Western academics should understand but not pander to their Chinese students’ nationalism

Encouraging Chinese students to access non-Chinese media sources can ease fears of systematic bias, says Tao Zhang

September 20, 2019
Chinese Students
Source: iStock

The latest Hong Kong protests have been described as the most sustained challenge to the Chinese Communist Party since the uprising in Tiananmen Square 30 years ago – and, as with Tiananmen, university students have been at the forefront.

Despite Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam’s recent announcement that she is finally to withdraw the controversial bill permitting extradition to mainland China, which sparked the protests, the students show no sign of reducing their agitation for wider reform as the new academic year begins.

These events have particular significance for the UK, as co-signatory of the 1984 declaration returning the territory to China under the “one country, two systems” arrangement that the protestors considered to be threatened by the extradition bill. However, there is another sense in which they may directly impact the UK and other Western nations, and that is on their own university campuses.

Back in July, there were reports of clashes between pro-Hong Kong and Pro-Beijing students on the campuses of the universities of Queensland and Auckland. More confrontations were reported during August in Australia, Canada, the US and UK. The cases demonstrated that mainland Chinese students regard the assertions of a distinct identity by the Hong Kongers as an unacceptable challenge to a Chinese state with which they deeply identify.

To understand this, it is important to grasp the deeply ideological context of Chinese education. Despite remarkable internationalisation and commercial dynamism, Chinese educational institutions continue to be controlled by the Communist Party. Indeed, this ideological function of education at all levels has been strengthened during the regime of Xi Xinping.

As a result, while many Chinese students display an international outlook – particularly in terms of consumer culture – their political positions remain narrowly nationalistic. In one recent example from April 2019, Chinese students protested against the LSE’s identity project: a sculpture of a globe symbolising the university’s “international community”. What angered Chinese students was that Taiwan was illustrated as an independent country, and Lhasa, in Tibet, was indicated as a national capital.

It is also clear that the Chinese authorities have orchestrated some of the nationalistic rallies and protests involving Chinese students in Western universities, encouraging and even rewarding participants. Those who choose to challenge the party line, by contrast, face great risks. In a May 2018 article in Foreign Policy, a student who took part in the campaign “Xi’s Not My President” wrote under a pseudonym to explain how the fear of oppression that mainland Chinese feel at home follows them abroad: “We know our career prospects back in China are likely to suffer if we are publicly known to have criticised the party…Chinese authorities have also been known to harass the families of outspoken Chinese students abroad, to interrogate Chinese returnees, or, in extreme cases, even kidnap Chinese abroad.”

The element of fear certainly contributes to a wide practice of self-censorship among Chinese students on Western campuses. This was a recurring theme of a panel discussion at the Association for Asian studies annual meeting in Denver earlier this year. Academics grappled with questions of how to respond in their everyday practice – for example, whether to advise discretion to students critical of the regime, and the degree to which lecturers themselves may feel inhibited in voicing opinions.

It is also important for academics beyond the field of Asian studies to be more aware of the strength of the ideological indoctrination – it is not too strong a word – that many of their Chinese students bring with them, which leads to their experiencing deep cognitive dissonance when their presumptions are challenged within the prevailing liberal-democratic discourse of the Western academy.

Yet it is also crucial that academics do not shy away from defending the values of free expression and liberality for fear of offending sensibilities. In this regard, there is a simple practical initiative they can take which could help in managing interactions within the classroom. This is to encourage students to access the widest range of media sources available to them.

As many studies indicate, overseas Chinese students still mostly consume information from China’s heavily censored internet and media. In the case of the Hong Kong protests, these sources have portrayed the student protestors as violent rioters and separatists provoked by foreign agents.

However challenging it may be to be exposed to conflicting views, Chinese students will ultimately see that the huge diversity of opinion expressed in the Western media on so many issues undermines the notion of systematic Western bias against China. They will also see that what is at stake is not the rights and wrongs of opposing views, but the freedom to openly scrutinise and contest them.

Tao Zhang is a senior lecturer in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Arts and Humanities.

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