Letter Two

As I traveled from the grand metropolis of Shanghai to the growing city called Kunshan, I listened to the sounds of modern China. Cars beeping at a busy intersection, the wind as the high-speed rail approaches the station, an automated voice on the public bus announcing the next stop: Duke Avenue.

When I stepped onto the campus of Duke Kunshan University, my first impression was that I had entered an expanded version of Duke’s West Union. I was surrounded by glass; the wall of the main café looked the same as what you may see sitting at a table at ABP. But with a pond filled with lily pads and a Chinese curved-roof building as the courtyard centerpieces, there was a certain East Asian touch. The campus store carried green tea flavored Pocky instead of your usual barbeque Lays. The cafeteria served better Chinese food than “Western food”; no Panda Express here. The closest McDonald’s was a 30-min drive away.

As a place where East meets West, a lot of people (including me) who are interested in East-Asian affairs or US-China relations find this campus the perfect place to do research. Before I even got here I had already connected with one friend who is doing community-based research for DKU, exploring Chinese perceptions of liberal arts education, and another who is looking at education policy and studying the implications of universities like DKU.

By “universities like DKU” I’m referring to universities that are built in China as a result of American universities partnering with Chinese universities. In this case, its Duke University and Wuhan University. NYU similarly partnered with East China Normal University of Shanghai to create NYU Shanghai. As DKU entered its second phase, creating an undergraduate degree program, leaders from both Duke and Wuhan came together for a signing ceremony.

I noted that besides President Brodhead and the president from Wuhan University, Chinese government officials, including the Mayor of Suzhou and the Jiangsu education secretary, also expressed their approval and excitement for DKU as a project. Here is some of what I wrote down:

  • preparing students w/a global education
  • philosophy of individualism, promoting free, creative thought
  • global education is good for the economic development
  • import the Duke model and build on it

It makes a lot of sense that the comment about global education being good for economic development came from one of the Chinese officials. China has a habit of adopting practical ideas it finds in the West and adapting them to still maintain their so-called “Chinese-values.” I think that’s why foreign universities are not allowed to build independent branch campuses in China without partnering with a Chinese university. What “Chinese-values” actually are, I will try to address next week.

At first I was surprised because a western education seemed to threaten the general acceptance of government control of information and speech. But from this somewhat flawed sentiment alone you can tell that I still tend to operate on the assumption that freedom is binary. I’ve spent my whole life equating freedom to western liberalism, and it’s a hard habit to break.

When I spoke to the students at DKU, I found this assumption seeping through in my interviews. Even in introducing myself and what I hope to address, the Chinese students have already made a reasonable assumption about me as an American researching a topic that involves media censorship. It doesn’t matter that I look like all the other Chinese nationals on campus.

In one notable incident, the moment I said I wanted to talk about personal opinions of the government’s control of media and information, one student’s immediate response was exasperation: “Americans love coming to China to talk about censorship. That’s what you care about, not what Chinese people care about. Aren’t you guys tired?” * He said it jokingly, but he had a point. His exasperation is exactly what I find intriguing. Chinese people like him are sick of Western democracies trying to give Chinese people rights when they would rather care about how to further develop the economy and raise national standards of living.

But then again, as a student who has the opportunity to study at DKU, and who is relatively fluent in English, he is not as limited by government controls of media. As I’ve learned through many interviews, the firewall is not especially strict. VPN’s are available, if only to access academic papers from foreign universities or watch a Youtube video, but only if you have the circumstances to know what VPN is, and how to use it. And if you know English, you can access foreign media and readily access information that cannot be shown in Chinese search engines.

I often ask, do you think this is necessary? Many have answered that those without educations do not have the rationale to discern truth from fiction, and will easily cause unrest through the irresponsible spread of rumors and hearsay. Thus, government limitations are needed, if only to keep those who are uneducated in the dark. It’s for their own good, and it’s for societal good.

This has been an area of confusion and discomfort for me. If the uneducated are more easily limited in terms of access to information, they are also more limited in what views the can express, right? I’ve been talking to some of the more privileged parts of society, and I wonder what kind of opinions I would hear if I went into rural China and tried to talk to people about censorship there.

I was advised to stay away from speaking to random people for fear that they would report my project to the party organization. I made the decision before beginning this project that I would be safer speaking to university students because it would be easier for them to understand that I was not inherently insulting the communist party just because I want to talk about censorship. But perhaps that decision required making the same assumption about the uneducated rural population that censorship is targeted towards that I’ve heard from the students.

*roughly translated from Chinese

Lucy Dong is a T’20 Undergraduate and a member of Team Kenan. She also participated as a 2017 Kenan Summer Research Fellow.

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