At Prestigious Peking University, a Debate Over the ‘Chinese Dream’

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Last June, China’s leader Xi Jinping visited Peking University, the country’s premier academic institution. Addressing students from the school of archaeology and museology, Xi, who was then China’s Vice President, gave a boilerplate speech, encouraging the students to study hard and work at “party building,” the curious term used by the ruling Chinese Communist Party to describe efforts to perpetuate its own power.

On April 28, the undergraduate league of the students whom Xi addressed last year returned the favor with a letter to the new Chinese leader. In their missive, they reported on their efforts to educate themselves — a process that has apparently proceeded swimmingly — and expressed their ardor for Xi’s new political slogan, the Chinese dream. The catchphrase, which is designed to unite the Chinese people at a time of economic uncertainty and growing social unrest, has been widely covered in the state media — even if few are sure exactly what it means. This month, Xi sent a letter back to the Peking University students, encouraging the students to “cherish their glorious youth, strive with pioneer spirit and contribute their wisdom and energy to the realization of the Chinese dream.”

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But far from instilling patriotism in the hearts of Peking University students, the Chinese-dream letter campaign has instead raised questions about the august school’s ethos. Founded in 1898, Peking University has played a crucial role in China’s recent history. Early last century, the school served as the headquarters of a cultural movement aimed at disseminating democracy and science across the nation. In 1919, Peking University students helped drive the May Fourth anti-imperialist movement. During the 1989 pro-democracy Tiananmen protests, Peking University students were again on the forefront of dissent; the university’s students were among those killed by government troops during the June 4 crackdown.

But since 1989, politics have become a harder sell at Peking University, with minders on alert for any antigovernment sentiment. Instead, party cadres have focused on instilling proper communist fervor in these elite students. On the afternoon of May 3, when Xi’s return letter was sent to the university, administrators held three different meetings to properly convey the spirit of Xi’s letter. Then on the morning of May 4, the 115th anniversary of Peking University’s establishment, the school held another meeting, catchily entitled “The forum held at Peking University to study and implement General Secretary Xi Jinping’s reply to all the students of the school of archaeology and museology, Peking University 2009 undergraduate mission branch.”

The news about the May 4 forum, held on the very day that is linked to one of China’s most cherished reform movements, quickly spread on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like microblog service. (Twitter is banned in China.) Online commentators mocked the sycophantic campaign and lamented that Peking University had lost its independent, politically edgy character. “How servile PKU is,” wrote one Weibo user, using the university’s initials. “PKU is not the old PKU anymore.”

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Students and alumni too were incensed. “This really crossed the line,” says Hearst Ho, a 21-year-old student at Peking University. “For the university’s party cadres, the whole thing may be completely normal, but for Peking University itself, this is nothing but a humiliation.” Some alumni were spurred into action. Huang Yun, who studied ethics at Peking University from 2002 to ’06, wrote an open letter criticizing the school’s role in promoting Xi’s China dream. “When I saw the news, I felt it was really disgusting,” says Huang. “I thought we should do something more than just jeering online, so I decided to issue an open letter, telling the PKU party cadres openly that underlings fawning over their superiors is not suitable at Peking University.”

On the evening of May 5, Huang issued the open letter on her Sina Weibo account. “As graduates of Peking University, we are deeply shocked by our alma mater’s political flattery,” the letter opined. Says Huang: “In my opinion, the essence of Peking University’s spirit is independence and freedom of thought. By issuing the open letter, we hope we can arouse people’s memory of the old PKU spirit.”

As the letter circulated on Weibo, 75 other Peking University graduates joined the original signatories. Following the predictable pattern of censorship on Sina Weibo, the document was quickly deleted from Huang’s Weibo account. The university’s party cadres sprang into action as well. On May 10, Huang got a message from her school’s communist minders, asking her to “understand” what Peking University did and stop politicizing the incident.

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Huang, who is now a postdoctoral fellow at Nanjing University, says she does not have expectations of dramatic change resulting from the open letter. But at a time when Chinese society is becoming more political — with ordinary people expressing dissatisfaction with everything from the rich-poor gap to environmental woes — she’s committed to encouraging introspection within the Peking University community. “The business of politicians is politics, not acting as the citizens’ spiritual guru,” she says. “However in China, when someone becomes a political leader, he automatically gains a qualification as the whole nation’s mentor. If we Chinese cannot change this, we will always be spiritual slaves.”

And what does Huang think of the Chinese dream itself, Xi’s political slogan? “If there is a China dream, it should be freedom,” she says. “But it is a dream we still have not realized today.”

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