Power vs. Education In Chinese Universities

On the campus of Tsinghua University in Beijing.
On the campus of Tsinghua University in Beijing.

BEIJING â€" A few days ago, a video showing Zhou Huzhen, the board chairman of Hebei College of Science and Technology, captured the attention of the Internet. The inevitable existential questions followed: Are Chinese universites bona fide educational institutes? Or are they really there just to maintain the power of the status quo?

Zhou Huzhen was inspecting the university's freshmen just after they'd completed their beginning-of-the-school-year military training. In the video, he is seen standing on a pick-up truck emblazoned with the words "march-past" in red. By the look of things, he seemed to enjoy the attention as uniformed students filed past shouting, "Good day leader."

There have been numerous reports in recent of years of universities holding military-style parades in front of their respective directors, who stand there basking in the glory of it all. Web users can mock and criticize all they want. But it doesn't seem to discourage these university heads, who have become addicted to the euphoria of power they derive from the processions.

Military training of college kids is supposed to be part of the national defense strategy and help encourage patriotism. But over the years it has deviated from its initial purpose. Certain rectors and military instructors get to be infatuated with their sense of power. In some cases that obsession with authority has resulted in abuses â€" humiliating a group of female students, for example, by putting buckets over their heads while running; or forcing students to lie beneath blankets under the baking sun.

Nurturing refined egos

The marches and military training are obvious indicators of the power dynamics at play in China's universities. But they're just the tip of the iceberg. The real power of the universities has to do with their operating models and systems of administration.

In August, for the first time â€" and only because they were ordered to do so by the Ministry of Education â€" 75 Chinese universities published their annual accounts for the previous year. The top schools such as Tsinghua University, Zhejiang University, Peking University and Shanghai Jiaotong University all have annual accounts of around 14.5 billion yuan (nearly $2.3 billion).

Alumni donations make up very little of these universities’ financial support, and most of China’s top universities receive more than 60% of their funding for scientific research from government allocations. In other words, universities should long ago have been obliged to open their ledgers. Just like a lot of the country’s public spending, there is a marked lack of transparency and little oversight.

Meanwhile when we take a global perspective and look at how Chinese universities perform, the result is embarrassing. In August, the First-Class Universities Research Centre of Shanghai Jiaotong University published a list of the academic ranking of the world’s universities. Harvard University in the U.S. has topped the list for 13 years straight, while none of Chinese universities makes it even into the top 100.

Of course, some would argue that Chinese colleges emphasize employment-oriented practical teaching, and though we don’t have much influence academically, our students have a high employment rate.

In fact, the employment rate is often faked, and the pragmatism is embodied in utilitarian ideas, such as boasting which universities have produced the most billionaires or high officials. There is even a professor who cynically told his students, "Don’t come back to see me unless you have earned $40 million by 40 years old." No wonder some people criticize Chinese universities for being good at nurturing refined egos.

Education and the society are closely related. How the university fosters youngsters will affect both the social atmosphere and national strategy. Whether respect and authority in a university are based on who is more highly ranked in the administration and who controls the financial resources, or on one’s mastering of academic knowledge and truth, is what distinguishes administrative philosophy from education philosophy.

Only if the politicized administration is removed from Chinese universities can they move past the "power struggle" and focus again on what higher education is really about: learning for learning's sake.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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