Sat, Jul 04, 2009 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE : Chinese students upset over drills


Until last week, Alice Li’s summer plans were simple: work part-time at a convenience store, study for graduate exams and go to the amusement park with friends.

The upcoming celebration of 60 years of communist rule in China has changed all that. For many students in Beijing, the summer holidays will instead center around government-mandated drills for an elaborate parade to mark the Oct. 1 event.

Li, a student at the Capital Institute of Physical Education, will have to quit her job and put everything else on hold to attend practice. For now, the sessions before class last only about half an hour — but will stretch to three when school lets out at the end of the month.

“I’m really furious!” said 21-year-old Li after a compulsory jog that began at 6.30am. “We have completely lost our freedom!”

For Li and other indignant students across the capital, it’s not just about sacrificing their time. It is also a reminder that despite China’s dizzying economic and social progress, the Communist Party still often rules by command and ordinary citizens are expected to fall in line without question.

Many do so — but grudgingly and without the fervor of previous decades.

“Being under the sun for three months, how will this help my studies?” said a poem posted online by a student from the prestigious Peking University. “Who is going to pay for the travel ticket I have already bought? ... I’m angry!”

Students interviewed for this story refused to use their Chinese names because they feared retribution from school officials. All said they were deeply unhappy about giving up internships, trips or the simple joy of a few weeks of idle relaxation.

Their resentments are a turnaround from last summer when students, Li included, were falling over themselves to be chosen as volunteers for the Beijing Olympics.

“There is nothing wrong with doing something for the love of your country, but I cannot stand being forced by my school,” Jimmy Zheng, a student at a high school in west Beijing, said in an online instant message exchange.

Zheng said he did not dare resist when teachers insisted he and his classmates sign a “volunteer” sheet committing him to at least two-and-a-half hours practice a day for two months. His plan to go to Shanghai for the July 22 solar eclipse is gone, and he’s looking at less time to work on his blog and play video games.

Derek Huang, a student at Beijing Normal University, said in a text message that officials and schools “should consider students’ interests all the time and be cautious when dealing with this kind of issue.”

How many schools and students will take part in this year’s event is unclear. Recruitment methods and practice times vary, depending on the school, according to students interviewed.

A Ministry of Education spokesman said the details are “a state secret.”

Like many Chinese bureaucrats, he refused to give his name. The Beijing city government did not respond to requests for information.

The Beijing Evening News reported last month that at least 100,000 students from Beijing’s primary, middle and high schools will be involved. Students at elite Tsinghua University said participation is voluntary and is mostly being left to younger students and those eager to become party members. An invitation letter sent by school officials promised incentives like free sports gear and souvenirs.

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