The competition to enter Peking and Tsinghua universities in Beijing makes winning a place at Oxbridge or the Ivy League seem simple in comparison. At Tsinghua’s economics faculty, 300,000 applicants compete for 100 places.
But some of those who make it are often left confused, disillusioned and even suicidal, trapped between traditional expectations to please their families and more modern pressures to be “unique” and achieve “self-realisation”, according to a new book that explores the lives of China’s future ruling class.
Fragile Elite: the Dilemmas of China’s Top University Students is based on the PhD of Susanne Bregnbæk, now an assistant professor at University College Capital in Copenhagen, for which she interviewed and sometimes befriended about 60 students during fieldwork in 2005, 2007 and 2012.
Students were in a “double bind”, she told Times Higher Education, feeling a more natively Chinese pressure to please their parents, but also trying to live up to newer, perhaps more Western expectations to “stand out as individuals and make their own choices”.
They are encouraged to do this by educational reforms in China that seek to ape the more creative and rounded parts of Western education and move away from rote learning. “While the West is looking east”, by lionising the work ethic of Chinese pupils, “the East is looking west”, Dr Bregnbæk writes.
Many of the students whom Dr Bregnbæk met were trying to fashion reasons why they were “unique”. “In many cases they felt they have to be unique because of where they are,” she explained. “It becomes a role that they have to live up to.”
This only compounds the pressure on youngsters because “the exams don’t go away. You still have to get high grades” despite being expected to become a more rounded, less study-obsessed person, she said.
The book recounts tales of extraordinary social mobility. But the pressures on Chinese youngsters remain, and their relationship with their parents looms large in their life trajectories.
Sun Li’s parents were farmers and could not even afford train tickets to attend her graduation ceremony. But after studying at Tsinghua, “she envisioned her own future as part of a global, highly educated elite” solving problems related to climate change, and went on to do a PhD in Indiana.
But she eventually returned to China to be with her parents. “All of a sudden I missed them and think I have to be closer to them,” she told Dr Bregnbæk.
One third-year Tsinghua computer engineering student told Dr Bregnbæk how he had been forced to take a period of leave from his studies after suffering chronic headaches and insomnia, partly due to pressure from his parents.
Speaking of his mother, he said: “She chose my middle school, my high school, and she wanted me to enter Tsinghua University”, and like many fellow students, he had been pushed into studying a subject that he was not particularly interested in (computer science).
But Dr Bregnbæk also found evidence of a generation gap in attitudes, with some youngsters pushing back against parental expectations and hoping to do things such as live abroad.
Helen, whose mother had taken half a year off work to help her to prepare for the dreaded gao kao university entrance exams – “I think she treats me as her career,” she told Dr Bregnbæk – had quit her accountancy job in Beijing to study linguistics in the UK, to the bafflement of her parents.
As part of her research, Dr Bregnbæk also visited a counselling centre set up at Tsinghua to help to prevent student suicides and was told by a psychologist that there had been only “one or two” over the past six or seven years – likely a serious underestimate, given how many cases there had been during her research, she writes.
After the visit, one of her student companions said that she had recently seen bloodstains on a campus pavement and cleaners performing a ritual of purification – indicating a recent death.
There is growing concern in China about graduate unemployment, and a few of the elite graduates interviewed had slipped into the low- or no-income world of Beijing’s “ant tribes”: young people living in tiny, crowded accommodation on the fringes of the city, still desperate to find prestigious work, and perhaps too embarrassed to return home in failure.
Jing Jing had failed to find work six months after graduating from Tsinghua with a law degree. She lived in a temporary room put up for workers on campus, which was soon to be torn down, and shopped at cheap vegetable markets to make her money go further. “Can you imagine? This is the life of a Tsinghua graduate,” she told Dr Bregnbæk.
She had also left feeling disillusioned with her education, complaining that it had not equipped her to deal with real life situations, and came to believe that the Chinese judicial system was riddled with corruption.
Some state jobs were out of bounds because they required Communist Party membership – a route that she felt was closed to her because her father had a criminal record.
About one fifth of Tsinghua and Peking students are party members. One student, Bai Gang, sought to escape the disadvantage of a rural background by joining. But after graduation, he was living as part of the “ant tribe” in Beijing and felt stuck in a dead end.
Meanwhile, a friend of his had secured a job through his father’s connection to a high-ranking official, even though he was not properly qualified, he told Dr Bregnbæk. “His friend now spends a year on campus without doing anything and is going out to bars in the evening and spending his his time simply playing around with his girlfriend,” she said.
But despite his increasing disgust at official corruption, Bai Gang still helped to recruit party members in a process that he admitted was “equally corrupt”, inviting friends through a “superficial” screening process in order to build connections.
“They want another society,” said Dr Bregnbæk of the students, “but there is a kind of fatalism that they can’t change anything – so they just join the party.”
Dr Bregnbæk emphasised that the book focuses on students who felt under pressure and that there “are also happy students” at the universities.
Nonetheless, many were dissatisfied with the education they received. “Most of them felt disappointed with a lack of creativity and practical knowledge” taught, she said, showing that reforms to Chinese education were yet to make much headway in the lecture theatre.