Education in communist countries, especially China, is the opposite of learning in any democratic country. In 2019, a survey conducted by Nature magazine received negative comments from Ph.D. students in China, such as, “Do not do a Ph.D. in this country,” or, “No one will help you. No one will understand you. This is a prison.” “Ph.D. pressure is too great, beyond my expectations.” 

The survey found, “On many measures, students in China fare worse than students in other parts of the world.” Only 55% of those who responded to the survey were at least partially satisfied with their Ph.D. experience. Meanwhile, for over 5,000 international respondents, 72% of them were confident with their Ph.D. programs. Reasons may vary, but they are primarily rooted in Chinese universities’ bureaucratic system.

Education under the government’s control

According to an analysis from the higher education consulting service Quacquarelli Symonds or QS, the central government has “a heavy presence inside universities.” A report published on University World News explained how the communist government meddled in the country’s education system. “Communist cadres call the shots on campuses. Each university is under the leadership of a party secretary, supported by a sizeable team of deputy secretaries and administrative officials. Institutions have an average of 150 cadres in the management team alone, excluding those scattered in faculties.”

The report further pointed out that these officials do not necessarily come from academic backgrounds. However, they have the authority to decide on many major issues, like “setting majors, curriculum planning and performance evaluation to the distribution of funds.”

So how exactly does this bureaucratic system interfere with China’s higher education policy?

Students’ future lie in Party officials’ hands

A report from QS stated, “The university faculty, who should have the ability to make decisions on what and how to study, have very little say on what happens in reality. Those without the academic skills and knowledge needed to make decisions are often running institutions and grants are allocated not by academics, but by administrators – people who won’t always have the ability to assess proposals accurately.”

Earlier this month, a U.S.-based Chinese professor publicly criticized Chengdu University in China. The complaint was posted on his personal Weibo account after his Ph.D. student failed to get the doctorate due to the school’s lack of responsibility. The incident has revealed the dark side of Chinese universities.

The post reads, “After I left Shanghai University of Science and Technology in ’17, I also had a part-time professorship at Chengdu University of Electronic Science and Technology because Chengdu is my hometown. Because of this, from now on, I should not have anything to do with this rigid bureaucratic school that doesn’t respect talents. Of course, I would like to advise the best students in China to take a lesson when choosing the university of their choice.”

That was the case of Ma Yi, a Tsinghua University alumni. After graduation, he taught at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where he became the youngest associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering history.

The Chinese professor supervised a Chengdu University student who came to the U.S. under a doctoral program. The student had already submitted his doctoral thesis in early April and waiting for graduation in September this year. However, the school informed him that the student had missed the degree review period on campus, so the student would not receive his doctorate.

After many negotiations, professor Ma Yi discovered that the school’s faculty members lacked the skills and authority to judge if their students qualify for a doctorate.

Even students pursuing master’s degrees encounter the same problems with the faculty. An international student who completed a master’s program in a prestigious Chinese university retold his painful experience when he defended his thesis. In an opinion article in the state-run China Daily, he wrote that the professor had assigned him a thesis topic and a bunch of related questions. The international student took a year of research to craft his original work based on many resources, and it took him another six months to write. However, during the dissertation, another professor pointed out a few drawbacks of his research on the topic. What surprised the student was that his supervisor agreed with the other professor. The student was told he should have studied more before choosing that topic.

The student also found that his Chinese classmates only took about two weeks during the Spring Festival to complete their theses, and they only used two or three sources and turned them into their so-called “original works.” To the foreigner student’s surprise, he and another foreigner classmate got the lowest score, while the Chinese classmates achieved 95 to 100 out of 100 marks.

Xiong Bingqi, a Beijing-based education policy commentator (vice-president of the 21st Century Education Research Institute in Beijing), told the Financial Times, “The problem with Chinese higher education is that universities in China are run by the government. They are overly bureaucratic and have no autonomy.”

Institutional censorship

“Higher education is much like kindergarten.” That was the account of an international student who gave up staying in China for doctoral study. In the same opinion piece, the student wrote, “They will tell you what to do, and it is very certain you are the student; hence you have to obey, you don’t qualify to have a say in what you want to be educated about.”

According to this student, there are mandatory courses that every student needs to take. Hence, the supervisors will assign more elective courses for the students. So what are these courses?

State-run broadcaster CGTN reported that Marxist Theory and other Chinese politics-related subjects took up 17% of their total credits for doctoral candidates.

Sun Ying, dean of the School of Marxism at the Minzu University of China, told CGTN, “On the surface, we do see that not all the students like the course, and some might have some negative feelings about it. But over the past 30 years in my career, [I should say] the course has been conducive to the ideological build-up in Chinese universities and [more importantly] to the country’s stability.”

The dean’s answer could be considered a reflection of the Chinese regime’s political doctrine. Political training in China helps brainwash teachers and students, and its target is to replace one’s independent thinking with Party ideology. Criticism against the Party is not welcomed. Students are not encouraged to think outside the box; instead, like the foreign student mentioned earlier, they were told to “focus on the positive sides.” Even professors themselves would keep their mouths shut for the sake of their safety.

Former Guizhou University professor Yang Shaozheng views such doctrine will lead to an ineffective educational system. He told Radio Free Asia, “How can you replace their own thinking with party ideology?” 

The professor added, “Will the students be allowed to move beyond this framework set by the Party? You only have to take one look at the sons and daughters of high-ranking officials to see that they have all left the country.” In an online article, Professor Yang lost his post shortly after he spoke against the Communist Party.

In 2019, not long before the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the Chinese regime carried out a major political training plan in colleges and universities across the country. Teachers and professors must conduct theoretical research on party ideology and then integrate their results into teaching materials.

Macau University lecturer Choi Chi U considered the move as a means of the Chinese regime to suppress freedom and democracy. He told RFA, “They want to make sure that the obedient students remain obedient, and that the disobedient ones will be frightened into obedience.”

“Actually, these methods are an attack on the whole of society, to ensure the stability of their regime.” 

Everything under the state’s monitor

Besides controlling what to teach in school, which often means banning Western teaching materials and focusing on communist ideology, the Chinese regime directly controls the behavior of students and school staff.

There are two main methods to do so. One is to use monitoring technologies. For example, the Guardian reported in 2016 that the Wuchang University of Technology in Wuhan spent 6 million yuan to install surveillance cameras on its 73-hectare (181-acre) campus. The investment came with a team of 100 officials to monitor the students’ activities using such technology. The school’s authorities claimed that the move encouraged good studying habits among students. However, the Guardian wrote, “it was widely interpreted as part of an attempt to monitor whether scholars were toeing the Communist party line in class.” Such an extreme method would not be strange in a country where mass surveillance dominates.

The monitoring practice has increased since the Covid pandemic broke out. Using health-tracking apps, universities can completely control students’ traveling information. The Times Higher Education reported that an app called Campushoy had partnered with about 400 higher education institutions to provide the location-based tracking app. Perfect campus, a similar app with a facial recognition feature, claimed it had acquired 1,000 university clients as recently as 2018.

Another method is known as “jubao.” The verb describes an action when a student reports a professor for political wrongdoing. For Chinese and foreign professors, “jubao” is a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. Anything that sounds contradictory to Party’s lines would cost them their jobs. Be it comments or vague statements about historical events, Chinese leaders’ slogans, or the regime’s policies.

Peter Hessle, a senior writer for The New Yorker, cited several examples in his recent article in the newspaper. In 2019, a literature professor at Chongqing Normal University described the language of one of Xi Jinping’s slogans as coarse. After being reported, the professor was demoted and took a job at the library.

Using inappropriate teaching materials could also make the teachers pay the price. Hessle cited a case of a law-school teacher from another institution who used Ai Weiwei’s documentary “Disturbing the Peace” in his syllabus. The film was about the artist’s confrontation with the Chinese legal system. Two years passed by without problem until one day, some of his students decided to “jubao.” The teacher was replaced just a week after the incident.

Under such a rigid and politically centered education system where freedom of speech is now allowed, there’s not much space left for the students to develop. An article from China Scholar concluded,

“China’s university presidents are appointed by the executive branch, so they know politics but not education. Look at a bunch of administrators and university presidents talking nonsense there about using the Chinese model to create a world-class university, and you know what level these people have in terms of education ignorance. The administrative power of the school is entirely above the educational and academic potential.”

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