Why an Elite Chinese Student Decided Not to Join the Communist Party

by Alec Ash / August 18, 2016 / ChinaFile

In Wish Lanterns, I follow the lives of six Chinese born between 1985 and 1990 as they grow up, go to school, and pursue their aspirations. Millennials are a transformational generation in China, heralding key societal and cultural shifts, and they are a hugely diverse group. In writing about just six people out of this generation of over 320 million, I hoped to show rather than tell something of what it means to be young in today’s China.

“Fred” (her English name) is one of those six. She is a guan’erdai, the daughter of a Chinese Communist Party official in the southern island province of Hainan, and unlike most of the other characters in the book she grew up in a privileged environment. In this chapter, we pick up her story as she starts her undergraduate degree in International Politics at the capital’s Peking University.

Fred was in the library, surrounded by treasure: rare scrolls, classical novels, first editions from the early 20th century. The reading room thrummed with the quiet of mass studying. Some students fell asleep at their desks between piles of books as tall as themselves. But that was to be expected in China’s most prestigious university.

Naturally bright and with access to the best education, Fred had sailed through her college entrance exams, which in Hainan are marked out of 900. She got 829, the fifth best score in her year on the island. That meant she could take her pick of colleges and subjects, and she chose to study International Politics at Peking University. It was the Holy Grail for elite students, firmly on the right side of the tracks in the university district. Tsinghua University was next door, and together they were China’s Oxbridge.

Peking University—known to its students as Beida, a shortening of the Chinese name—is an oasis of charm in the urban desert of Beijing’s outer ring roads. Past the library there are quiet groves, pagoda-roofed teaching buildings, hidden dumpling stalls, and arching bridges over algae-green ponds. To the north is Nameless Lake, a curving expanse of water with lilies, lotus flowers, and a rocky island with a decorative stone boat from the 18th century reign of the Qianlong emperor moored next to it. A multi-story pagoda, once used as a water tower, rises past the lakeside. To the south is a garden full of immensely fat and lazy cats, waiting for passing students to feed them. When one was spotted looking at a book, it was adopted as Beida’s “scholar cat.”

Fred’s first impression was the buzz of her first week of freshman year in 2003, as new arrivals milled about campus to sign up for extracurriculars. It was difficult to adjust. At school, Fred was used to being the brightest; now, irritatingly, all her classmates were just as clever. After a pampered childhood, she wasn’t used to dorm life, sharing a room with five other girls and using a communal shower. Back home in Hainan, there had been plenty of space for everyone, among the green hills and on the sandy coastline. The north was crowded and noisy, and it didn’t even feel like there was enough air.

In her major, she studied both Chinese and Western politics. The style of education was still PowerPoint-driven, but the professors were among the best in the country. It was intellectually challenging and surprisingly uncensored, although any criticism of the Party was taboo. Meanwhile, her compulsory political education classes continued in parallel, two hours every week. In the mornings, as part of her degree, she read the political thinkers Thomas Hobbes and Hans Morgenthau. In the afternoons, she zoned out while being told for the hundredth time about Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory.

Dotted around the winding paths of the campus were statues to inspire students by example, including the writers Lu Xun and Miguel de Cervantes, among others. There were also busts of college presidents and famous figures from the university’s own past.“They [beat an] official so badly that his skin, a doctor noted, ‘looked like fish-scales.’”These were the ones who Fred admired the most, for Beida has been at the vanguard of the last century of change in China, and long before reading rooms and scholarly cats its reputation was for political protest.

* * *

The genesis of student dissent was May 4, 1919. The Qing Dynasty had been overthrown in the Xinhai revolution of 1911, ending some four millennia of dynastic history. But China’s fledgling Republic was weak, divided, and bullied by the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the first World War, which granted concessions to Japan in German-controlled Chinese territory. In this uneasy new era, students and intellectuals were among the loudest voices, especially on the campus of Beida—then a tall red-brick building at the northeastern corner outside the capital’s imperial palace, known as the Forbidden City. Read more…

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