By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

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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