Should Chinese be patriotic

No trace of rapprochement : China's patriotic students in Germany

“In America, freedom of expression is sacred. Freedom is oxygen. Freedom is passion. Freedom is love. ”These sentences from the graduation speech of a young student at the University of Maryland sound like the usual pathos of US patriotism. The fact that the speech led to an international controversy is due to the student's origins. Yang Shuping is from China. Her speech was therefore also a criticism of the conditions in her home country. "When I took my first breath of American air, I was able to take off my mask and breathe freely," she said. “For the first time I breathed the fresh air of free speech.” She is forever grateful for that.

Her audience in Maryland cheered her. But when the video spread rapidly on the Internet two years ago, it was targeted by the Chinese media. Even the Chinese Foreign Ministry commented on the incident. Chinese overseas should behave “responsibly” when talking about their home country. They support Chinese students abroad "as long as they love their country from the bottom of their hearts." Just one day after her speech, Yang Shuping apologized. "I love my country," she said. "I am very sorry for my speech and I hope that I will be forgiven."

Own social model instead of opening

When China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, many in the West believed that this was the first step towards opening up the country. China's embedding in the globalized economy would lead to the country liberalizing itself along the lines of the Western model. The development has of course taken a different direction. The rule of the Communist Party is as unchallenged as ever, and instead of taking the West as an example, China is advocating its own model of society more and more confidently.

China is today a highly globalized country that is in ever greater exchange with the world. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese go abroad to study every year; in 2018 there were more than 800,000, more than ever before. In Germany they form the largest international group with almost 40,000 students.

One of them is Yu Yan. She studied German in China, then completed an exchange year in Göttingen and then completed a master's degree in European Studies in Leipzig. Today she works in an NGO in Berlin. A highly educated, young woman who has seen a lot of the world - and who still has no problem with one-party rule in China. "I have confidence in the Chinese government, I do not want a democracy like the one in the West in China," she says. The fact that the Chinese media are controlled by the government doesn't bother them either, "the government is probably afraid that people will fall for fake news."

"Looking down from above" on Chinese students

In the West there is a great fear of China, says Yu Yan, “but at the same time also a downward look.” Quite a few Germans encountered her with racist arrogance, and she often feels arrogant about the way people talk about her country. “The Chinese are very sensitive about that, they are proud. They like that Xi Jinping is a 'hardliner' against the West. "

Chinese patriotism flourished under Xi Jinping. The “Chinese Dream” he proclaimed also promises that China will regain its rightful place as a world power. The humiliations of the last century, when Western powers occupied and pushed the country at will, should never be repeated. There is little awareness of this part of Chinese history in the West. Yu Yan remembers being asked in a seminar at the university in Germany how many colonies Germany used to have. She was the only one who knew the correct answer (seven), because one of the German colonies was in China.

In this nationalist atmosphere, the ideological line of the Communist Party is also represented more and more emphatically. The famous "Document Number Nine", which has been circulating in the Communist Party since 2012, identified seven dangers China must defend against, including Western parliamentary democracy, the notion of "universal values" as advocated in the West, and a "historical nihilism" blackening the history of China and the Communist Party.

International students as "positive patriotic force"

This struggle in the “ideological sphere” is fought above all in the education system. In 2016, a directive from the Communist Party organization in the Ministry of Education demanded that the “patriotic spirit” should be promoted especially among school and university students. You must be taught "how dangerous a negative view of the history of the party and the nation" is. The Chinese students abroad must also be rallied as "a positive patriotic force". Pressure is increasing at Chinese universities in particular, and ideological inspections have been carried out at many universities.

The sinologist Elena Meyer-Clement, who teaches in Berlin, works with Chinese researchers. “The situation among social scientists is more tense than it used to be,” she notes. The academic exchange with other countries is also viewed more critically in China. "What we are observing under Xi Jinping is that foreign programs are designed to be as short as possible and that the selection of who can go abroad with which topics is increased."

The government has always encouraged the Chinese to study abroad, also in order to catch up with the West in terms of technology. But now there are growing concerns about what this could do in the minds of the students. A study by Chinese sociologists last year came to the conclusion that studying abroad actually leads to the Chinese being more critical of their home country, especially if they also consume a lot of Western media. However, the authors emphasized that these results must be viewed in a differentiated manner. Although the students are more critical of the current state of their country, they are nevertheless very optimistic about its future. Their view of their own society also becomes more and more positive the longer they stay in the West.

Deliberately apolitical in order to be able to return safely

This can still be dismissed as rationalization on the part of the Chinese, but American studies confirm this picture. In 2016 and 2018, Purde University surveyed Chinese students about how their stay in the West had changed their perspective. Indeed, most of them see China more positively than before, and the US more negatively. This trend has only intensified in the past two years.

Meyer-Clement believes that Chinese students cannot be lumped together. In the social sciences in particular, “many come with a critical understanding and are open to new insights.” But “if you don't want to do that on your own, then it takes time, it's not that easy.” From an early age, many Chinese are “a lot positive image of China was conveyed, in kindergarten, in school, maybe at home and through the media. ”They may have been taught that“ foreign powers have something against China and want to curb China's influence in the world. ”Students also have to think about their career opportunities in China.

"If you know that you are going back to China, you have to control your behavior, depending on the position you are aiming for," says Meyer-Clement. "I've also had students who left politics out of their theses because they said I still have family in China and want to go back there."

Ming Zhang, for example, is doing his doctorate in Germany and has little hope of an academic career in his home country. He does research on contemporary Chinese history, especially the late 1980s. He had already developed a more critical attitude in China. "My mentor at the time was from abroad, I read important Western authors with him." Through him, he also learned some things about Chinese history "that many Chinese students do not know, about Tian'anmen for example." Incidents are a taboo in China to this day, it is not allowed to write about them, let alone research them.

Young communists reading Marx and Mao

Many Chinese students in Germany showed little interest in socio-political issues, according to Ming Zhang (whose name has changed from Yu Yan's name). Real dissidence is even rarer. In China, 94 percent of young people are optimistic about the future of their own country, according to a study by the Gates Foundation in 2018. In Germany it was only 56 percent. The economic rise of China in particular is of course the best argument for this optimism. In 1980 China generated two percent of global GDP; today it is more than 18 percent.

Nevertheless, the Chinese universities are once again a breeding ground for political activism. When numerous activists were arrested last year, many of them were students who showed solidarity with striking workers.

Ironically, however, many of the young activists do not refer to the Tiananmen movement, the 30th anniversary of its suppression this year. They are also not oriented towards the West. It is communists who read Marx and Mao. They want to fight on the side of the working class for the socialist ideals which the party has preached to them all their lives. In doing so, they undermine the government's ideological defensive efforts, which perhaps for this reason reacted with direct repression.

"You are very young," Ming Zhang says of this new generation. “They were born after the economy really took off.” His own generation, those born before 1995, was “conservative and hesitant”. “But this generation is brave. They say what they want. You are not afraid. "

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