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China's Universities: Foreign Students Face 'Indoctrination Camps'

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The recent tensions in Inner Mongolia, between the indigenous ethnic minority (which wants independence) and the authoritarian Chinese state, have highlighted how the Chinese behave towards their students.

This is not the first time that the authoritarian regime has ordered university administrators to restrict the comings and goings of students and professors, and to stop them going out at weekends. Indeed Chinese universities are structured in such a way as to make such restrictions possible. Surveillance is carried out by professors, security personnel and by students themselves, thanks to the members of the Communist Youth League.

In Beijing, too, scene of the recent 'Jasmine' events in Wangfujing, a permanent order was given to close the universities and 'keep order' on campuses/detention centers. Professors were called on to preach about patriotic values, with the support of sayings by Confucius, Mao, Deng, Zhang, Hu and "5,000 years of history" to "bring everyone together". International students are also caught in the net.

The authoritarian regime is afraid of Chinese students, since the events of Tiananmen Square in June 1989. Today's events in Inner Mongolia took place almost exactly on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, where the name 'Liu Si' [4 June**] is only whispered on campus and where fear, the law of silence and nausea reign. The ghosts of the past continue to haunt the corridors and consciences; lies are not enough.

The authoritarian Chinese regime prefers that these whispers are kept under tight control inside universities where other coercive means exist to keep all the 'resistant' students and professors silent. A ruthless regime exists in Chinese universities. They are temples of indoctrination, where freedom of expression is severely restricted, where a system of carrot and stick -- or 'gentle' repression -- exists; where the most conformist people are the most rewarded and the rebels expelled.

Foreign professors are kept out of the system, controlled in a different way. I have seen two foreign professors, one English and one American, be accompanied on successive days to the airport and put on a plane for having criticized the Communist Party. There is no tolerance, except in some 'shop window' universities, such as Tsinghua and Peking, which is designed to make people believe that the regime wants world-class universities. I say the regime because the Chinese public are the main victims of the system.

Most universities in China are surrounded by fences and walls, often with the exits located in the four corners of the campus which are guarded by at least two people and security agents in civvies. You have to show your ID card on entering and leaving. The exits are rarely left wide open, creating a funnel which students pass through, sometimes in single file. This is even more the case when there are risks of tension in Inner Mongolia, Tibet, Xinjiang, Beijing or Shanghai.

This is what I have seen in most of the universities that I have visited in Beijing and what other professors -- all of them foreigners, of course -- have told me about universities in other towns. I think many Chinese professors who are not pro-regime are ashamed and above all scared to speak out. One day a professor told me: "Don't foreigners who come here know that by their presence they are helping the regime by giving credence to a completely perverse system. It's absurd. It's all smoke and mirrors here." I never again saw that professor, whom I met at a buffet during a conference.

But the walls are not just around the campus. They are inside it too where people are controlled by a 'velvet glove' system through the Communist Youth League. They are Party stalwarts, ideologically sound and therefore 'correct'. The League is more than a 'Student Union' -- these are men and women who take part in leadership-cum-military activities outside campus, far from the view of foreign students. They are the patriotic elite who guide a patriotic education system.

Chinese President Hu Jintao, a former leader of the League, has used it to put a system of thought control inside universities. In this system the campus has become totally regimented, with a tight control kept on students and professors. It extends even into the dormitories, which are presided over by a member of the League/Communist Party.

The Party recruits the best players this way, the most faithful, the most patriotic. This system is very little known outside China. International students are kept one step removed from this system of carrot and stick, their dormitories and classrooms are kept apart... there is no possibility of collusion or getting together.

International students are careful. Complaining serves no purpose, they are ignored. The feeling of being 'controlled' definitely makes them feel uneasy. The students talk to me about it, knowing I am discreet, or seeing me as a mediator who at least try to bring some solutions. It doesn't take long before they let their true feelings show when we talk:

  • "We don't have any rights on campus, we pay, never criticize, accept our duff professors, learn the language and leave."
  • "You learn practically nothing here. We are preached at and indoctrinated. It is nothing to do with the brochure that I read before coming here."
  • "My double diploma in economics was in reality just two years spent learning Chinese."
  • "The best professors are reserved for the Chinese students. We are given patriotic Chinese professors who speak English badly, hardly ever respond to questions or reply in an oblique way."
  • "This system doesn't make any sense."

I could continue. The list of their complaints is as extensive as the lack of effort made by foreign universities to check up on what is happening. And Chinese universities are quick to paint a too rosy and inaccurate picture and "charm" foreign visitors. Many of whom are happy to sign agreements, feted during banquets, pocket the money and make out that they are offering their students an exchange program with responsible partners.

I have noticed that international students in several Beijing universities are suffering from a curious psychological phenomenon, a type of depression, call it oppression, a lack of the happiness and confidence which western students experience and which you can also see in Japan or India.

Once, when I was talking to an African student from an African country, he turned to his Chinese friend who was beside him and said to me: "You see my friend here, he is in fact a member of the Communist Youth League and he reports every criticism of the system people make in the international building to a professor who is in charge of these things. After class, we are given a lecture on the subject of the criticism. It's like a game. He pretends to be my friend, but he is in fact a spy." At this, the 'friend' got up and left. "Everything is like this, no-one has any true Chinese friends. The Communist League is everywhere."

Another time, a Chinese assistant told me, in confidence and whispering: "In fact, the members of the League use the foreign students. They study them. Their professors push them to learn how to control foreigners." Others come to see me, most of them foreign students. I do what I can to help them, but the problem is ideological, political, strategic, racist. You mustn't forget that China is not a free country, even if it is protected by a 'constitution', which in effect allows the regime to expel any rebels who immediately 'disappear'; and education is strictly controlled. Students, particularly Chinese ones, have to conform or they will have problems when they come to finding a job.

International students have not come to China to get a taste of authoritarianism, but to learn, to get to know and understand a country which accounts for 22% of the world's population and has the second biggest GDP in the world, a country which is a massive player on the 21st century global stage. Students who come to China have made a brave, strategic, risky and responsible choice. But they don't want to lose their dignity, to feel abandoned and forced to accept "living in an indoctrination camp", as one foreign student called it.

Foreign university administrations involved with China have turned a deaf ear to what is happening because it is easier to do so, to take the money and deny categorically all the criticism, to internationalize without conscience or ethics.

Don't international students have rights? Does no-one want to take up their cause? Is it easier to say that they are all wrong and to believe the lies of a regime known for its 'soft power' methods? Does the repression in Inner Mongolia not exist? Nor that in Tibet, Xinjiang and Beijing and anywhere else in China? It is in the silence and hidden looks that the freedom and happiness of students is held up to ridicule.

We need to re-think Obama's person-to-person cultural exchange plan for sending 100,000 US students to China.