20 Jan 2011

'China is different': Beijing's elite students open up

“I’m an individual, so how can you judge me by my government?”. Lindsey Hulsum is in Beijing, where she’s been talking to some of China’s elite students of international politics.

Earlier this week I went to Renmin University in northern Beijing to have a discussion with some of China’s elite students of international politics – it’ll be on Channel 4 News tonight.

They were fantastic. First of all, I’d asked for a mixed group but there was only one rather hesitant young man amongst half a dozen strong, opinionated, articulate young women. He expressed a rather cautious, government spokesman-type view – they ranged over a number of views, unafraid of potential conflict.

A friend who teaches English to young Chinese recruited by multi-national corporations told me a few years back how her best students were all female. The boys, she said, have a problem being told they’ve made a mistake, or need to improve, while the girls just keep trying until they get it right. Chinese women are forging ahead in business, and some of the richest women in the world are here.

Chinese student reads her book before her exam. (Getty images)But Chinese politics are still dominated by men. Within the hierachy there are a few women –  Fu Ying, the former ambassador to London, is a rising star in the Foreign Ministry. But up there at the very top, in the politburo, it’s all men in suits, obedient appatchiks of the Communist Party.

I wonder if we might see an increasing division within the Chinese elite. Men will go into politics, rising up the ranks in the traditional way, suspicious of the outside world, while elite women will travel and interact with the world as successful international businesspeople, academics, engineers or anything else they want to be. They’re flexible, intelligent, open- minded and good linguists.

The students all felt they had to face anti-Chinese sentiment when they travelled to Europe and the USA. Twenty-two year old Cecilia Chen, who’s studying Diplomacy, spent the last three months at Warwick University in the UK where she found herself constantly challenged about human rights issues in China.

“I feel it’s so unfair because I’m an individual, so how can you judge me by my government?” she said. “I think there’s a  real gap between China and western countries because China is different.”

Nineteen year old Julie Wang, studying international politics, wasn’t afraid to criticise the Chinese government for imprisoning the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, dissident writer Liu Xiaobo. That didn’t mean she had the same opinion as most western commentators.

“I think you could force him out of China but not into prison for what he did,” she said.

We have 80,000 Chinese students in the UK. I hope that we listen to their views, because  as China becomes more powerful, they’re going to matter.  And if we don’t take them seriously, why on earth would they listen to our views on freedom of speech and human rights and all those other areas of  contention between China and the west?