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By Steve Kelman

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China patterns: Universities, government and the Internet

I am back in China to attend an academic public management research conference and to give some lectures at two Chinese universities. (The Chinese academic year doesn't end until the end of June.)

The conference was interesting, and the quality of public administration research in China is definitely improving, though from a very low level. A real problem for Chinese public administration programs -- actually, this is probably an issue generally at Chinese universities -- is that the younger generation of scholars is much, much stronger than their elders, who often were appointed at a time when universities, much more than today, were politicized institutions that were arms of the state, and where scholars had little contact with researchers in the West.

In a Confucian society like China, where younger people are supposed to respect elders, this is an especially big problem. My impression is that the younger scholars attempt to deal with this situation partly by banding together with each other and partly by looking outwards towards the West. Chinese public administration research faces an additional problem, of course, which is that the institution they wish to study -- the Chinese government -- is secretive and generally not open to researchers. (A talented young Chinese public administration scholar I know with a PhD from an American university has spent years studying local government in the US, of all things, though he would bring incredible advantages to doing research about China, because he has not been able to get access to do research inside the Chinese government, although now he is finally trying.)

Americans who think that Harvard is an outpost of radicalism will be interested to learn that the Chinese government thinks the same about the best university in China, which the Chinese call "Beida" (short for Beijing Daxue or Beijing University, but often still rendered into English as Peking University, using the city's old English name). A student at Beida had once told me that there were Internet curbs on the Beida campus that went beyond the curbs existing generally in China -- so, for example, I have never had any problem in China accessing the New York Times website, but this student told me he couldn't access it on his computer on campus, though he could at home.

I was told this wasn't the case at other Chinese universities, the reason being that the Chinese authorities were much more worried about protests and unrest from Beida students than they were about protests from students at other universities -- Beida was, for example, the center of the 1989 Tiananmen protests. It shouldn't be surprising, perhaps, that just like universities in the US, those in China have different images associated with them. Tsinghua, often called the "MIT of China," is strong in engineering and produces a lot of senior party officials and government managers, in a country whose political leadership is as dominated by engineers as ours is by lawyers. And even today, Renmin (People's) University, one of the top-ranking universities in China, originally founded as a university for the Communist Party, still has close ties to the government, though the faculty I know there seem no different to me from those at other top universities, and I know a few students from there who are quite oppositional.

Posted on May 30, 2012 at 12:09 PM


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Reader comments

Thu, May 31, 2012 Tinghua Boston

You have a sharp eye! Very precise observation and insight~ Banding together is a pragmatic choice for well-educated young scholars, particularly foreign-trained fresh PhD. Based on my research “International Students’ Migratory Decision-making: a Case Study of Foreign-trained Chinese PhD in an Ivy League University”, more than half of interviewees mentioned that if they return to China as academia, they will return as a team or join in a professional community existing in China with other foreign-trained scholars, rather than return alone. They fear to be jealous by domestic trained doctors and unfair treatment from bureaucratic. Also, they feel uncertainty and unsecured of political stability in China. Micro-level academic environment (‘field’) is extremely important to them, so not surprisingly banding! One thing I would highlight is that they band for comfortable working style, not for leveraging extra political power. In terms of Chinese public administration research access, it depends on the researcher if he or she is “体制内 ti 3 zhi 4 nei4” (within in the party system) . When I chatted with close friends (Chinese) who graduated with MPA MPP or PhD from top world-class universities, several of them told me the lesson they learned. If you are keen in ‘make a change in China’ or want to contribute intellectually, you are better to: 1. Work with China programs in international organizations, such as UN and World Bank 2. Transfer Politic-oriented to Economic-oriented 3 if no other choice, join in the system!

Thu, May 31, 2012 Kaiping Shanghai,China

Hi,Professor Kelman, I'm delighted to see your observation article about your trip to China. I agree with you that it is a big problem that it's difficult for scholars to do some investigation about our government unless you have personal ties:) And I feel it is very important for scholars to "participate in" instead of talking about policy making in China! The Good News is nowadays more government entities invite experts to give consultation and join government performance evaluation. For example, my mentor is the expert for government performance evaluation in Shanghai and he really takes part in policy improvement. And I am lucky enough to do some researches about our government under my mentor's recommendation~~Moreover, there is an increasing trend of blog(like twitter)discussion in China. Many opinion leaders and scholars do say something about the merits and demerits of our system. It's much harder for government to control online discussion although there do exist strong Internet regulation~~~Hope next time you come to China, the situation will be better.

Wed, May 30, 2012 yang

Yah that's fair observation.

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