Chinese leadership: Harmony at the cost of diversity

Rensi Ke

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I received this interesting question about my column “Chinese education instills ‘professor phobia’ in students” which was published on Nov. 5: “If Chinese  students were expected to be subdued and obedient as you said, then I would have to assume  that things like  leadership  are also discouraged at Chinese schools.  ”

This is a legitimate suspicion from American students. Indeed, Chinese education shows less respect for the students’  self-expression.  But that does not mean that Chinese educators do not love students as much as their American counterparts. They just love students in a different way.

Teachers are trained to regard students as kids that  are incapable of making wise decisions for themselves.

Traditionally, teachers are called Shifu,  which is a combination  of the chinese characters “teacher” (shi)  and “father” (fu). Although this word is rarely used in today’s classrooms, the kinship-like relationship between teachers and students remains, as  teachers enjoy the role of substitue parents.

Real parents hold similar attitudes towards students as their agencies at school. Chinese parents enjoy regarding their children as Peter Pans but don’t enjoy seeing  them  fly to Neverland, for they  fear that without their guidance their children will die halfway.

Chinese society  tends to define young talents as students who succeed in the  test-driven educational system.  While the recent   years witnessed some Bill Gates-like young  entrepreneurs who  succeed with their business acumen  rather than book smarts,  and some  school dropouts who  rose to  fame  by publishing bestsellers, the mainstream culture  looks  at  those success stories as  rebellious aliens  rather than role models.

The mainstream culture still appreciate very much the Chinese saying that “to be a scholar is to be on top of society.” But the respectable scholars used to be obedient students  who never said  no to their teachers: and the problem of leadership lies herein.

Like many American schools, every class elects monitors. Every school  has Student Union. Unlike  many American schools, student leaders are evaluated based on how well they achieve the tasks given by teacher advisers.

There  is no student organization at Shantou University  that is  totally run by students. The intervention of teachers  is considered necessary because students are  often assumed to be “very stupid, very naive.”

Underlying the assumption is the lack of respect  for the intelligence of young people, which, no doubt, has a deleterious impact on the development of leadership. The sparks of originality  are  often put off by the fear of being considered a childish dreamer.

The drive to influence others is often replaced by the  goal of not  being picked on by peers and superiors.  Leadership in China is merely the ability to  imitate  the leadership of one’s leaders.

The highest leaders are the  most sophisticated  imitators.  They maneuver  to please all sides and conciliate conflicting interest groups. The  art of their leadership is short and simple: harmony is the premise of prosperity.

The best way to achieve harmony is to demolish differences. The encouragement of obedience in class and at home, the appreciation of conformity at work and in society, both serve the goal of establishing a “harmonious society” (a socio-economic vision raised by Chinese President Hu Jintao).

The reluctance to treat young people as independent-minded adults is therefore a logical means to the end.

It serves as a convenient strategy to foster  consensus  and reinforce “harmony.” As for diversity, it might be something to celebrate in  the 1600-student Whitman community; but for China whose population will amount to 1.37 billion in 2010, promoting diversity in China is almost as dangerous as waking a sleeping dog.

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