By Robert Chianese, PhD,  Emeritus Professor of English, California State University, Northridge

Alice Su’s remarkable report about repression in Chinese universities (LA Times, June 28, 2020) evoked my different experience as a Fulbright Senior Specialist at Shanghai Normal University in Fall 2007—though not completely different.

We learn from her that politics directly influence university education in China and reflect what the regime in power wants to tolerate and promote. Currently she reports how professors criticizing China’s handling of the Covid-19 virus pandemic have been shamed by authorities, fired, and worse. Professor Sun Peidong was turned in by her students for encouraging them to question conventional narratives. A banner outside Fudan University calls for institutions to adhere to principles of Chinese President Xi Jinping. And this explains what has changed since 2007.

Simply put, the reforms promised in China in 2007 have failed miserably by 2020. The shift from a more tolerant, semi-democratically inspired government under former President Hu Jintao retreated to older repressive forms of governing through current President Xi, with Mao’s dictatorial control of society back in place.

While Hu did not fully embrace the triumvirate of principles undergirding democracy—constitutional government with universal suffrage, free elections, and separation of powers—he nonetheless idealized America as a society worth emulating, at least as far as China could go along such lines.

And it did go forward at that time—allowing voting for non-party members, permitting private practice lawyers, rooting out pervasive corruption and support of investigative journalism, freer use of cell phones, and a more enlightened process of officials choosing a successor. There was also the happy prospect of China showing off on the world stage for the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

I taught three courses—American Literature, Critical Theory, and Environmental Literature, this last to graduate students. The Environmental Lit course focused on current ecological issues in American society, such as pollution, land preservation, and people’s relationship to nature through literature and how that defines individual American character.

Since the Three Gorges Dam was receiving plenty of public comment in China itself as a potential environmental disaster, I assumed we could discuss it openly, and we did. Students knew how it could imperil the surrounding areas through dam quakes, landslides, an increase of waterborne disease and a decline of biodiversity. There was a photographic exhibit of its promise and its dangers, but most unsettling was the government displacement of over one million people along the route of the Yangtze River. Students condemned and lamented that.

However, the large human-built Huangpu River running right through central Shanghai was brown-gray with industrial pollution and depleted oxygen, but few would discuss its sad state. Excursion boats gave tours along it to view the scenic vistas of the city. I walked down to its edge and saw a dead waterway churning with commercial and industrial boats, a few small fish edging its shore in the shallows. Either this river was too close to home, or the government had not itself opened the door to criticism of it, so students took their cues from authority and said nothing.

Finally, I puzzled over a remarkable similarity on answers to an essay question on the Critical Thinking final exam. A strange group-think manifested itself in most of the students. Here’s my diary entry from those times:

In the Critical Thinking course, I got the undergrads to be comfortable with rebutting editorials translated into English from Chinese newspapers. For the final in-class essay exam, they had to rebut an editorial they had not seen in advance. They did fine–they write really well by the way–yet nearly all the forty essays rebutted it in the same way, using the same ideas and even the same phrasing.

            How had this happened? How did an exercise in encouraging independent critical thought result in near total conformity of response? I cannot answer this. I can only say, perhaps the Chinese mind itself can function as a kind of collective entity and that the students “channeled” that collective in devising each individual answer. Or, perhaps their cultural and longstanding dedication to the value of “harmony” in all things produces not a dull sameness but a choral resonance of ideas that speaks with a collective coordinated voice.

However, now I conjecture that longstanding control of individual thought through any rigid ideology actually produces what we might call a lingering collective unconscious. Based on a personal desire for conformity, harmony, and cohesion, students expressed these values central to Chinese culture and produced similar conformist thought in essays encouraging creative thinking. Following any authoritarian program, particularly Mao’s strictures, can carry over into periods of relative freedom that may characterize the time I taught in China, which resulted in the essays echoing each other.

Alice Su’s report about the crack down on professors and universities themselves through the re-imposition of a warmed-over Maoism suggests that this group-think will endure for new generations even as we expect a more modern China to open itself and its students to a wider, more ecumenical, creative world.

Our own society needs to mentor its own consciousness as ideologies these days seek to control what can become a collective captive mind.