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Chinese Want Degrees, Not Democracy

John Lee

In an opinion piece in Wednesday’s Asian Wall Street Journal, U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman Jr. argues that the current generation of Chinese students in American universities is not just good news for the U.S. economy, but a boon for the U.S.-China bilateral relationship.

Exposed to American values such as transparency, tolerance, diversity and democracy, returning students will eventually help shape and modernize the future government in Beijing. Mr. Huntsman is correct that American values still have wide, if not universal, appeal. But we cannot ignore the apparent paradox that the young and urbane in China have become the strongest supporters of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the most strident critics of America.

Mr. Huntsman’s thesis is an adapted version of the so-called modernization theory that played out in East Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan: Rising wealth will lead to the emergence of an independently minded, influential and wealthy urban middle class demanding political reform. The added twist here is that the process will be accelerated by the 128,000 Chinese students that study in America each year, a figure that is rising by almost 5 percent annually.

To be sure, it was students who erected a 33-foot-high statue they named the “Goddess of Democracy” during the 1989 Tiananmen protests. Ditto the Democracy Wall movement of 1979, the student protests in 1986 and the China Democracy Party movement of 1997-98. But somewhere along the line, the plan has gone awry despite the thousands returning to China after studying in America each year.

For example, foreign and local college-educated students are the fastest-growing group applying for CCP membership, with student membership numbers having grown tenfold over the past decade. Almost a third of all graduate students are card-carrying party members. In fact, multiple studies and anecdotes reveal that far from being embarrassed about China’s lack of democratic progress, the educated young view political reform as a potential recipe for chaos, rather than the silver bullet for the country’s ills.

The antipathy that college students—including those who gain their education abroad—have toward democracy is matched by their views of America. In the 2009 Lowy Institute China Poll, America came out on top in terms of the best place to study, according to Chinese students. Yet, the perception of the American threat was most pronounced among those with a university education (both within China and/or abroad): 86 percent of people with tertiary degrees agreed that the United States would seek to “restrain China’s growing influence,” compared with 58 percent of people whose highest level of education was junior secondary school.

The key to explaining these apparent paradoxes is to take a closer look at the Chinese political economy. Since the mid-1990s, the Chinese regime has gone to great lengths to maintain control of the major levers of economic power. This control is the heart of an economic structure that entrenches the role and position of party members in the Chinese economy and society. About a dozen key segments of the economy—including banking, construction, infrastructure, media and telecommunications—are dominated by state-owned-enterprises (SOEs). The state still owns more than 65 percent of the country’s fixed assets and receives 75 percent of the country’s capital.

Unlike the ill-fated communist governments in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, this structure offers the CCP a powerful strategy to get elites on its side. In contrast to the communist parties of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the CCP has conducted a tireless and largely successful campaign to co-opt, and in many respects create, the rising educated and economic classes from which China’s foreign college graduates come. College students returning from America do much better by working closely with party officials and state-owned businesses than they would by acting and thinking independently.

Indeed, the CCP offers the best students special stipends and scholarships abroad, while the party makes academic appointments. Political insiders dispense prestigious awards and grants to young professionals and offer university-educated entrepreneurs exclusive access to land, markets and capital. Democratization would inevitably lead to greater redistribution of the country’s resources. Why would China’s educated and middle classes want to change to a democratic system when it could lead to their own dispossession?

Moreover, Chinese college graduates are now extremely patriotic. They feel justifiably proud of China’s recent achievements and see themselves as representing China’s success. Chinese graduates go to American universities to attain respected degrees, but retain the expectation that their nation will soon retake its rightful place as a great power. Significantly, the regime has used these nationalistic sentiments to build a consensus among the educated young that places the CCP as the guardian of China’s historic return to greatness. As a result, college students treat international criticism of the Chinese government, its policies and the country’s authoritarian system as a criticism of China itself.

Opening American educational institutions’ doors to Chinese students makes good business sense. There is also little evidence that doing so is actually harming broader U.S.-China relations. But Americans needs to understand that for the moment, many of China’s best and brightest think that working within a one-party state is the better bet for their futures and the country’s future, and that American values do not apply to China.

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