It is a generally accepted notion that higher education and democracy are somehow linked; a notion that translates as the maxim that the more students become aware of the world around them the more they will demand social justice. A caveat is that we are talking about higher education since it ceased to be an elite enterprise, a period that also parallels the expansion of mass media. More recently the ubiquity of social media is playing an important part in the social justice movements fermenting amongst the best and brightest in many nations. Student demonstrations, almost obligatory in the 1960s are less frequent now but recent events in Chile and during the Arab Spring uprisings may signal an upsurge— universities have so often been hotbeds of political and social dissent.
Universities remain places where students can flex their political muscles – even if their elders condescendingly refer to it a phase we all must go through. Yet, universities in China since the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989 have fallen silent, students turn a blind eye to social outrage that would have caused a ruckus two decades earlier. Even the anniversary of Tianamen Square was muted, minor or unmarked in mainland universities – whereas it was a big event on the campus of Hong Kong U.
With greater access to international social media and commentary, why do Chinese students appear to be uninterested in social justice issues? The vast numbers of postgraduate students who have returned after studying overseas seem to have had little impact on social justice movements. Even those Chinese students studying alongside international students on joint venture campuses in China show little appetite for demonstration and revolt. Surely international branch campuses run by big name US, Oz or UK universities, protected from state influence would be the places most likely to inculcate social activism? Apparently not.
A recent study shows that there are two main reasons that constrain the pursuit of democracy by Chinese students studying at international universities in China. First, each of these institutions is heavily monitored by the Chinese Communist Party, which has an obvious presence on each campus and maintains a complex web of informers and observers amongst local staff and students. Dissent, public demonstration and social media commentary are simply not allowed. When “an emergency” of that nature occurs, management of it is in the hands of the CCP’s agencies. In short, even if Chinese students were inclined, public expression of dissent is not going to favor the short or long term future of any institution’s presence in China.
But there is another reason why students on international campuses show no real passion for striking out to defend democracy. They are increasingly happy with the way things are in China and most expect things to get even better over the next five years. Overall, they are proud of what China has achieved so far and where the country is going. Even if students are aware that there are some things that happen in China that they are ashamed of, most believe that if you are Chinese, you should support China regardless.
And it seems that this attitude has little if anything to do with Confucianism —even with the Disneyland version endorsed by the Community Party — but more to do with the fact that students on international branch campuses and those returning from studying overseas are from well-off backgrounds, children of the burgeoning upper middle classes who have inherited disposable wealth, relative social security and leisure time. It seems that nowadays those who have the greatest capacity to affect change have the least motivation to do so.