Thursday, 28 February 2013

A Century of Striving in Chinese HE: Refocusing The Daxue Blog

Last week, I am very happy to announce, I successfully defended my PhD thesis at the University of Bristol.  Far from viewing this as the completion of a major piece of work or some monumental achievement, I prefer to define this event as the completion of training for a challenging expedition that will continue through the remainder of my academic career.  Already, I can feel a change in myself: a renewed optimism about the possibility the future holds, but rather than being characterised by doubt, the successful completion of the PhD has given me the confidence that what I have to say on Chinese Higher Education and related issues is a worthy contribution to understanding both HE in China and contemporary China itself.  The difference, I feel, is not dissimilar to the transformation of Luke Skywalker that occurred somewhere between the end of Empire Strikes Back and the opening gambit of Return of the Jedi.  Obiwan* has taught me well.   

(* - Obiwan, in this case, refers to those people who have guided, supported, helped and suffered with me - and, in most cases, because of me - through this process.  They include my supervisors, Professor Susan Robertson and Professor Jeffrey Henderson at Bristol; Professor Robert Bickers of the University of Bristol and the British Inter-University China Centre; President Youmin Xi at XJTLU; Vice President Yang Minzhu of XJTLU; Professor Zhang Endi of ECNU and the Shanghai Municipal Government; President Emeritus of NYU-Poly David Chang and Cecilia Chang; Dr Sherry Sun and countless other friends and colleagues.  Of course, my greatest thanks go to my wonderful wife, Penny Ding, and to my parents, Ian and Katy Gow, and my brothers, David, Stephen and Peter.  A special mention should also go to my good friends Zhang Xiaojun, Zhang Shaofeng, Xie Qijian, Gui Fang, Holly Snape, Alan Crawford, Dan Hopper, Jon Howlett, Armida de la Garza, German Gil Curiel, Lindsay Shen, Christophe Rouillon, Carole Rouillon, Wei Shen, David Cockayne and Heather Nicholls).  

In view of this epochal event, I believe that it is now time to refocus this blog, away from speculation on developments in Sino-Foreign HE, to focus more widely on actual developments within Chinese HE.  The reasons for this are numerous, but it seems appropriate given that China itself has appears to be changing since the appointment of Xi Jinping as General Party Secretary in mid-November.  There is an unmistakeable "go-get-shit-done" approach emanating from the corridors of power that has many China-watchers and academics cautiously optimistic about the new administration.  Having spent much of the last decade in China, I have known only the Hu-Wen administration.  I was sad to see Hu and Wen go, though we know that the spirit of Hu's Scientific Development Concept will continue to permeate PRC govt policy until it is superceded by a new guiding philosophy promulgated by Xi and his new administration, though there is no indication yet of what this will be or whether it will happen during the term of the 18th Party Congress (2012-2017).  Certainly, we know that Hu Jintao, far from retiring, has merely stepped back from the limelight and that he will continue to play an important role as an emeritus leader in the upper-echelons of the CCP hierarchy.  Both Hu and Wen are now CCP grandees, just as figures like Jiang Zemin, Zhu Rongji and Song Ping have been over the last decade.  The ceaseless goal of transforming, modernizing and reinvigorating China now passes to a new generation under Xi's leadership, but with the ideational threads of the previous administration still present and ensuring both stability and continuity.  

While there is a great deal of apparent contradiction in the dual goals of, on the one hand, transformation and progress and, on the other hand, stability and continuity, such apparently divergent objectives are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  It is through this process that the PRC government and leading CCP can ensure that social transformation emerges out of previous, historical structures.  These historical structures, the social, cultural and political conventions and practices which characterise a society at a given point in time, are themselves the conditions out of which new innovations arise in response to pressing problems of the day.  As such problems are unique and specific to given historical juncture, the responses to those problems, such as the new policy developments, will necessarily lead to a process whereby the very social structures, practices and conventions which gave rise to policy innovations and national projects will themselves be transformed as a direct consequence, albeit over a long period of time.  So stability and continuity are, in this sense, fundamental and inalienable components of the Chinese approach to development.  This stands in stark contrast to the Washington consensus approach of shock economic therapy and the imposition of electoral reform in line with neoliberal values.  

Education at all levels is the centre-piece of China's strategy to develop over the next decade.  Both in terms of shifting to a consumer-driven economy and in terms of facilitating hi-tec innovation and creativity in the domestic economy.  These will not be easy to achieve, and major obstacles must be removed, not least the question of sustainability if China is to become a "moderately well off society" for all Chinese people (小康社会).  Yet this is an issue for the whole world, with developed nations having off-shored not only manufacturing to China since the early 1990's, but also pollution.  Renewable energy solutions are being pursued through initiatives t the Ministry of Science and Technology and through major projects in the elite research universities, including Project 863 and 973.  Rather than deride these efforts, we should all be wishing our Chinese colleagues in this field success in their research activities.  

This blog, then, will move to report on developments in the field of HE, drawing on wider questions relating to the challenges facing China in the immediate future and the policy responses and initiatives of the government.  

To close here, I will leave you with an exert from a book written many years ago, but which I believe could almost have been written last week.  In the context of this blog, it is a call to researchers, commentators, professionals, students and scholars interested in China to adopt a constructive approach to dialogue on the challenges facing China.  But we can see the parallels with what is written here and what is happening in 21st Century China.  This transformation of China has been going on for a century, until 1979 as a process of one-step-forward, ten-steps-back. Reading these words which resonate so strongly with the China of today, it is quite unnerving to think that with 5 years of this being written, China was plunged first into a civil war and then into a series of tumultuous events from which it took half-a-century to emerge.  On this basis alone, we should wish China, its people and its leadership continued success in their pursuit of peaceful development:

"The European in China, quite apart from interested motives, is apt to be ultra-conservative, because he likes everything  distinctive and non-European. But this is the attitude of an outsider, of one who regards China as a country to be looked at rather than lived in, as a country with a past rather than a future. Patriotic Chinese naturally do not view their country in this way; they wish their country to acquire what is best in the modern world, not merely to remain an interesting survival of a by-gone age, like Oxford or the Yellowstone Park. As the first step to this end, they do all they can to promote higher education, and to increase the number of Chinese who can use and appreciate Western knowledge without being the slaves of Western follies. What is being done in this direction is very interesting, and one of the most hopeful things happening in our not very cheerful epoch"

Bertrand Russell in "The Problem of China", 1922. 

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  1. Congrats to your successful thesis defense, Dr. Gow. So, what do you plan to do with your website, will you expand it into a rich source of China knowledge, or keep it as your personal blog?

  2. Thanks!

    I will keep it pretty much along the same lines, but with more systematic reporting on developments and news in Chinese HE. So it will really remain as a personal blog.

    More formal writing will be aimed at journals, a monograph on my thesis and book chapters etc. Also, I don't want to widen the focus too much as this would necessarily involve more content to do any one subject justice. There are already other English-language sites, such as TeaLeafNation, HaoHao Report, Lost Laowai, Chinasmack and others which cover news stories on China. And they do it better than I ever could.

    So will remain largely unchanged, though I may be writing for another forum on opportunities for students to study in China at UG, PG, doctoral and short-term study abroad. Also giving overviews of Chinese HE, institutions as a source of impartial info on study opps in china. I may well approach you to ask for info on such programmes etc at Beida.

    But I think the focus on should remain on Chinese HE developments. And hopefully build a loyal following on the basis of quality information and commentary.

  3. Thanks, I hadn't heard about TeaLeafNation, Haohao Report, Lost Laowai, or Chinasmack before, just checked them out a minute ago. Funny stuff. Shame on my ignorance.
    Good luck for your academic career! Laters!

  4. some are good. I think they are useful in terms of providing English language info on China, and I enjoy reading some stories. Perhaps not rigorous academic enquiry, but they are great in terms of demystifying China. I think they're valuable, but perhaps not for someone as well-versed in China as yourself.

    Sometimes I just like to read about China in English. It seems less like work that way!


  5. Holger Lindberg Joergensen1 March 2013 at 13:24

    I am delighted to hear the good news, Mike. Congratulations.

    I have enjoyed reading your blog so far and I am sure that your plans to refocus The Daxue are not in any way going to change that.

    I'll be happy to add and share any relevant news and information that I may come across.

    Good luck at FU.