Two weeks into term and mainly I’ve been trying not to panic at the length of the reading list while choosing courses which will interest me but not increase said list unduly. Pity my classmates for whom English is not their mother tongue. The programme being modular and inter disciplinary we have our pick of any subject from Anthropology through Economics to Marketing including topics as diverse as intercultural negotiation and East Asian Film. Unsurprisingly a lot of them are going for the film options.
Aside from the content of the course, it’s been interesting to notice how some of the lecturers have learned to tie themselves in knots in order not to upset nationalistic tendencies. An anthropology professor told us last week how an American student had stomped out of her lecture last year when she suggested that the US was a fairly indiscriminate user of surveillance technology. He exemplified her observation that interpretations vary markedly depending on your perspective; her own impartiality slipped as she expressed Schadenfreude at the student’s imagined discomfort when Snowden spilled the beans.
Americans can be quite defensive but Chinese sensitivities can go to similar levels and prompted our history professor to “prepare us psychologically” for the topic of the Diaoyu islands when it arises. The course is Sino-Japanese history and he knows from experience that this territorial dispute is a tinderbox for the passions of the average mainland student. His groundwork included showing news footage of high profile Japanese who had made conciliatory gestures to China in recent months; a clear effort to show that they’re not all bad but I wish him luck with that lecture. He also set out early to debunk CCP mythology, starting by branding CCP histories from the Sino-Japanese and civil war era as propaganda. For good measure he stuck it to the KMT’s propaganda, too, though he pointed out that the latter’s version – in which the KMT beat off the Japanese while the CCP harassed their compatriot rivals – was probably more credible given that the KMT lost significantly more officers against the Japanese than the CCP.
My classmates have been as interesting as the professors. I’ll be choosing mostly politics and economics courses; in just the first two weeks the gaps in the students education of their own history and politics are striking. To be fair at the same age I wasn’t much interested in UK politics but in China there is a much wider reach of political and especially international relations awareness, not least due to a high degree of political indoctrination; the students know plenty, but it’s all the sanitised version. The politically apathetic have no knowledge beyond what they’ve been told and the CCP has done a very good job of creating a generation of politically apathetic students.
Unsurprisingly, if somewhat contradictorily then, many of them have raved about the Human Rights and International Relations course, which I had automatically written off: I’ve heard enough about China’s human rights record and its subjugation to economic opportunity. My classmates love it partly because the teacher, from what I can glean, is very energetic and engaging. I’m guessing they also find it fascinating because they haven’t come across much of the content before. The two slides about torture of a Chinese dissident in prison didn’t do it for me; I don’t need confirmation that the processes are inhuman if you happen to get on the wrong side of the bully boys.
One of my classmates however doesn’t want to take the course, purely for pragmatic reasons. She is a beautifully spoken, very attractive girl who read media studies for her undergraduate degree. She said she fears that if she learned the truth her illusions would be shattered, she would probably become a dissident and her career hopes would be ruined. Better that she does not know the truth so that she can maintain a politically correct stance for as long as she is reporting. When she’s done with that career though, she will open her eyes.
Another classmate said she wants to take the Sino-Japan relations history module because she’s particularly interested in the unique aspects of citizenry diplomacy that exist between the two countries: her grandmother was Japanese. Having spent a bit more time on international relations lately and despite the fact that maybe it should always have been obvious, I suddenly realise quite how conflicted an identity this must produce. We had a classmate at Tsinghua who was ethnically Chinese but raised in Japan by his Chinese parents who spoke Japanese and a Chinese dialect at home. He only spoke Japanese. I remember my forthright Chinese alter ego asking him wasn’t he confused culturally and which did he see himself as? He fell silent, looking quite upset. I wished I had been a bit more tactful about an issue clearly fundamental to his sense of identity.
He seemed to get on well with the local Tsinghua students – maybe the prodigal son – but my new quarter Japanese classmate told me she studied Japanese as an undergraduate module and her friends all strongly criticised her for it. She seems relieved she can now study what she wants without being judged unpatriotic.