A Chinese bunfight and an unfulfilled hunger to learn

Two universities’ no-holds-barred recruitment battle was unedifying; more dispiriting is to see that China’s best and brightest prefer to study abroad, says Hong Bing

August 13, 2015
From Where I Sit illustration (13 August 2015)

Chinese universities have always fought fiercely in student recruitment, but this summer the competition turned into an unprecedented public spectacle.

Thanks to a falling-out on the Chinese microblogging site Sina Weibo, the general public gained an unedifying view of the recruiting battle between the nation’s top two universities, Peking University and Tsinghua University.

It started with a message from the official Weibo account of Peking’s recruitment team in Sichuan province, which claimed that “one university’s enrolment office” was calling the province’s top scorers in the national college entrance examinations and telling them that Peking was “cheating” them. This prompted Peking’s recruitment team to demand that “one university” stop “harassing” Peking candidates.

Although it had not been named, Tsinghua’s recruitment team in Sichuan responded on Weibo: “Brother, it’s not a problem if you advertise Peking University so that they can make a better choice, even if you exaggerate a little. But if you decide to go beyond the policies and use money to lure the students, aren’t you afraid of exerting a bad influence over children?”

In reply, Peking’s recruitment team said: “Brother, do I need to tell the story of Tang and Guo, whom you bought with real money in the past five years?”

Even if it is public knowledge that Peking and Tsinghua are bitter rivals, the hostility and the ugliness of these posts were genuinely shocking.

The affair sparked unusually sharp criticism in China’s official media. The state news agency Xinhua described it as a “farce”. A People’s Daily comment cited a joke popular at Tsinghua, which is a near neighbour to its fierce rival: “How far away is Peking from a world-class university? Go out of Peking’s east entrance, turn left and go straight for 200 metres.” The article then noted that the same joke is told in reverse at Peking. The universities are physically very near each other and share very similar aims of achieving “world-class university” status, so, the article continued, the key issue is how and to what extent competition between them should be let loose.

In February, the Ministry of Education issued a circular outlining 26 prohibited practices in undergraduate recruitment; these include promising lucrative scholarships or signing advance admission agreements.

But in an interview with West China City Daily, an anonymous member of Peking’s recruitment team said: “Under the current circumstances, the competition will always continue. Even if there is government regulation in place, the competition will become more covert.”

In 2013, the Chinese Alumni Network published a study of the top scorers in the national college entrance exams from 1952 to 2013. Of nearly 2,000 high achievers surveyed, three have been elected academicians with the Chinese Academy of Sciences or the Chinese Academy of Engineering; none has made the China Rich List; none has become an official at provincial or ministry level. But at least 60 per cent of them headed abroad for study.

China’s two top universities may be competing fiercely with each other. But the frenzied activity is doing nothing to persuade the nation’s most talented young people to stay in their home country to study.

Hong Bing is associate professor at the School of Journalism, Fudan University, Shanghai.

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