The first Chinese overseas student is Rong Hong, who went to the US to study in 1847, first at Monson Academy, then at Yale. Since then, more Chinese gradually studied abroad, with the first surge appearing at the turn of the 20th century. Back then, China was in a difficult transition period from the late Qing Dynasty to the republican period, marked by foreign humiliation and domestic suffering. But it was also an age of awakening. Hundreds and thousands of Chinese students went to advanced countries like Great Britain, Germany, France, America and Japan to study all sorts of matters. They brought back visions of modernity, which included not only Western technical knowledge, but also society, politics, laws and culture, bestowing great hopes on the modernization of China. They acted like a bridge which connected China to the outside world, and made important contributions in arousing Chinese people’s wake to overthrow the corrupt Qing Dynasty, establish a republic, abolish obsolete traditions, and modernize and strengthen China.
Today, it is fashionable to talk of China as the next superpower. With the shift of power from the West to the East, the special position of Chinese overseas students has also eroded. Perhaps they are no longer needed as saviours of China. They might even need to rely on China’s glories. But beyond China’s economic rise lies authoritarian politics, rampant corruption and mounting social problems. However, the current generation of Chinese overseas students see little interests in making things better. In a few recent articles, Beijing writer and FT Chinese columnist Xu Zhiyuan, and prominent Hong Kong writer Tao Kit, have portrayed them as a confined community, predominately interested in enhancing their personal careers while showing little interests in Western ideas and cultures. In other words, they fail to act as agents of change in China, quite unlike their predecessors.
A confined community
Drawing on his exchange experience at Cambridge University during 2009-2010, Xu Zhiyuan described in FT Chinese how Chinese students in Cambridge live in their own confined world, showing little interests in things around them:
The largest overseas student community in Cambridge is Chinese. Counting in the sixth formers and visiting scholars, it includes nearly 1,500 people. They are numerous and everywhere, but are invisible in Cambridge’s public life. In Varsity, the largest student-run paper in Cambridge, I seldom see their news. I am not familiar with the overly-rich student activity scene, but I rarely see a Chinese face, whether in the theatre showing the tragic life of Alan Turing, in bookshops, or in the cinema screening the great famine of Ukraine. It is also apparent that Chinese students here are not interested in making their voices heard, even when the world media is hotly debating about China.
These Chinese youth live in a new kind of confined life. New technologies and open information have liberated but also destroyed them. Armed with Skype, emails, MSN, Facebook and Youtube, they live a tribal life. Even though they are in Cambridge, they will not miss any popular TV series in China, or the latest film If You Are The One. For them, Britain is just a temporary background. They neither have the ability nor the interests to express their views on Britain or the world. Meanwhile, the rise of China affects them in another way. They no longer view themselves as a progressive force which will improve China. Conversely, they strive to integrate themselves into the current Chinese order. The internal logic of the rise of China has also forced its way into their lives. Three decades of successful commercialism and consumerism is accompanied by political stagnation and incompetence, and a noisy and coarse culture.
In addition to a lack of interests in the world outside, Tao Kit also pointed out in Hong Kong’s Next Magazine the narrow visions of Chinese overseas students, who are only interested in pragmatic subjects like engineering, finance and commerce, rather than the arts and humanities:
The scope of subjects studied is narrower. Late Qing scholar Shen Jiaben studied law in Britain. He returned to China and tried to reform the legal system based on the British model. At least, he abolished many inhumane corporal punishments. Zhu Guangqian of the republican era went all the way to Edinburgh to study aesthetics, and became a great master after returning to China. While Jeme Tien Yow studied engineering in America, Sun Yat-sen read medicine in Britain, and Liang Ssu-ch’eng studied architecture in the US, at least, there were those who chose to study law and aesthetics in order to enlighten the minds of Chinese.
Today, business administration, finance and technologies are the hottest choices among Chinese overseas students. Who would choose to read Latin or arts history? […] A century ago, Chinese decided to study overseas so that they can contribute to the nation, akin to the spirit of Fukuzawa Yukichi [one of the founders of modern Japan]. Today, Chinese overseas students only care about finding a good job, while the Chinese Communist Party only believes in GDP. […] How can Westerners not view them merely as a group of consumers?
The US public believes that young Chinese students are particularly good at maths. This is a prejudice brought about by the bias in subject selections. Westerners only know that the Chinese are good at engineering and sciences, but not arts and humanities. This is just like how Hollywood views Chinese movies – it is Chinese kungfu rather than romance that is recognized. This is because Western audiences don’t believe that Chinese can be romantic.
Overseas Chinese students are well placed to bridge the ideological divides between China and the West, and lead social progress in China. But, unlike their counterparts a century ago, they have failed to do so. In another article on FT Chinese, Xu Zhiyuan explained why, and set out the political implications:
When Hu Shih returned to China in 1917, he said to his friend who welcomed him in Shanghai, ‘now that we are back, everything will be different.’ He was referencing Erasmus Darwin’s famous sentence. This was the confidence of Chinese overseas student at its height. They acted as a bridge between Eastern and Western civilizations, shouldering the responsibility to introduce new ideas, technologies and organizations into the Chinese society. In one of his later articles, Hu Shih wrote, ‘we always carry with us new insights and a critical spirit. They could not be found in a race so indifferent and used to the existing order, but are absolutely essential for any reform movements.
Those ‘new insights’ and ‘critical spirit’ often enjoy bad luck. They are swamped by the inertia of Chinese people. Their ambitions, anxiety and constraints are exactly the characters of China itself. But no one can deny their importance. In between the enormous gaps between China and the West in terms of power, wealth and knowledge, they act like transmission belts. However, the tragedy lies here – they are just that. Facing external pressures and internal weaknesses, they never develop their self-determination and value. Their roles are functional – they can build railways, chemical factories or new buildings. But their influence is only limited to the surface of the Chinese society. They are too eager to be useful. They may be noble hearted, aspiring to save the motherland; they may also be calculating, seeking personal successes.
20th century China was just like the Soviet Union criticized by Andrei Sakharov: ‘our society must gradually find its way out from the dead end of non-spirituality. This non-spirituality is killing the possibility of development, not only spiritual, but also material.’
Generations after generations of Chinese overseas students rushed in to join the rank. They helped new China to acquire missiles and hydrogen and atomic bombs, and were recognized as national heroes. But how many of them have followed the line of Andrei Sakharov to question the meaning and value of these actions, and their relationship with the profound suffering of this race? The ability and knowledge they learned from the West turn out to be tools of oppression and illusion directed toward their fellow countrymen.