The China Train

To sum up what I’ve learned in less than two semesters of grad school in China; Studying development in a (developing) country where censorship, hypocrisy and saving-face are embedded in daily life is like falling asleep on the 1 train from Manhattan headed to Brooklyn, only to find out when you wake up that you’re back in Times Square because in fact, the 1 train doesn’t go to Brooklyn at all — the 2 and 3 do, but they’re on the all red line. Basically, the ride was a big fat waste of time and in the end, you end up where you started but angrier.

Here’s the thing about studying development in China; it’s paradoxical. “Chinese Development”, synonymous with economic growth, means only one thing: increase of wealth. But who does the wealth belong to? Let’s sweep that question under the table…

I’m currently taking a Research Design & Thesis Writing course in which the professor warned us against choosing “sensitive” topics to research. “Sensitive” here means anything negatively related to the government. Don’t even think about bringing up the terms “democracy” and “revolution” in a dinner conversation with Chinese officials (unless you’re praising the Cultural Revolution). They’ll eat you alive and feed your bones to the dogs, and then eat them too.

My professor’s specific example of a “sensitive” topic was the Diaoyudao/Senkaku Islands dispute. She is not incorrect to say that finding objective information on the conflict would be difficult in China, and I agree that presenting such a thesis topic to a panel of Chinese professors (many of whom are party members) may arouse uneasiness, but discouraging a group of progressive graduate students of international development from researching issues that are”too sensitive” is both infuriating and laughable.

Tsinghua University is a top-ranking institution and my department is even partnered with the likes of Harvard Kennedy School — impressive, no? — but now that I’m within the institution, it is disgusting how much propaganda and image-building I see the administration feed to its students and the public. Everything looks so good on paper. Our course syllabi look awesome and our professors are famous and award-winning! But as soon as they power on those PPTs (powerpoints) and start lecturing, it’s all China Dream China Dream China Dream. Whose China Dream? Who does the China Dream serve and how? Is the China Dream realizable? These are questions that we scrape the surface of, but no real answer is ever given.

China has come a long, long way since its Opening Up, but its development path is headed in the wrong direction. And just like that 1 train, the China-train might get to the end of the line and turn right on back to Tiananmen Square.

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18 Comments on “The China Train”

  1. antonio says:

    how are you, Emily? I hope fine. Take care.

  2. annaamazhang says:

    I can’t believe it’s already been a year since I’ve been in Tsinghua. Despite the course pedagogy, I hope you are enjoying Beijing. I totally agree with your argument and I really enjoyed reading this post.. my head would not stop nodding! Good to hear you’re back on WP.

  3. Olga says:

    Hi Emily, I am a relatively new follower of the blog and was wondering if I could message you. Just had a few questions regarding Tsinghua’s program… if you’re up for it and have the time for it of course :) Enjoy your posts! Hope you get to write more often.

  4. [...] improving slowly but surely. There is a post written by Emily He I think you should read over here.    I honestly look like the Grudge. Many Taiwanese do not care for the Nationalists party and [...]

  5. Eileen黃愛玲 says:

    I like to share this post in one of my posts. I hope you don’t mind. :)

    • Emily He says:

      EILEEN!!!!!! OF COURSE I don’t mind! I see in your latest post that you’re still in Taipei, but when will you move to Shanghai officially (and obviously swing by Beijing once you’re there)?????

      • Eileen黃愛玲 says:

        The Taipei picture is an old one that goes with my writing. I am still in Shanghai, sadly. xD I live in a studio apartment for over a month.

      • Eileen黃愛玲 says:

        I am planning going to Beijing soon. :D I must!

  6. daterofboys says:

    It’s nice to see you – even though I’m sorry to read about your less-than-impressed feelings…

  7. Hannah says:

    What a fascinating point of view you have with this, Emily. It’s got to be difficult spending so much time and energy studying something that you feel so thwarted in. I never would have thought of it that way. Rant on! Fight!
    But I guess, in the end, that’s kind of the way development work is a lot of the time–one step forward, two steps back. Especially when you’re dealing with bureaucracies, corruption, etc. Doesn’t mean that it’s impossible, though!

    • Emily He says:

      The worst part about coming to grad school, though, is that I was hoping it would bring me closer to my goals/dreams, but since I started school I can’t even remember what those dreams were!!! But alas, you’re right and it’s been a valuable lesson that development work really is a frustrating field…But coming from an experienced development worker, your words are SUPER encouraging! Thanks Han…wish you were here :)

  8. lostnchina says:

    Hey Emily, so good to see your post again. I’ve a girlfriend from China who finished her PhD in the US (Urban Development) and got a teaching post at a University in Shanghai. As a professor she also complained about the “propaganda” she was subjected to during her “training” for her current position. Not to mention the old boys’ network at her school. Good to see that you’re sticking it out. I’m sure it’s invaluable experience.

    • Emily He says:

      Hi Sue!! I never thought about it from a professor’s point of view, but damn, it must be as, if not more, frustrating not being able to teach what you believe in!!! Also, all of my professors are part of the old boys’ network you mention…I’m just glad they allowed a few women to join (Of the 47 teaching staff in my department, only 7 are female and all are associate or assistant profs, not full). What does that tell you about China’s development????? I will admit that I’m learning a lot though (outside the classroom), and my classmates have convinced me to stay positive/indifferent to the impossible system. Oy!

  9. Jean says:

    Sorry to here the studies aren’t quite you expected! HOw much longer are you going to be studying?


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