presence currently engenders the status quo.

The WSJ recently published a report noting how new Chinese graduates are having a difficult time finding jobs in part because of a skillset mismatch between what they learned in college and what hiring firms currently demand.

Before quoting the paper, I wanted to share one additional anecdote that involves this skillset mismatch. While it may be hard to believe, but I never once in all of my teaching out here have espoused my personal opinions about libertarianism to the student body. Not only do I think it is unprofessional to do so but I think it is short sighted (e.g., I would immediately lose my job and be deported) — and would accomplish nothing because there is no legal opposition group to rally around. Thus martyrdom for laowai (which I do not encourage anyways) is self-defeating.

With that said, each semester there were always a number of students that would for better and for worse share their thoughts about the material they were studying in other classes. And a handful of students, those with cajones, would even mention the material by name: Marx and Mao.

You see, like many Western colleges, Chinese students are required to take specific courses each semester — with very few electives being offered (and none sometimes offered at all). In addition to studying subjects like Chinese and English, all students (at the colleges I taught at and most others on the mainland) require that their students take several courses on the literature and philosophy of Marx and Mao.

And while they may have been sent on a fishing expedition to get their laowai instructor to divulge (my) personal opinions, several students each semester — those with cajones (because you could be publicly reprimanded for it) — would verbally complain about having to study the works of Marx and Mao. Or in the words of one student I had two years ago, “if it doesn’t work in practice what good is learning an [anachronistic] theory semester after semester? How will this help us get a job?” [He tried to say anachronistic but it didn’t
quite come out that way]

So while the North American blogosphere might complain about the futility and practicality of Underwater Basket Weaving or Virtual Reality Gender Studies, the fact that 6 million Chinese graduated this past year being indoctrinated with Marx and Mao should give First World bloggers a moment of solace and perspective.

Now back to the comment my student said two years ago, how will this help them find a job? To quote the WSJ, it does not:

“High-end jobs that should have been produced by industrialization, including research, marketing and accounting etc., have been left in the West,” said Chen Yuyu, associate professor at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management. Referencing the trade name of Hon Hai Precision Industry Co.,the Taiwan-based company that makes gadgets for Apple Inc. and others in Chinese factories, he said, “We only have assembly lines in Foxconns.”

Solving the problem is complex, involving a gradual overhaul of China’s education system as well as efforts to add more service-sector jobs. China’s Ministry of Education in 2010 unveiled new guidelines pressing universities to shift away from their traditional focus on increasing enrollment. It is also experimenting with giving faculty greater say over curriculum and school operations, though universities remain tightly controlled by the Communist Party.

Oops. By directly and indirectly interfering with curriculum, the Party planners have unintentionally outsource — re-sourced — high skilled jobs in the developed world (see also tangentially labor arbitrage). This is not to say that there are not opportunities for say software programmers (I personally have about 10 business Chinese students at this time who work for a very large American semiconductor company as chipset and driver programmers in Shanghai) — but this is the exception rather than the rule.

And as the same WSJ article notes those graduates that do find jobs are not making big yuan:

A survey of more than 6,000 new graduates conducted last year by Tsinghua University in Beijing said that entry-level salaries of 69% of college graduates are lower than those of the migrant workers who come from the countryside to man Chinese factories, a figure that government statistics currently put at about 2,200 yuan ($345) a month. Graduates from lower-level universities make an average of only 1,903 yuan a month, it said.

Thus the next time you hear someone from the the Professional Protesting class such as the Occupy Wall Street movement complain about making a mere $10 an hour at Walmart, kindly explain to them that college graduates in the worlds 2nd largest economy make less than $3 an hour despite increasingly higher costs of living — which is another anecdote I can vouch for (seeing as hundreds of my former students have now graduated and began their sobering careers).

One last note

Chinese students wishing to further their education via graduate school on the mainland are required to take another lengthy entrance examination (akin to the original gaokao) in which a students knowledge of Marx and Mao are again tested. A foreign colleague of mine has a Chinese wife who bitterly complained about having to take those portions of the test simply to apply to a grad program in translation and interpretation. Several of her other, talented friends opted out and instead used guanxi to get government jobs.

Which brings me to this slight twist of fortunes: do you know what the #1 desirable job is now in China? According to a recent survey from ChinaHR: working for the government — for the old fashioned Iron Rice bowl (tie fan wan) once again.

2 responses to “What are Chinese colleges like?

  1. There is a terrible contradiction between basing an economy on private enterprise and having a cult around Mao – the largest scale mass murderer of all time, who spent his life trying to WIPE OUT private enterprise (civil society).

    All nations have contradictions – but a contradiction on this scale can not be sustained, it is beyond even “Double-Think” (of either the Plato we-will-teach-that-the-planets-move-and-that-they-do-not-move-and-the-people-will-believe-both or the George Orwell types).

    Eventually (and I think it will be sooner rather than later) China will either reject Mao – or…..

    All those businessmen will find the “Mandate of Heaven” has changed against them – and that they and their families (and all who are even suspected of having sympathy for them – no matter how poor those who are suspected are) will be murdered and China will slip back into mass starvation.

    And I have no idea (no idea at all) which way China will go – whether it will reject Mao, or reject civil society.

    But I do know that it can not have BOTH – not for long.

  2. I have often been interested in the modern east asian countries, I understand that they are not immediately familiar with Libertarianism and its principles.