What Is Wrong with Chinese Universities?

By Austin L. Dean

It depends who you ask. A Communist Party official might tell you that the most pressing problem is pernicious “Western” values espoused by certain university professors. Colleges and universities, they might continue, “need to champion core socialist values.” University professors have sometimes expressed a different view: not being able to access resources like Google Scholar, they argue, prevents them from doing their job. Of course, students might list the usual litany of problems: small dorm rooms, boring teachers, bad food in the cafeteria.

If you ask this question of Zhang Ming, a professor at People’s University in Beijing, he will probably ask how much time you have — because he has a lot to say.

Zhang stands out for a number of reasons. Born in 1957, he went from raising pigs to studying agricultural machinery to eventually getting a PhD in 1996. Although his official field is international relations, he writes mostly about history and whatever else comes to mind. He is not afraid to call people out. In 2007, Zhang got into a very public spat with the School of International Relations at People’s University and was demoted from his position as department head. He is also frequently quoted in Western media outlets regarding developments in Chinese politics.

Although he frequently weighs in on the issues haunting Chinese universities, Zhang gave fullest expression to his views in a 2011 book, Is Chinese Education Sick? The title is actually a misnomer. The book keeps a skeptical eye fixed on colleges and universities, not the entire educational system. The question mark at the end ultimately seems unnecessary; Zhang make it so clear throughout that he sees the answer as an affirmative one, that the book might as well as have been named Chinese Education Is Sick.

Some of his analysis is universal to academics everywhere. Other points, though, have certain “Chinese characteristics.”

Zhang reserves some of his harshest barbs for the bureaucratization of Chinese universities. Interestingly, to make his attack, Zhang leans on the language of Chinese history and the yamen, the name of a local administrative office in imperial China. The lowest level of the administrative hierarchy, yamens were also centers of corruption as different government clerks assisted in carrying out the work of the local magistrate. For Zhang Ming, Chinese universities today don’t resemble institutions of higher learning as people in other countries know them so much as they do yamens. They are not centers of learning but centers of administrators and bureaucrats, who implement a system of rules, regulations, measurements, and assessments. Corruption is everywhere.

Zhang laments that most people in Chinese universities—famous professors and young teachers, graduate students—work within this system of regulations and rules because the rewards are great, as is the case with well-established profs, or because they must, as is the case with those just starting their academic careers. The result is that the system produces research that is not meaningful and teachers who are too narrow in their interests and areas of expertise. In a remarkable chapter titled “University Professors Who have No Culture,” no one escapes Zhang’s pen: If a professor in the natural sciences can write a decent Chinese sentence, it is quite an achievement. Humanities and Social Science professors are even worse; they don’t know anything outside of their own small areas of research and don’t have the innate  intelligence of professors in the natural sciences. These criticisms are familiar enough and not limited to China.

Zhang is also quite critical of the push for expanding the number of Chinese universities and the obsession with making Chinese universities “first-rate” (yiliu) in global rankings; it is a hollow scheme that increases the power of administrators and lacks real meaning. The schools that certain bureaucrats want to rank highly will always rank highly, no matter what the objective criteria might be. In a similar vein, the expansion of Chinese universities—what he calls a Great Leap Forward (da yuejin), a loaded term given its meaning in Chinese history — further increases the power of bureaucrats and administrators as the campaign leaders dangle increased resources for hitting certain targets.

It was not always thus. In the midst of Zhang’s criticisms and laments is nostalgia for an earlier era. Surprisingly, he argues that in the initial years of Reform and Opening, the 1980s, Chinese universities were not as much like yamens and the power of administrators was not as great. At that time, the country did not have as many resources, so there could not be the same goal of securing more funds from the government for hitting certain academic targets. Looking back even earlier to the 1930s and 1940s, Zhang points out that Chinese universities produced a stable of “master teachers,” dashi, for whom today’s university professors are no match in terms of knowledge, ability, and seriousness of purpose. How can it be, he wonders, that China now has so many more material resources but continually fails to produce equivalent “master teachers”? The answer, he thinks, is surely that the government is too involved. When that is the case, ninety percent of universities will be run poorly.

In the midst of recent directives for Chinese universities to champion socialist values, Zhang said that he has not felt much overt pressure. “We don’t think we’re doing anything wrong,” he notes, “so we don’t think there’ll be any need to make big changes.” In any case, as Zhang recently posted on his Sina weibo account, the Chinese version of Twitter, he is scheduled to teach ancient Chinese political history next semester, a subject that doesn’t have much to do with Western values. In another post, though, he wondered whether, if Chinese universities really wanted to champion socialist values, this means that the model they should follow is that bastion of higher learning: Kim Il-sung University in North Korea?

Whether or not that is a good idea would depend on whom you ask.

(Full Disclosure: Austin Dean spent last year at People’s University while conducting dissertation research but had no classes or interaction with Zhang Ming beyond seeing him speak on several occasions.)

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