Chinese Want Degrees, Not Democracy; Nationalism Grows among China's Young and Educated

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 3, 2010 | Go to article overview

Chinese Want Degrees, Not Democracy; Nationalism Grows among China's Young and Educated


Byline: John Lee, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

In an opinion piece in Wednesday's Asian Wall Street Journal, U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman Jr. argues that the current generation of Chinese students in American universities is not just good news for the U.S. economy, but a boon for the U.S.-China bilateral relationship.

Exposed to American values such as transparency, tolerance, diversity and democracy, returning students will eventually help shape and modernize the future government in Beijing. Mr. Huntsman is correct that American values still have wide, if not universal, appeal. But we cannot ignore the apparent paradox that the young and urbane in China have become the strongest supporters of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the most strident critics of America.

Mr. Huntsman's thesis is an adapted version of the so-called modernization theory that played out in East Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan: Rising wealth will lead to the emergence of an independently minded, influential and wealthy urban middle class demanding political reform. The added twist here is that the process will be accelerated by the 128,000 Chinese students that study in America each year, a figure that is rising by almost 5 percent annually.

To be sure, it was students who erected a 33-foot-high statue they named the Goddess of Democracy during the 1989 Tiananmen protests. Ditto the Democracy Wall movement of 1979, the student protests in 1986 and the China Democracy Party movement of 1997-98. But somewhere along the line, the plan has gone awry despite the thousands returning to China after studying in America each year.

For example, foreign and local college-educated students are the fastest-growing group applying for CCP membership, with student membership numbers having grown tenfold over the past decade. Almost a third of all graduate students are card-carrying party members. In fact, multiple studies and anecdotes reveal that far from being embarrassed about China's lack of democratic progress, the educated young view political reform as a potential recipe for chaos, rather than the silver bullet for the country's ills.

The antipathy that college students - including those who gain their education abroad - have toward democracy is matched by their views of America. In the 2009 Lowy Institute China Poll, America came out on top in terms of the best place to study, according to Chinese students. Yet, the perception of the American threat was most pronounced among those with a university education (both within China and/or abroad): 86 percent of people with tertiary degrees agreed that the United States would seek to restrain China's growing influence, compared with 58 percent of people whose highest level of education was junior secondary school.

The key to explaining these apparent paradoxes is to take a closer look at the Chinese political economy. Since the mid-1990s, the Chinese regime has gone to great lengths to maintain control of the major levers of economic power. …

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