The undergraduate experience in China

Not only that more people come to China to study Mandarin, but more people are interested in studying in China’s universities as undergrads. 

This is no exception to Hong Kong students. A recent South China Morning Post article reported on their China experience, which lends a window into understanding what it is like being an overseas university student in China. Corruption and Marxist theories turn out to be their most overwhelming cultural discoveries.

Thursday, January 4, 2007
HK students in great leap northward

…But Hong Kong students find they have to make many adjustments on the mainland. One of the worries they share is how to maintain their standard of English during their time on the mainland.

“I really think the English lessons are unacceptable. If my English teacher was in Hong Kong, I think he would be sacked,” Ms Wong said. “I think my English is deteriorating after studying here for one year.”

Many also find studying Marxist political theories heavy going – although exemptions are possible depending on the regulations of individual universities.

“Sometimes I feel lonely because my classmates don’t understand why I find Marxist theories are so hard because they have studied them since they were children,” Ms Wong said.

Adjusting to different living styles is also a huge step the students have to make – including different hygiene standards, communal shower rooms and different working hours.

“There are four living in the same room in the dormitory and there is no privacy,” Ms Sze said. “At first I was not used to it because my room-mates don’t take showers every day.”

Mr Yiu, also a first-year student, said he missed the press freedom in Hong Kong. “In the newspapers in Hong Kong, there are opinion pages and people have different perspectives in looking at the same incident,” he said. “There is no such thing in mainland papers and something is missing here.”

Most students said they believed the understanding they were gaining about the cultural differences on the mainland would help them to mature because they had to take care of themselves.

But some of the cultural discoveries can be overwhelming.

A Hong Kong student who once helped to organise recreational events at her university said the experience helped her to understand how corruption bred on the mainland.

“For example, when students organise a ball, they might tell the university they needed 5,000 yuan for the event,” she said. “When the university approved the funding, most of the money went to the teachers and some went to the student union president. They may end up spending 100 yuan on the event because they borrow the equipment … instead of buying it.”

The student was amused to discover that the event’s organisers actually had two account books – a common practice among mainland companies – one for the university and one for themselves.

“Now I understand corruption starts from a young age,” she said.

Many said understanding how things worked on the mainland would help their careers because most were interested in jobs related to the mainland. Some were also hoping the mainland exposure could help them land civil service jobs in Hong Kong.

But many still had uncertainties about their prospects, with some wondering whether their qualifications would be recognised in Hong Kong.

Law student Vivian Li Sin-wan said she planned to spend more time in her final year to polish English because she had studied law in Chinese and would have to take professional examinations in Hong Kong if she wanted to practise here.

Medical student Dason Cheung said the pass rate for mainland-trained doctors in Hong Kong was low due to protectionism. While he might consider practising on the mainland, he would only consider international hospitals or clinics.

“The salaries for doctors in mainland hospitals are so low,” he said. “In Beijing, they may earn about 2,000 yuan a month. It is hard to survive unless you take red packets [bribes].”

Shamed in a parade

Two days ago, I saw on the TV that hundreds of prostitutes were shamed in a public parade in the neigbouring city of Hong Kong, Shenzhen. They all looked downcast and very ashamed, with heads bent down to the chest. I later learnt that in such a parade, their names and dates of birth would be announced so that the purpose of “shaming” them is well served.

This, in China, is called “a public meeting to combat and punish vice” and it is particularly popular in a city just before a high-ranking government office is due to visit. This time it was for the visit of China’s No.2 political figure Wu Bangguo to Shenzhen and Hong Kong.

The scene is reminiscent of the dark age during the Cultural Revolution where all those deemed enemies of the communist party were paraded and shamed publicly. China’s economy has progressed fast enough in the past two decades, and yet, in many aspects, the country remains the same, especially in terms of its political and social mentality.

China falls far short of a civilized country, much less a world power when it holds no respect for the rights of its people and when people themselves do not respect the rights of others. The parade of prostitutes has told it so clearly.

To be free or not to be free

If not for the fact that I actually lived in China for some time, I would have no idea what censorship is like in China.

I was writing a Chinese blog in a major Taiwan blog community before I moved to live in China in January this year. To my dismay, I was not able to access my blog from China, and subsequently had to discontinue my blogging. All this was just the beginning.

Later, I found that I was not able even to access YAHOO Hong Kong. And naturally, I was not able to access online Hong Kong Chinese newspapers such as my favourite newspaper Mingpao. Nor was I able to access the online RTHK – Hong Kong’s equivalent of BBC in the UK. I was effectively being cut off from the Hong Kong media. (The reason that Hong Kong media is censored is that it has more in-dept and critical coverage of China than the state-controlled media on the Mainland China)

As a result, I started subscribing to Hong Kong’s English newspaper South China Morning Post in order to read some Hong Kong news. The censors in China don’t care online content in English. But if it is in Chinese, it will be monitored closely and in a very sophiscated way.

Coming to email, I had problem too. I could not access hotmail and gmail, but was fortunately able to access yahoo email through the English Yahoo page. Imagine I used hotmail and gmail and what a disaster it would be. Until now I am not sure why only Yahoo mail worked. Is it because yahoo has a better relationship with the Chinese government?

It must be stressed that each Chinese city has its own definition of extent of censorship. My experience refers to Hangzhou where I lived. In other cities, a different set of censored websites exist. It is a sophiscated and unpredictable system, isn’t it?

Now that I am no longer residing in China, it just feels so good to be free again.

Inconceivable and conceivable: Margaret Chan picked to head WHO

Margaret ChanThe news that Margaret Chan, the former health director of Hong Kong, becomes the new director -general of World Health Organizaton(WHO) appalls me. For those living through the SARS and bird flu epidemics in Hong Kong, they know pretty well how competent Margarete Chan is and I am sure they all find, just like me, the fact that she is picked to head WHO is inconceivable and not justified.

Well, to some extent, it is not inconceivable – she is picked because china is campaigning hard on behalf of her and the other countries have to give “face” to China, a rising economic power on the world stage. That is real sad. Because an organization as important as WHO should be headed by one who has passion, integrity, capability and experiences, especially of dealing with developing countries. Margarat Chan doesn’t seem to me a person who possess any of the attributes.

She hided the truth from the public when dealing with bird flu and SARS crisis so as not to alarm the society; She refused to go to the orginating place of SARS to make inspections for fear of getting infected; she was slow in taking actions to stem an epidemic like SARS, resulting in many deaths; she has no experience in dealing with developing countries which desparately need to grapple with urgent health crisis such as AIDS. 

And my criticism is not alone –  she was even criticized in the government-commissioned reports reviewing the government handling of the SARS and Bird Flu crisis.

The irony is, she has no chance to be promoted to such an important international post if not for her poor performance in her HK government post and subsequently being transferred to work in WHO as head of a sub-section.  

The whole fanfare awakes me to a bare fact: the order of the day is politics – not about merit, justice or fairness. At the end of the day, the global players don’t care if the world will be better. They care only what is good for them.

Golf Drive and Gay Student Union

golf course in china“The highest embodiment of the education system is producing socially elite people with the best education,” said the president of Xiamen University in Southern China. His university, therefore, requires golf a compulsory subject for law, business and computer students. The university is also building China’s grandest on-campus golf course.

When hearing the news, I was wondering again where China is heading to when an university’s president can be so vulgar and vision-less in his view about higher education. To produce elites who can play golf is the highest embodiment of the education system? Give me a break. When the world is globalizing, what we need are students who are able to be critical in thinking, creative and aspire to engage the world. And this president is talking about social elite who can play golf!

I am not very surprised, though. In rich cities like Beijing, the parents spend thousands of RMB each month to send their children to golf courses or social manner classes – the aim is nurture them to be the social elites who can play golf, piano, etc. and know the western manner.

Being in the ranks of elites is what distinguishes the rich from the poor, and those with power from those powerless. It is a weapon of defense against competition and the encroaching of current elite status, so the uinversity is offering the weapon to its students, and parents are making use of it on the behalf of their children.

There is some exciting news about China in the past week though. The Sun Yat Sen University in Zhuhai, also in the southern China, has approved the establishment of the first gay/lesbian student union on campus – it is a great breakthrough in the scene of China’s higher education, and even in the the whole China. Wonder if this is the first time that a gay organization is recognized by an authority in China.