In 1989, students were at the forefront of the protests that ended in bloodshed in Tiananmen square. The protests called for democracy and reform, but they actually began with a demand for better conditions on Chinese campuses. Crowded dorms without electricity coinciding with high inflation and rampant corruption brought students and urbanites into the streets. Back then, the students climbing atop tanks looked to the west for inspiration and support.
In 1999, students were at the forefront of another mass protest. This one being against the U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. They burned flags, threw stones and called for Clinton’s head on a platter. Most recently, after the plane fiasco off Hainan, students again grumbled, but did not take to the streets the government persuaded them it was not in their or the nation’s interest and they agreed.
A lot has changed in a decade.
Instead of worrying about students burning down Chinese government buildings, the Communist Party has to keep them from burning down foreign (read US) government buildings.
But campus conditions haven’t changed much. Students still live eight to a dorm that would house two in the US. Electricity is turned off in many universities after 7 p.m. and it is not reliable to begin with. Students study outside or in the library the one light bulb hanging from the ceiling just doesn’t put out enough light. They get up at 6 a.m. for morning exercises, stand in line for hot water, then get ready for 8a.m. class. There is a curfew even for postgraduates at 11pm (11:30 on Friday and Saturday) and if you are not inside on time, tough luck, the door lady won’t let you in.
The conditions depend on the income of the university and the region, but curfews, electrical and water problems and overcrowded dorms are common throughout China. Universities which receive money directly from the State Education Commission enjoy a few perks, such as foreign teachers, exchange programs, pretty buildings and parks and big dance halls. But even these "key" schools serve low quality food in their canteens and house eight to a dorm.
China still is not democratic, save for scattered village level elections. Corruption is still around even after the execution of several top officials for accepting bribes last year. Chinese media still distorts reality and jobs are even more scarce than they were in 1989.
So why aren’t the students camped out underneath Mao’s face in Beijing?
BEATEN INTO SUBMISSION
Being a student in China is a rough job. As soon as kids enter middle school, around age 13, the fun ends and the servitude begins. Day in and day out Saturdays and Sundays included students rise at 5:30 (or earlier, depending on the school) and either prepare for class or have dawn class. They attend classes from 8am to 5pm. Almost all children have parent-organized extra-curricular activities such as piano lessons, dancing, arhu lessons, English etc. until bedtime.
Then it starts all over again. Classes are geared toward one goal: passing the high school entrance exam. A high score means entry into a better high school, which in turn means a better chance at gaining a spot in a university. Today, spaces in colleges, universities and other post-secondary adult education programs total about 6 million. There are almost 100 million young people of college age and less than 5 percent of them are enrolled in a university or college.
The competition is extremely fierce less than half of a class will reach high school and less than a fourth of a high school class will get into a university. If students thought middle school was tough, they were taught the meaning of the word during high school. Students often live in the high school and spend every waking hour with noses in books. Studying involves rote memorization and recitation of exam material.
"We became study machines," says Li Jing. "My world revolved around the classroom, the dorm and the eating hall."
When "Black July" rolls around (the term for College Entrance Exam month) students are delirious and desperately waiting for word of acceptance. They all have dreams of college life laced with girlfriends and boyfriends, freedom, intellectual stimulation and relaxation.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. Students are forbidden from having relationships (although this doesn’t hinder them in the least) and curfews are strictly enforced. If a student misses enough morning exercises (at 6 am), their grades are docked. The exam system is still firmly in place and, as described above, dorm life is decidedly unappealing.
Universities are also extremely competitive. Students face unemployment, low wages (or sometimes none at all if they happen to be a teacher) and no job security like in the good old days when they graduate.
"The competition here may kill me," said Ma Feng one day. "But if I die then it is a good thing for China because then someone better than me has survived."
Classes still lack interest and innovation: "Deng XiaoPing Thought" and "Marxism-Leninism" are sleepers as well as the basic computer skills and applied economics courses which all students are required to take. English is also required and the College English Test is the bane of most students’ existence. English curriculum in high school and middle school is poor and it doesn’t improve much at the higher levels, but that’s for another column.
Students cannot pick their major. Upon taking the College Entrance Exam, students list three universities and three majors. Many students pick one major and one university they want, and two they don’t really care for. Tuition is lower for majors the nation "needs" such as soil science, accounting, teaching, chemistry and computer science so students invariably pick one of these.
By the time students reach college, the last thing they want to do is rush into the street to protest corruption, leaky dorms or bad canteen food. They care little for politics and just want to relax a bit, go to the net-bar and chat all night, eat and drink with friends and laugh.
Students today are quite aware of the inequities of the Communist Party and the media, they just don’t care about these things as much as they care about having as much fun as possible before they are thrown out of college and into a job market that can’t support them.