Recently, much news talked about the flood of Chinese students into US, UK, or just about any university in Western countries. Dow Jones Newswires gave an overview of about half a million Chinese filed applications to US graduate schools. The Atlantic had a more interesting report on the growing tide of Chinese students pursuing undergraduate studies in US private colleges. Both expressed concerns over what change these troops of Chinese students may bring back home when they graduate.
“Just as the top echelons of the party battle over whether to continue down a path of reform, China’s youth are voting with their feet and getting western educations in rapidly rising numbers, possibly setting the stage for a fundamental shift in values as they return home,” concluded a recent Financial Times article.
There will be shifts in values. That’s for sure. The question is…shift to where. More patriotic or more pro-West? For years, the assumption has been that Chinese students with oversea experiences will be key pro-West and pro-democracy forces in China when they go back to their home country. But anyone who still remembers the waves of pro-China protests around the world during 2008 Olympic Torch Relay would agree that the picture is not all that rosy.
Returnee, a popular discussion board on MITBBS (a leading BBS for Chinese students in the US.), is where a lot of Chinese living in the US debate about the pros and cons of going back to China versus staying in the US. Most people’s biggest concern of going back is the cost of living, environment and children’s education. Freedom or democracy is seldom part of the discussion.
As Saobi (avatar name) summarized in his post comparing the different lifestyles in the two countries, “Unlike many intellectuals who like to talk about ‘universal values,’ ‘conscious citizen,’ ‘rule of law’ or ‘social responsibility’ when comparing China and the US, what I care about is everyday life.”
“I really don’t like those who use excuses such as environment, food safety, democracy or freedom of speech as reasons of not going back. All those are just facts. We all grew up in China and have been living there for years. That is China. We all know what it is like. If you can accept, then go back. If you cannot, then don’t.” Stephon commented on his view on living in China.
Indeed, the consensus on the discussion board is that if you are super talented, then you are OK to go back; if you are not so much talented but you or your family has guanxi, then you are OK to go back, too, but if you have neither talent nor guanxi, then stay in the US.
Most of the people who plan to go back do so because they want to be part of China’s economic boom. yitan commented on the bottom line of going back, “Go back if and only if your salary in China = your salary in the US * 6. If you want to enjoy the good things in China, also be prepared to deal with the ugly.”
More talked about how to get into existing systems and take advantage or how to compete with those who are already in those
systems. Very few mentioned wishes to build a better China when go back. PCC said in his post of how to seize the opportunity in China, “I heard a lot about people say they go back because they don’t want to miss the opportunity brought by China’s fast development, but how to define “opportunity”? Opportunity means though things are bad now, they have the potential to be better in the future. To be rich through corruption one day is opportunity. To be a university lecturer with 3000 yuan monthly income is bullshit.”
Does anyone cared about bringing change to China at all? Yes, there are…in another discussion board hosted on the same site – Military. Military board is probably the most popular one out of the sites’ several hundreds of boards, oftentimes having the biggest number of concurrent visitors.
Reading through comments on the board sometimes makes one feel that it is combination of Tea Party and Utopia, a pro-Mao leftist website in China (which was recently forced to shut down by Chinese government), not a website full of Chinese students in the US.
“The US has democracy controlled by Jewish bankers. China has nothing but the formality of democracy. I don’t like it when the US accuses China of not being a democracy because all they want is to take China down,” said shallow on his view on democracy.
A theme often heard on the board when it comes democracy is that Western style democracy is not the answer to China’s problems. As zxyybxx explained, “Democracy is good, but that doesn’t mean it fits everywhere. China has neither the economic base nor the cultural background for democracy.”
Wayofflying expressed similar views in his lengthy post on why democracy doesn’t fit China, “China’s huge and diverse population plus limited natural recourses determine that democracy or any other seeming good systems that work fine in the West won’t work in China – they got easily abused. In China, people hate corruption because they don’t have a chance to be corrupted. People complain about power abuse because they are the victims of abuse. If they are in power, they will be more brutal. We study too much about the West, but too little of ourselves. Those who cry for democracy in China are just like those who try to build a house on floating ice. The only way to solve China’s problem is to gain more power on the international stage and to get resources such as land, water, oil, minerals and markets from around the globe.”
“The irony is that if China was a democracy, Bo Xilai would probably be voted the President. Absolute democracy in China will look like Culture Revolution – Chinese people go to extremes very easily,” added RoadforCN.
On the other hand, they don’t seem to be happy about where China stands now, either. Most of them are disappointed that 1) Chinese government is too soft, especially to the US and 2) China is currently ruled by compradors who represent the benefits of Western businesses instead of that of the Chinese people. All such disappoints grow into a general anti-West, or more specifically, anti-US, sentiment. As moon6 said, “The West is unhappy, which means we [Chinese] are on the right track.”
“Now the West doesn’t even bother to hide their intension of slaughtering China. I don’t understand. Are those in power in China too coward or are they all traitors? Why can’t they see it?” goldenratio expressed her view on SOE privatization in China. magicfinger2 is even more bitter, “To listen to US prescription for China is like to listen to a pimp’s advice on successful marriage. All they want is to have a piece of the cake. SOEs in China need reform, but privatization should never be part of it.”
For people on this board, such view as “China falls under the evil intension of the West” hasn’t really disappeared after years of living in the US.
When talking about Chinese students studying aboard, number matters. But what matters more is the kind of life they are living in the destination country, especially considering the fact that many of these students are from better-off families in China and used to live a privileged life back home. Are they happy? Can they blend in?
Sadly, for many, the answer is no. A lot of oversea Chinese students are constantly struggling to find their place in a foreign country. Due to cultural differences in pretty much every aspect of life, many oversea Chinese students live in very close Chinese-only cliques – they eat Chinese food, whether home-cooked or take-outs; they watch Chinese TV shows online; they use QQ instead of MSN; they are more active on Weibo than on Twitter; they post pictures on RenRen more often than on Facebook; they play Majiang or Three Kingdoms (popular board games in China) at home instead of getting drunk at parties. In one word, they try to live a very Chinese life while in a foreign country. And when they turn on TV or open newspapers, they see China-bashing news.
Of course, there will be the “I like it all in the West.” group, but these people are also more likely to try their best to stay rather than going back to China. For the rest, studying in a foreign country opens a door for them to view both China and the West under new light. Like Minna Jia said in his interview with New York Times, “Before I came here, I’m very liberal. But after I come here, my professor told me that I’m nationalist. I believe in democracy, but I can’t stand for someone to criticize my country using biased ways. You are wearing Chinese clothes and you are using Chinese goods.”
At the end of the day, this seemingly “so no to China” students may just as well grow into a group with “China can say no” attitudes.
[Click here to see more of Chinese students' lives at Ohio University]