By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Taking the pulse of China's youth -- again

I recently met with the latest group of China Future Leaders university students coming through Boston. There were 140 of them this time -- reflecting the growth of Chinese tourism to the US -- and I had to divide up my appearance into two meetings, because the room we had couldn't fit more than 100.
As I always do (faithful blog readers may recall earlier posts on these student visits), I asked them a bunch of questions at the beginning of each session. I started by asking them a version of a question I had asked in the past. First I asked them what the best thing about the US was, and the worst thing. Then I asked them the same question about China -- what were the best and worst things.
What was interesting was that there was very strong agreement, for both the US and China, about the best thing about each country, and much less about the worst thing. For the US, by far what the students shouted out was that the best thing was "freedom," with "education system" in a fairly distant second place as the best thing. (Critics of US education take note, though -- the Chinese were probably thinking more about universities than elementary or secondary schools).

 For China, two answers dominated the best thing -- Chinese history and Chinese culture, with Chinese food in distant third place. Anybody who looks at the popularity of historical dramas, involving long-ago dynasties, on Chinese television would not be surprised about this answer. Things were relatively silent -- maybe due to politeness? -- about the worst thing about the US, and no real consensus, but individual answers included arrogance and high crime. For China, again there wasn't as much shouting out about the worst thing, but the most common answer was "too many people," with pollution in second place.
Then, as I have frequently asked them before, I asked them whether they thought the US government was on the whole friendly or unfriendly to China, and then whether the Chinese government was on the whole friendly or unfriendly to the US.

The response was the same as it has been every time before: Most students thought the US government was unfriendly to China, but that the Chinese government was friendly to the US. This time I asked the majority why they answered the way they did. On the US being unfriendly, the good news was that the students pointed to very concrete issues, such as the value of the Chinese currency, trade relations, and Taiwan. Nobody suggested anything more broad. Why did they think the Chinese government was friendly to the US?  One answer dominated:  "They buy US government debt."
At the end -- in the context of inviting interested students to "friend" me on Facebook -- I asked them how many of them were on Facebook, which is of course blocked in China and can be accessed only using special software to "jump the wall" (the so-called "Great Firewall of China"). To my surprise, about a quarter to a third of the students raised their hands -- though this number probably isn’t a good guide to guess the number of people who have managed to get and use this software, since some of these students are studying in Hong Kong, where the Internet isn't blocked.

I then asked them, "If Facebook were allowed in China, would you participate?"  Essentially every student in the audience raised a hand. This is interesting, since just about all of them are already on Facebook's Chinese knockoff Renren, so this suggests they want to be able to communicate with foreigners. These students aren't necessarily typical of all Chinese students -- they come from families rich enough to afford this trip, and they have chosen to come to visit the US -- but their responses suggest a continuing desire by young Chinese to cultivate contacts with us.

Posted on Jan 30, 2012 at 7:27 PM

Reader Comments

Thu, Mar 22, 2012 Lynn Xi'an

I was a member of CFL and YES I do remember all those questions you have asked us...I was thinking earlier, why so many Chinese students want to study abroad AND COME BACK to China and live a RICH life? I don't think luxury is that important, but clear sky and safe food are my real concern. I want to immigrate to other country as well but that's for the little things such as things I have just mentioned...

Wed, Feb 1, 2012 Steve Kelman

I agree with the comments of both Atlantis and Gorgonzola. When talking about Chinese students who come to Boston, I think I made clear that they may be untypical both because they are wealthy enough to come and also because they are friendly enough to the US to come here. I agree that it is very possible that another group of students might say the worst thing about China is corruption. When I have written blogs from China, these have involved a wide range of students and others, including from a Western China(poorer) city such as Xi'an. It is my hunch at the same time that many of the comments of these students are at least somewhat representative of opinion at least at the higher-prestige universities in China, though I would never claim these are scientific surveys. I feel we learn something from what these students say.

Tue, Jan 31, 2012 Gorgonzola

Atlantis in Beijing raised a point that I realize has been troubling when I read some of your thoughts on China some of the time. Quite a bit of your thinking is conditioned by the values and political ethos of princelings and other types of privileged young people whom you meet at Harvard. Those who enroll at Harvard College, the B School or the K School often come from that privileged stratum. Ditto for some, but not all of the various kinds of Chinese visitors to Harvard. Why? Because the school has as many privileged youth as any other in America. Spend more time in places like Chengdu, Harbin, Changsha and your insights will be broadened. You will sense the tremendous class struggle that still goes on, tho hardly the kind that Mao led. A school like yours should think very broadly and not get taken in by the "we're-elites-together, tra la" kinds of vibe that grow hardily in Cambridge. Make sense to you?

Mon, Jan 30, 2012 Atlantis Beijing

And the point you mentioned "they are rich kids" is a very key point. I wonder if they ever think about corruption is rotting China (maybe their family gets interests from the corrupted system, so they would stand on the same side of it.) And there's another thing. It's about ideological chaos in China. As Chinese Future Leaders, what do they think they can bring a change to the future? what ideological value can lead to a real harmounious society? Answers like "too many people" and "pollution" sound superfacial and childish. If they keep thinking like this and ever get a chance to lead the future, they might just manipulate with their parents' money and power, advocating the materialism.

Mon, Jan 30, 2012 Atlantis Beijing

I think maybe next time you should add some new questions like "why do you want to visit the US?" "how do you think the visit to the US can make a change to your life?" i know that a great number of young people or even scholars visit developed countries only for pleasure and for fun. And also, I find their answer about "too many ppl in China" funny. There is many ppl in Japan too. The density of population is even worse than that in China. But the country is just as tidy as it is, not chaos/dirty as China.

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