Last week I wrote about a puzzling new policy announced by Peking University to screen students and identify “students with radical thoughts, psychological fragility, poverty…” and other supposed difficulties and provide them with some sort of “consultation.” A few China bloggers bemoaned this as yet another example of what’s now being called the “Big Chill,” a sudden ramping-up of censorship, police pressure, and detainments of dissidents and activists.
I have a fair number of friends in Beijing who went to or still go to Beida, and I wrote them this week to ask if they had heard of the policy or if it had affected them at all. Apparently the announcement of this policy did elicit considerable criticism on Weibo微博–the Chinese Twitter.
A good friend of mine graduated from Beida’s prestigious Yuanpei college (the one department at Beida where students get to choose their own majors after entering) and is currently working as a reporter at a major newspaper. She was recently asked to go back to the school and interview teachers in students in preparation for an article about the new policy.
My friend told me that she had a hard time gleaning any substantive knowledge about the program. Faculty members whom she interviewed knew that it was a sensitive topic and were all reluctant to give information. However, she did find out that Yuanpei was apparently selected as a test site for the new policy last November. In five months, though, only three students have been singled out. All three had been identified as suffering academically, but as a result of either “serious illness” or “internet addiction,” both of which are among the other conditions the policy was meant to target. All three, she insisted, had been on the verge of dropping out of school due to poor academic performance, and had since been allowed to continue at the university.
In one of her interviews with a school official my friend discovered that this policy was not quite as new as I had been led to believe. For as long as five years, she found, professors have been obliged to hand in the names of students thought to fall into one of several “problem areas”–including politically radical beliefs, extreme poverty, and possible psychological illness–to the university’s branch of the Communist Youth League. The Communist Youth League, she was then informed, would plan hiking trips, games, and other activities for these students in an attempt to integrate them more socially–and, therefore, help to ensure “stability” on campus.
Surely the idea that Beida is keeping tabs on its “radical” students is troubling–I think perhaps we should be even more troubled by the idea that political beliefs are being considered as a category of mental illness. It’s certainly not a new policy, though, and it certainly isn’t heralding the onset of some Orwellian nightmare at China’s most prestigious (and probably most independent) university–at least not yet.
Learning about this policy has once again gotten me thinking about just how difficult it is for any of us to sort through the competing narratives on China and figure out exactly what is going on. The newspaper my friend works for is not even remotely in the business of challenging government policy. The reporting assignment came with explicit instructions to portray the university in a positive light. On the other hand, there is no denying that Western reporting on China often takes on an exaggerated accusing tone. An anecdote in the New York Times’ story about increasing digital censorship in China several weeks ago left the impression that anyone saying the word “protest” during a phone conversation would be automatically cut off–and set off a wave of Beijing expats yelling “protest” into their cell phones in unsuccessful attempts to duplicate the incident. These kinds of incidents highlight just how hard the current media climate makes it to form a complete and objective picture of what’s going on in China.