My PKU teacher’s take on this May 4th

Another interesting chat I had on May 4th was with my one of my teachers at Peking University. I was curious what a Beida teacher (who teaches Chinese to foreign students) would have to say not just about May 4th spirit today and PKU students, but the possibilities of discussing contemporary Chinese politics with her wards from overseas.

Here are the more interesting of her answers to my questions. On May 4:

  • The new way of thinking after May 4th 1919 (democracy and science) was a bigger break from the past and did more for China’s progress than the Communist Party and its revolution achieved.
  • “Protest is not the best way to solve problems now.” Also, because of the Chinese hobby of ‘watching the fun’ (kan renao), protests make small problems look bigger than they really are.
  • She noticed the news story (in Chinese, Danwei coverage here) of Wen Jiabao visiting students in his alma-mater, Tsinghua University. As she heard it, Wen encouraged them to “join their ambitions with those of China … go to the countryside and work for China’s development”. She disliked the idea of students being told to think about serving the CCP’s interests above (she felt) their own.

On modern Beida students:

  • “New [Beida] students think of work prospects. Before, they thought when will the foreign powers leave China.” [This again echoes what students told me themselves; it’s an opinion I’ve heard from more than one teacher and administrative staff worker in Beida.]
  • “[Beida] students now are satisfied with the Chinese government. As for me and my generation, I’m not so satisfied.” [In class, before our conversation, she had grumbled about the one child policy, and used China’s wealth gap and corruption problem as examples with which to illustrate grammar constructions!]

On the freedoms she and her colleagues have to discuss such political and historical matters with foreign students:

  • She thinks of herself as different to her colleagues who only discuss these topics in private. She believes in free exchange of criticism and opinion between China and the West. [is the West represented by¬† students like me?! No pressure.]
  • [I press her further] “No freedom” for teachers of foreign students to say whatever they like. The reason she gives: if a student’s opinion is their own, fine. If it’s received from their Chinese teacher, then the teacher could get in trouble.

Finally, a little postscript of my own: I attend a weekly lecture class at Beida for foreign students learning Chinese, called ‘Chinese culture’. Topics range from ‘tea’ to ‘China’s disabled population’ (see my second bit and bob here), to last week’s ’60 years of development in China’s countryside’. Any political discussion is all very open: the lecturer in that last one even mentioned the infamous ‘flying the airplane‘ torture – that link is unsurprisingly blocked in China.

However, I couldn’t help but feel a little propagandized on a couple of occasions (and patronized … ‘patrogandized’?). Nothing big: mostly the lecturer drawing attention to China’s overwhelming domestic problems and emphasizing how party policy is solving them in the right way. True as that might be, I think the role of a teacher is to give the facts, analyze them, but leave it to the student to make up their minds for themselves.

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