The World of Political Correctness, According to Chinese Students

Matt Moir

 

Mary Liu doesn’t think Emma Sulkowicz is a victim. Sulcowicz was the Columbia University student whose 2014 senior thesis – carrying a mattress with her wherever she went after an alleged sexual assault by a fellow student – made international headlines.

 

 Mary is a 17-year-old Chinese high school student. On this grey Beijing morning, Mary is sitting at one end of a long, rectangular table, dissecting Sulkowicz’s claim that she was raped, and her subsequent performance art mattress campaign.

 

 “I think this girl was very selfish. [Columbia] is a top school, and she didn’t even consider its reputation. I think she was carrying the mattress for fame and a future job opportunity,” says Mary. Several heads around the table bob up and down.

 

 Though Mary and the 20 or so other students in the classroom attend a large public school in south Beijing, they’re part of an international program. That means that upon graduation, the students will not attend university in China but in North America, the United Kingdom and Australia. There are more than 400 similar international schools in China.

 

 Mary and her classmates are in a University Prep class: a course designed to introduce students to some of the trends and ideas they will encounter on campus in September. The topic on this day is rape culture on Western universities, and Mary, who is planning on pursuing a degree in London, is holding court.

 

 “[Sulkowicz] knew the boy. If two people are boyfriend and girlfriend, there cannot be rape. Also,” she adds, “if you are his girlfriend why don’t you want sex? What’s the problem?”

 

 It’s difficult to reconcile Mary’s thoughts on sexual equality with the cultural liberalism of the 21st century university campus.

 

 

It should be noted, however, that Mary and her peers in this Beijing classroom will, next year, join the nearly 700,000 Chinese students already attending colleges and universities overseas, and many of those young people bring a decidedly different perspective toward ‘political correctness’ than is common on campuses today in the UK and North America.

 

 

 

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 The number of students studying outside their home countries has doubled over the past fifteen years, and China is the world’s leading source of international post-secondary students.

 

 

According to a report by the New York-based Institute of International Education, there were more than 300,000 Chinese nationals attending American universities in the 2014-2015 academic year. In the UK, about 18% of all higher education students come from other countries, and approximately one-fifth of them are from China.

 

 The rise in enrollment of international students is taking place against the backdrop of the spirited fight on university campuses over political correctness.

 

 Hundreds of thousands of Chinese students are witness to the culture war between liberal student activists battling against what they see as a racist, patriarchal and sexist culture, and their critics, convinced that universities are becoming less hotbeds of vigorous debate, but places where hypersensitive students are coddled, and unpopular views are effectively squelched.

 

 As is the case with any group of students, the views of Chinese nationals toward cultural appropriation, trigger warnings and other hot-button campus issues reflect the full spectrum of opinion; indeed, it would be outlandish to suggest that all Chinese students share sentiments similar to those of Mary, the teenager from Beijing.

 

 But it is undeniable that there are many Chinese students who are befuddled by several of the social justice campaigns embraced by some of their North American and British peers.

 

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 Canace Zhang is a 21-year-old sociology major at the University of Windsor, on the northern bank of the Detroit River. She was introduced to student activism three years ago when she began her studies in Canada.

 

 Zhang appreciates and supports the robustness of her fellow students’ advocacy for women’s and LGBT rights, and she is mindful of the importance of supporting students on campus who might be suffering from mental health issues.

 

 She does question, however, the value of things like trigger warnings – notifications given to readers that content might include material that can ‘trigger’ a post-traumatic stress reaction – and expresses frustration at her university’s increased attempts to cater to students she describes as “childish and naïve”.

 

 “Some students request that professors not use words like ‘rape’…in law class, thinking it can cause student distress. The [students’] motivation is either they have been distressed by it or they think it will distress other students. Then why are you taking this major? If you major in law, you need to talk about violence. If you are in social work, you need to talk about discrimination.”

 

 Not using industry terms “also violates the rights of other students to have the opportunity to gain knowledge,” she adds.

 

 She isn’t alone among her compatriots in thinking that North American students have a tendency to, at times, become too agitated too quickly.

 

 Cici Cai is in her first year at Carleton University, in Ottawa.

 

 Like Zhang, the 20-year-old Beijinger says that highly offensive or discriminatory actions on campus should be challenged, and she feels fortunate that she’s in an environment in which those actions can be challenged. But she also contends that some students, occasionally, attach greater meaning to a situation or action than is merited.

 

 She recounts a story in which she felt she was ignored by one of her professors.

 

 “My teacher who, ironically, is African-American wouldn’t call on me in class no matter how high I raised my hand or waved my hand. I felt excluded. He also didn’t call on the other Asian girls in that class. I don’t know why.”

 

 

Cai approached him after class and told him she didn’t think he was “taking her very seriously as a student”. She says her professor soon began including her more in classroom discussions.

 

 “Even though it offended me a little, I think that no matter what your skin color is or what your gender is, you’re always going to be discriminated against at some point in your life.”

 

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 The overwhelming majority of Chinese students interviewed for this article couldn’t be considered caricatures of insensitivity or tone-deafness. In fact, most of them shared nuanced views with regard to the debate over free speech and offensiveness – views, according to those students, informed in no small part by the political and civil rights landscape in their native country.

 

 But still, the consensus among them was clear: Some Western students could use a little toughening up. Or a better sense of humor, at least.

 

 Many Chinese overseas students have likely been subjected to microaggressions, but those students are more likely to role their eyes than stage a sit-in, according to Dr. Yin Miao, a lecturer in China Studies at Xi’An Jiaotong Liverpool University in eastern China.

 

“Everyone has one or two good-meaning friends who have forwarded you chain mail about how the Chinese eat kittens and can you please save them, and asked you things that you found both hilarious and inappropriate.”

 

 Dr. Miao says her favorite personal example was when an acquaintance asked if China’s one child policy meant that Chinese parents who had given birth to more than a single child while living overseas had to choose only one to bring back with them.

 

 “Most students have chalked it up to a part of the ‘oversea experience’. Asians abroad in general are not very vocal in protesting these things,” explains Dr. Miao, who has a B.A.from King’s College, London and advanced degrees from Cambridge University.

 

 “Cultural appropriation is also something we tend to laugh at,” she continues. “Every time Chinese students watch a show that involves a Chinese character speaking garbled Mandarin, we cringe. There was this show that once had a character utter something along the lines of: ‘This is spoken in the Wenzhou dialect. Very hard to understand. They call it devil’s language in China.’ We had a good laugh on Weibo [China’s version of Twitter]”.

 

 Much of the difference between the way some Chinese students and Western students view political correctness can be attributed to significant differences between Chinese and Western cultures, according to Dr. Rui Yang.

 

 Dr. Yang is an international education policy expert at the University of Hong Kong. He says that cultural differences between China and the West can, at times, make the transition from Chinese high schools to foreign universities difficult for some Chinese students.

 

 “In the West, there is this history of being equal before god or equal before the law. In China it is just the opposite. Chinese culture encourages differences between individuals and groups of individuals. In Chinese society, it’s okay to respect those who are more educated, or more powerful or who have more money, and it’s okay to express contempt for those who aren’t or don’t.”

 

 This, according to Dr. Yang, can lead to Chinese students “get[ting] into trouble while studying abroad because they can be too honest or blunt with their opinions.”

 

 “Chinese have little experience living with people of other races or cultures or religions and that can be a problem for Chinese students. Really, the Chinese people can be fairly racist.”

 

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But cultural differences may not be the only factor preventing Chinese students from participating in campus protest movements. 

 

 A student activist in Manchester or Los Angeles can protest outside a dean’s office or participate in a campus courtyard sit-in fairly safe in the assumption that she won’t be badly beaten – or worse – by authorities. In Shanghai or Nanjing, though, that same student might have a different experience.

 

 In an interview with Al Jazeera, the founder of a Chinese human rights organization said that Chinese government security forces regularly roam the country on the lookout for activists who openly criticize the state, and police agents are sent into university classrooms to hunt for lecturers espousing Western ideas like democracy or freedom of expression.

 

 The authoritarian nature of China’s government makes any type of activism – student or otherwise – a very dangerous game, indeed.

 

 For many Chinese students in the West, it isn’t the lack of safe spaces or trigger warnings on campuses but the actions of their own government for which they reserve their indignation.

 

 Says one Chinese student in Canada: “China is a very close-minded place for people to make any public comments. The Chinese government won't even let citizens visit popular websites because they are too afraid that we would ‘find out’ about ideas it thinks is dangerous. They treat us like fools.”

 

Author Bio:

Matt Moir is a freelance writer who has worked as a journalist in Canada for the CBC and CTV News. He lives in Beijing.

 

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