Two PKU professors on China’s youth

In late May and early June, I interviewed professors Zhang Weiying and Pan Wei of Peking University (known as ‘Beida’). I wanted to know what the generation who grew up in the Cultural Revolution thought of the generation who grew up in the Consumer Revolution – and who could be leading China in thirty years. Here’s what they said.


Zhang Weiying is at the forefront of the ‘New Right’. In (much too) short, that’s the school of thought in China which favours free markets and a clean break from socialism.* Or as Mao might put it, capitalist roaders. Zhang helped to pioneer economic reforms in China in the early 80s, and believes that a propertied class is the foundation of civil society. (“Ownership”, he told me, “is rather a responsibility and respect for other’s property.”)

I asked Professor Zhang if he thought Beida could become a world class university (it was only 36th in this 2007 ranking). His first comment was that in just thirty years in China, the number of students enrolling in college in a given year has multiplied by twenty (roughly 30,000 in 1978, when universities opened again after the learning-free zone of the Cultural Revolution; 600,000 in 2009).* And you expect Beida to be a world class university already?

He also mentioned government control in universities as a factor: Beida can’t diversify the curriculum without autonomy or academic freedom. But the problem runs deeper than that. Many of the faculty don’t encourage creativity in their students – the aim is rather to get the right answer (the “only one”). “New ideas are not encouraged. … If you go through this system,” professor Zhang continued, “you will become narrowminded.”

So is this what he thinks of Beida’s elite students, China’s future? No, of course there are bright sparks of independent thought (especially amongst his own students, of course…). But in the ‘post 80s’ generation as a whole, there is a worrying trend towards ziwozhongxin – self-centeredness. As the first generation of single children (the one-child policy came into effect in 1979), they “take everything for granted”.

One upshot of this, especially for the ‘post 90s’ kids who are not used to hardship (like the generation young during the 60s and 70s are), is that the pressure gets on top of them when they enter university or working life. Professor Zhang pointed to the spate of Foxconn suicides – all young workers who had joined the company just months before – as an example.

But he’s not despairing for China’s youth. After all, “they will grow up.”


Pan Wei is on the other side of the political spectrum, the ‘New Left’. He took his PhD at Berkeley, but back in China he was firmly of the opinion that China should follow its own path, not the West’s. His essay ‘Toward a Consultative Rule of Law Regime in China’** is an interesting, provocative read, arguing that democratic elections are an unsuitable model for China.

When I put the same opening question – can Beida become a world class university? - to Professor Pan, he rejected its terms. Beida is a world class university if analysed within a Chinese framework, using China’s criteria. (I have to disagree: it really isn’t.) Assessing China from a Chinese perspective – and ideally using the Chinese language – is essential to him.

That’s why – I know I’m digressing – the NPC or renda shouldn’t be thought of as a ‘congress’, according to Professor Pan, because the term paints it as an organ of a Western political system, and so it inevitably comes across as a “rubber stamp” to Westerners. ‘Civil society’, by the same token, isn’t “suitable” for twenty-first century China. Rather, the danwei – work unit - and jiating – household/family - are.

A bigger problem at Beida that Professor Pan identified was the declining number of students from the countryside. According to him, 70% of PKU’s students were from rural areas in the 1950s. 60-70% in the 60s. Today, the number is less than 1%. I can’t check that figure – Chinese universities are secretive about figures which would be public in Britain – but the trend itself is certainly incontestable.

Onto youth. Professor Pan echoed much of what Professor Zhang said. Young Chinese, single children and without the history and suffering of his generation, “become weak”. The same memes of “individualistic” and “psychologically vulnerable” came up. Also an astute comment, I think: that, on the whole, they aren’t interested in their parents’ history (more so in their grandparents’). But you could rephrase: the problem is that parents aren’t interesting in relating their history to their children.

Another result of their upbringing, Professor Pan told me, was “nanxing de nuxinghua” – boys becoming more like girls (or at least “zhongxinghua” – their neuterisation). A boy who is loved excessively (ni ai) can’t fight for himself. At this point, he declared that this results in more homosexuals. This, I should say, was delivered in the spirit of  observation not prejudice. I see no factual basis for it.

I won’t comment, expect to add that Professor Pan also said something intelligent: that older people have always had issues with the younger generations.


* for a better description, Mark Leonard describes New Right and New Left, as well as profiling professors Zhang and Pan, in his book What does China Think?

** in Debating Political Reform in China, ed. Suisheng Zhao


  1. Anyone questioning the PKU 1% data, which has become the source of a internet rumor in China, can check these websites (in Chinese):

  2. Some specific background to the “youth nowadays” cliché come from the “youth of 1980s”:

    Old men’s critique upon “Youth Nowadays” is always something the same, but the younger one’s publicly reaction to this turned to be different according time to time.

    In the Culture Revolution, the younger ones react ruthlessly, though they would justify their did with the historical materialism but not the manipulation of the ultimate old one.

    In 1980s, partly benefit from the power vacuum created by the Culture Revolution, younger ones have a significant higher promotion rate and statues in many area than now, including academic fields. Mr.Zhang and Pan belong to this generation.

    It is hard to image that today’s film industry in China might produce a film that show younger one’s caustic scoff toward those youth mentor, but this really happened in 1980s. And it is the only case in PRC’s film history till now.

    Hereby I recommend you to see this film, (Wan Zhu, aka The Troubleshooters(1988) on IMDB ). Mr.Zhang and Pan are likely to know these film when they are the same age with those protagonists in the film. I don’t know how will they see themselves nowadays speaking these typical youth mentor cliché while they are “Youth of 1980s.”

    Now that Mr.Zhang and Pan is actually in great easy when they criticize youth compare with those youth mentors in 1980s.”Youth nowadays” must concern more about themselves, from their qq, GRE to job, housing (but of course in professors’ point of view this is what they call selfish, not from social biology perspective I think…),also they have no need to worry about something like punk or dada, punk is clearly dead now, dada, thanks to police, at least, no longer lives in the village around summer palace which is geologically next to PKU. A group of graduates grasp the power of a Danwei, like many cases in 1980s, will never happened again.

  3. If 1% is true, then do not talk about China’s Youth to these PKU professors unless you know that they know other youth outside PKU well.

    Man, there are many youth crowded in those “二本、师专”(secondary university & teachers college) in the small cities and towns, not mention those who do not enter the higher edu institutions. They are china’s youth too. They may don’t know what is GRE and never have a chance to speak English with foreigner. For whom Mr.Zhang refered to when he talks about Foxconn’s workers? PKU’s students? I think those 二本师专 students may share more commons with foxconn workers.

    If my fellow Chinese tell me that he talked with Chomsky about American’s youth but only 1% of MIT were from groups other than upper middle class…

  4. Charlie – another phrase which irks me is “as you know China is really big” (or, even worse, “did you know China is really big?”), as if no further explanation needs to be given for a host of problems.

    How could a university named after the dullest colour be any good? Surely some combination of the words “Oxen” and “ford” is much more promising.

  5. YWX – thanks for commenting. That passage is pretty shocking. First time I’ve come across the phrase 阴性教育. But not the first time I’ve come across a surprisingly ‘old fashioned’ (to put it kindly) section in a Chinese language textbook. I blogged about finding one here, a couple of years back:


  6. One more thing, the professor is not alone among Chinese in his views regarding the relationship between excessive love and homosexuality. An American friend studying in the language program at PKU this past year went on for an entire evening in a bar in Wudaokou about a chapter in his advanced spoken Chinese text in which a young, high school aged boy – the recipient of a mother’s love – laments the softening effects of having been spoiled rotten by his parents. My friend later forwarded the relevant passage to me in an email (which I now paste below):




    (p. 74 of 高级汉语口语, 北京大学出版社, 2nd ed., 2005)

    Come to think of it, if you want to understand what’s wrong with higher education in China, you needn’t look much further than this. And they’re teaching this stuff to foreigners with a straight face!

  7. (I submitted the following comment in response to the earlier ChinaGeeks piece. My feelings haven’t changed a bit.)

    After graduating from Berkeley in the late 1990s, I earned an MA from PKU. I then returned to the U.S., where I earned another MA. I’m now finishing a PhD. While I enjoyed my experience at PKU, it was a much better life experience than an academic one. In fact, it was pretty much a joke. I learned a lot, but only because I’m very self-motivated and made excellent use of my time and the resources available to me. My courses, however, were a waste of time and a sorry disappointment. Likewise, my professors were largely tame and incurious – at least relative to their U.S. counterparts.

    I’ve just spent the last 10 months back at PKU doing research and not much has changed. In the fall of 2009, a list of the top global universities was published by some group or another, and PKU ranked number 51 (Tsinghua was number 49, I believe). At the time, I remember saying to a Chinese friend, “I bet I can think of 100 research universities in the U.S. that are better than PKU. This list is crap.” He didn’t disagree.

    Until there exists real institutional freedom at Chinese universities – and until department heads care more about producing good research than pleasing BMW-driving bureaucrats – they will remain second (third!) rate. The best Chinese students are bright and eager to learn, but they are very poorly served by the universities they attend.

    Sad but true – PKU is as good as it gets here in the PRC.

  8. Fascinating piece, Alec. Both had interesting things to say, although I find myself disagreeing with almost everything Pan Wei says. The more I’m exposed to the term, the more I’m convinced that “analyzing within a Chinese framework” is just a way to make Chinese things that obviously aren’t up to par look like they are about half the time it’s used. What is and what isn’t a “world class” university needs to be analyzed in a global framework, not a Chinese framework. And I would agree with you that regardless of the framework that’s used, BeiDa and its ilk aren’t really up to par, yet.

    Anyway the whole argument is pointless, anyone who knows anything knows that Brown is obviously vastly superior to all universities in all countries :).

    As for his comments on boys turning into girls — after all, not being able to fight for oneself is a female trait, right? — I won’t get into that for fear of not being able to stop once I get going. Ridiculous. One would think that the faculty at a so-called “elite” school would be smart enough not to say stuff like this without evidence to back it up (then again, that hasn’t stopped Harvard administrators in the past. ZING!)

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