Student Responses to Economic Reform in China

By Chunhou, Zhang; Vaughan, C. Edwin | Adolescence, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Student Responses to Economic Reform in China


Chunhou, Zhang, Vaughan, C. Edwin, Adolescence


In the Western world, the globalization of capital and the information revolution result in closer linkages between universities and corporations. In this context, universities become more involved in the market economy. According to Buchbinder (1993), "the combination of under-funded universities, high tech developments, corporate needs, and prevailing ideology lead to a basic transformation in the university: a transformation to a university oriented to the marketplace" (p. 332).

Likewise, most East Asian societies are also experiencing rapid industrialization. Nations such as South Korea, Japan, Thailand, and Malaysia demonstrate diverse patterns of industrialization related to differing experiences of colonialism and differing cultural traditions (Lie, 1992). The most rapidly growing economy in this region is the People's Republic of China (Wu Dunn & Kristof, 1994).

China is a unique case; it is rapidly incorporating a free market economy into a socialist totalitarian state. The effects of these changes are widespread throughout China, and one of the areas most affected is education, especially higher education. Several researchers describe the consequences of this situation for Chinese universities (Du Ruiqing, 1992; Hayhoe, 1991, 1993; Rosen, 1993). However, researchers pay less attention to the impact of these economic changes on Chinese college students who experience the economic modernization in a society without democratic traditions and with a strong current of traditional pre-revolutionary cultural values (Li, 1993). In a country with a strong background in tradition, these students have no prior experiences on which to base their reactions. Consequently, this paper is based on our observations and experiences as teachers and observers in China as we witnessed student reaction to these economic changes.

Unfortunately, even if researchers have high-level government approval, obtaining representative samples from across China is extremely difficult; student behavior is a sensitive issue to the Chinese Communist Party. Hence, the data used here range from anecdotal to small sample surveys, and to journals and government reports. Our information is based on surveys conducted at several Chinese universities, with data collected by college teachers in Shaanxi Province and recent research conducted in other parts of China. Most of the surveys reported have a limited number of respondents and are not representative samples. However, a consistent pattern emerges when we compare our surveys to others across China and to frequent newspaper and magazine reports about Chinese college students. The pattern shows that many Chinese students demonstrate attitudes and behavior more consistent with Western free market capitalism than with behavior and ideals associated with traditional Chinese culture or the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party.

We argue that there have been dramatic shifts in the behavior and attitudes of college students in the People's Republic of China, and that one can best understand these changes in the context of the economic reforms that have taken place since 1982. For example, the movement away from agricultural communes, the rapid spread of small business, the growth of joint ventures, and the growth of tourism are among the major economic sources of change during the past thirteen years. The uniformity of the first revolutionary generation and period are gone. Likewise, China's standard of living has increased and there is no shortage of consumer goods. A diversity of lifestyles is apparent to any but the most casual visitor to China as reforms alter deep-rooted Chinese traditions and customs. Such diversity becomes even more apparent when one studies college students.

One of the reasons social scientists are interested in these economic reforms is that students during this century in China frequently played important roles in the political arena. For example, they were important in the May 4th movement of 1919, the December 9th movement of 1935, and the activities in May 1989 that culminated in the conflict in Tianamen Square (Rodzinski, 1984). …

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