US President George W. Bush's China visit culminated in his talk with Chinese President Jiang Zemin (江澤民) and a speech delivered to students at Tsinghua University (清華大學). Compared to his talk with Jiang, Bush showed more humor in the university speech and his replies to students' questions. Unfortunately, the Chinese government strictly screened the attending students, who had to be members of the Communist Party and have an excellent command of English. Their questions had also been reviewed in advance. As a result, the question-and-answer session between Bush and the students resembled another official talk.
What would students from one of China's renowned universities ask Bush if they could rise above official ideology? In China's society, university students are a minority and viewed as "the favored sons and daughters of the heavens." University entrance examinations in China have become a crucial mechanism for social mobility. If admitted to well-known schools, students not only stand a better chance of joining higher-paying foreign companies after graduation, but also have a better chance of studying abroad. In notable Chinese universities, English-language abilities have become another standard for social mobility. That the US is a land of opportunity for Chinese students is reflected in the low numbers of those that return home.
But the situation has changed somewhat since Bush took office. First, the US, which was already facing an economic downturn, suffered an unprecedented setback after the Sept. 11 attacks last year. Companies laid off workers by the thousands as a result. Although China's economy is still growing strongly, foreign companies based in China have also had to lay off workers. This has frustrated those who graduated from China's renowned universities last year and began looking for work.
In addition, over the past two years, these students have also encountered difficulties in trying to go to the US to study. The US-based Educational Testing Service, in charge of TOEFL and other tests, sent notices to US universities asking them to pay attention to Chinese students' abnormally high scores in tests such as TOEFL. More importantly, the US reduced the number of visas issued to Chinese students last year, causing a panic in China's universities.
So, the questions students should have asked Bush are, "When will the US economy recover?" and "Can the US normalize and stabilize its policies regarding Chinese students studying there?" But why did the students fail to ask practical questions that deeply concern them? Government control is the answer. But we have to go a step further and question how big the difference is between the forces of democracy on campus and the forces of official control.
Since the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, there has been a "collective withdrawal" of Chinese intellectuals. They have either moved to other countries or, if they have stayed in China, discussed anything but the massacre at schools. The spirit of the democratic movement is not being handed down and accumulating on campuses. What concerns people now is how individuals can grab a share of China's economic growth. When discussion of the economy overshadows that of social values, the government can readily manipulate universities.
"Linking up with the world" was China's widely promoted slogan in the run-up to its entry into the WTO. Students in distinguished universities naturally take the lead in building relationships with the rest of the world. Once it becomes possible for them to express their opinions, the students will perhaps ask the government, "Why don't we have democracy in China?"