It was before dawn in Beijing, but jetlag had me wide awake. The Airpocalypse app on my phone reported a tolerable AQI, so I ventured outside to run around a nearby track. The campus was quiet except for a faint rumbling sound that steadily grew louder; within minutes I was surrounded by hundreds of men and women in military fatigues who marched around the track before assembling in ranks on the field. Suddenly I was very conscious of my red, white, and blue t-shirt featuring Ronald Reagan taming a velociraptor. What is the People’s Liberation Army doing at Tsinghua University?
Over a breakfast of dumplings in the dining hall, a Chinese classmate explained that I had not witnessed PLA soldiers but rather undergraduate freshmen at Tsinghua University. All 4,000 freshmen at Tsinghua, and moreover at all universities and most secondary schools in China, complete a three-week quasi-military program called jūnxùn (军训) to start the academic year. The prefix ‘quasi’ seems necessary, because while the students wear military uniforms, learn about China’s defense apparatus, and shoot five bullets apiece, they also participate in what Americans might consider typical college orientation activities, such as a scavenger hunt that familiarizes them with campus and even a talent show.
Upon further investigation, I learned that the purpose of jūnxùn is four-fold according to the Ministry of Education – “to promote the spirit of patriotism and improve the idea of defense, to develop good will and character, to shape collectivism, and to benefit later learning.” With all due respect to the Communist Party of China, I am not convinced that jūnxùn fulfills its third purpose to shape collectivism. While the freshmen may resemble pawns during jūnxùn, my similar experience as a cadet at the United States Military Academy in fact cultivated my individuality. Wearing the same uniform as every other cadet allowed me to discover what distinguished me on a meaningful level below the surface. Working in teams to accomplish various tasks, from climbing a wall to solving an engineering problem set, helped me discover my strengths and weaknesses relative to my peers, thereby preparing me to select and pursue personal goals capitalizing on my best assets. Further, jūnxùn at West Point taught me to be a good follower, a necessary prerequisite to being an effective leader.
The next morning, I went to the track armed with Snapchat to capture the jūnxùn phenomenon for my friends at home in America #millennial. My Army friends empathized with the weary freshmen who looked as exhausted as they had been during boot camp. My civilian friends, however, were shockingly quick to disparage the program as nothing more than communist indoctrination of minions subservient to the government. Am I also just a puppet of the government having undergone similar training at West Point?
The halo effect is our tendency to extend our general impression of something to all of its elements. Such snap judgements prevent us from critically examining the individual traits of a person’s character, platforms of a political party, or policies of a government. My friends’ dismissal of jūnxùn on the shallow basis that it was engineered by a government other than our own demonstrates the halo effect, and I worry that these sort of hollow judgments prevent us from learning from best practices around the world.
China seems to be relatively unconstrained by the halo effect and is actively learning from other countries. For example, Chinese universities are adopting the liberal curriculum that has paid dividends in Western society, Party officials are traveling to the United Kingdom to learn how the Civil Service deters corruption, and the Central Military Commission is exchanging their army-centric structure for a joint command framework like that of the United States military.
The United States can learn from other countries, including communist China, without watering down American ideals. Even programs like jūnxùn, whose stated intention to “shape collectivism” is communist by definition, may in effect support the American ideal of individualism and be worth implementing in the United States. Other programs administered by the Chinese government, such as public transportation projects and some monetary policies, do not even claim to further communist ideology, and these apolitical projects certainly warrant consideration.
The halo effect may tempt us to blanket and discount all government programs in China as communist or “un-American,” but fairly analyzing the intent and effect of each policy could be enlightening. Indeed, “actions speak louder than words” is not only the motto of Tsinghua University but a tacit principle guiding the Party.
The views expressed here are my own and do not reflect the official position of the Department of Defense.