Centennial celebration of Tsinghua University turns arena of politics, meets criticism from and controversy over its alumni
April 28, 2011Jing Gao3 CommentsCCTV, Communist Party, Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping, Education, Great People’s Hall, Higher education, Hu Jintao, Jackie Chan, Liu Shaoqi, Mao, MIT, Politics, premier, Red Guards, Tsinghua University, Wang Guangmei, Xi Jinping, Xinwen Lianbo, Zhu Rongji
Last Sunday, Tsinghua University, one of China’s most prestigious institution for higher education, celebrated its 100th birthday.
Tsinghua University is famous even around the global as a factory for engineers and scientists, many of whom head directly towards the United States after graduation. Often called “the MIT of China,” Tsinghua ranked the first on the list of sources of bachelor’s-degree holders who earned natural-science or engineering Ph.D.’s at American institutions in 2006, even ahead of Cornell University and University of California at Berkley.
However, Tsinghua is more notable as a cradle for politicians in a technocracy that depends on engineers to build the infrastructure. 250 of its alumni are or were heads of Chinese universities. 480 are or were officials at or above the provincial/ministerial level. Chinese president Hu Jintao and the heir apparent Xi Jinping also graduated from Tsinghua.
Priding itself on the large and elite pool of students, Tsinghua took the grand celebration to another level. The campus was decorated with flying colors. On the outside walls of each and every school building hangs banners that read “Welcome to the alma mater, alumni!” A massive stage was built on campus for an evening song-and-dance. Nobel laureate in physics Chen-ning Franklin Yang and Jackie Chan, among other celebrities, were invited to the gala and held the stage.
A joke said that Tsinghua’s centennial celebration has too many alumni to accommodate that it is suggested those who are lower than the bureau level in the political realm, who owns less than ten million as an entrepreneur, and who hold no professorship as faculty not return to the university and instead make do with a meal in any little parlor outside Tsinghua’s western gate for the reunion.
A convention marking the centennial anniversary of Tsinghua University was held in Beijing’s Great People’s Hall. A star-studded line-up of politicians, academics, presidents of world-class universities and business tycoons – including six of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee – joined over 8,000 people in the meeting. The way the hall was fixed up looked almost identical to that of the annual “two meetings.” The banner hanging from the second floor of the auditorium reads, “Thoroughly apply the Scientific Outlook on Development, accelerate construction of a world-class university, strive to train socialist builders and successors who have all-round attainments in moral, intellectual, physical and aesthetic education.” Netizens were flabbergasted, “This is not a celebration of a university. This is a Party Central meeting.”
Among those who showed up for the celebration was Kuai Dafu (蒯大富), a high-profile rebel leader during the Cultural Revolution. A industrial chemistry major enrolled in 1967, Kuai Dafu led multiple Red Guards revolutions. Some people say that in Tsinghua’s 100 years of history, two years belong to Kuai Dafu.
During his study at Tsinghua, Kuai Dafu denounced several communist leaders at public meetings, including Liu Shaoqi, then head of state and Mao’s biggest rival within the party, Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader after Mao’s death and economic reformer, and Bo Yibo, father of the political wonder boy Bo Xilai. In order to inveigle Wang Guangmei, wife of Liu Shaoqi,out of their domicile, he telephoned Wang, claiming that her daughter had been hit in an accident and was in hospital. Soon after Wang arrived, his Red Guards detained her and forced her to do self-criticism in front of a huge crowd.
From April to July 1968, Kuai Dafu called on his Red Guards to fight another Red Guards group at Qinghua University, seeking control of the university, which was later called the hundred-day battle at the Tsinghua University. 13 were killed in the conflict, more than 400 were injured, including over 30 were permanently crippled.
The legendary Kuai Dafu was sentenced to 17 years’ imprisonment after the end of Cultural Revolution. However, Tsinghua students surrounded him on seeing him at the celebration and asked for his autograph.
Zhu Rongji, former Chinese premier, also went back to Tsinghua for the event. As a Chinese politician, he enjoyed a great reputation for pragmatism and relentless effort to fight corruption and push economic reform. He had been maintaining a very low profile since he left the office in 2003. However, at the meeting with students last Friday, the Tsinghua alumnus made jaw-dropping remarks.
Zhu Rongji said CCTV’s commentary that China will lead the world in auto-making is bullshit. “Every evening from 7 to 7:30, I must watch Xinwen Lianbo (CCTV primetime news) to see what their bullshit is,” he said. China Central Television is admittedly a mouthpiece of the Communist Party.
Then he harshly criticized Chinese higher education system, saying that the policy of aimless expansion of college enrollment is a mistake, and that the the State Medium and Long Term Program on Education Reform and Development devised by the government is full of empty talk.
At the meeting, he showed one yellow-covered book to the students and strongly recommended it. “The book is praised by many dissidents abroad,” he said. He said the purpose of giving away this book as a gift for Tsinghua students is to encourage them to have critical thinking and judge the book by facts. Will the Boat Sink the Water, subtitled The Life of China’s Peasants, is banned in China since its publication in 2006 for its unflattering and hard-hitting exposure of corruption in politics and life of downtrodden Chinese peasants.
The celebration turned into a free-for-all where the powerful put on a show, the retired voiced discontent with the present and the forgotten staged an unapologetic comeback. Students basked in festivities and stardom. One young iconoclast, however, dares to stand up against her alma mater and her classmates.
Jiang Fangzhou, a writer with published works and a junior student at Tsinghua’s journalism school, wrote an open letter, in which she challenged her politically correct contemporaries’ ossified stance and vested interest in the system. Ministry of Tofu has translated excerpts of her letter.
In freshman and sophomore years, I liked to grab people and talk about politics. Of course, often times it was I who kept relating the fragments and pieces of horrible information I read online or heard from banquets. My classmates always restlessly looked around as if they were hoping people would extricate them from the trouble. In the worst cases, they would force a smile and say, ‘That’s China.’
I was curious then. One’s 20s should be the age of susceptibility to politics. Purely anatomically speaking, one should be at least a little stimulated and thrilled. But they were so nonchalant or daunted. What then often jumped out of my mouth was, “What are you afraid of?”
Now I have found that they are not nonchalant. It’s not that they don’t care. It’s just that they defend their government of their own accord as if it were legacy that they are about to inherit.
I once witnessed how student cadres do things, and I dealt with those who have, by educational and worldly standards, achieved success at a young age. They accept all values imparted by the university without qualification, boast of being the mainstream. They will be unshaken or undoubting for a hundred years. They make use of their diplomacy and rules much better than their predecessors. Those who succeed become rulers. Those who fail become ostracized.
Sometimes, when I see them talk about “mainstream values” in class or at a meeting non-stop, I say to myself, “It is terrible that they really believe in these.” Then after a while, I felt a chill, “They actually don’t believe in these, which is even more terrible.”
Naivety and maturity, fatuity and sobriety, purity and complexity, ignorance and pretense of innocence with knowledge, I cannot tell which type they are or which type is more fearful.
However, they are right there, no matter you can or cannot tell. My classmates, my elite classmates, will surely be the pillar of the society, the major component of the academia or the bureaucracy, and wield great power of granting life or death.
Liu Daoyu, former president of Wuhan University, said, “The entire celebration did not stray from its traditional model – making a big fanfare, inviting dignitaries to the show, and pulling out all the stops to sing praises and showcase strengths.” Gong Xiaoyue, Former editor-in-chief at Xiaoxiang Morning Post even said that the centennial celebration is “a feast of power, a carnival of sycophants and a convention on how to succeed.”