Campus Life Proves Difficult for China's Little Emperors

Pampered at home, students rebel against squalid dorms and limits on their freedom




The 20-year-old Peking University sophomore sat down at her computer one day in late April and posted a poem on a university Internet bulletin board. She then walked to the top of a university building and leapt to her death. Her family later found the poem on the university Web site:

I Made a List
Put reasons to live on the left side
Reasons to die on the right
I wrote many on the right
But found little to write on the left
Not willing to imagine
Continuing to live like this for decades.

She was one of 17 college students in Beijing who committed suicide in the first seven months of this year. In September a freshman at a university in Guangdong province, in southern China, jumped from the seventh floor of a campus building. He had earlier complained to classmates about the poor quality of campus life, saying that the food was bad and that he was even unable to launder his own clothes. "I'm very sorry I cannot live up to your expectations," the student told his parents in a suicide note.

With harsh competition for a spot at the best universities, Chinese college students today face conflicting and stressful demands. Products of China's one-child policy, they are often pampered and protected at home, only to face appalling living conditions — unheated dormitories, 
poor food, inadequate washing facilities — on campus. 

They also find their intellectual and physical freedom curtailed, even as they struggle to gain independence. Few students take advantage of university counseling, which is only just becoming available on many campuses. As a result, students are increasingly rebelling against the system, and psychological problems and suicide are on the rise. 

The situation is a far cry from the student days of their parents, a generation raised on the cradle-to-grave "iron rice bowl," or system of guaranteed lifetime employment under Communism.

While this is China's first generation of college students to enjoy previously unknown freedoms — their parents had their courses of study and jobs chosen for them — the pressures that accompany these freedoms can be overwhelming.

"People are more and more concerned about the younger generation," says Myra Lu, a senior at the Communication University of China, in Beijing. "China has really changed a lot. Twenty years ago, my mom never would have imagined that her daughter would live the life she's living today. We feel we've grown up with society, and we didn't have enough time to react, no time to think."

Fang Xin, a Peking University psychologist who has been
working with college students for 12 years, says that students today are "victims of a changing society" in which parents put extraordinary pressure on their only child to succeed.

"Parents tell their children if they work hard they'll get into a better university, and if they graduate from a better university they'll get a better job, and if they get a better job, they'll earn more money," she says.

Ms. Fang predicts the problem will get worse, saying that the students who need help the most don't realize it, and never come to the psychological-counseling center. When she held a special online counseling session following the suicide of the young woman, only 67 of the university's 25,400 students took part. "I think the number of suicides will increase," she says, adding that the trend is "contagious."

Suicide is the main cause of death among people ages 20 to 35 in China, according to a July report by the ministry of health. Doctors cite exam stress, career worries, and relationship problems as the main reasons, according to news reports. In Beijing, 20 cases of suicide were reported last year.

Locking the Gates
In many ways, Chinese students today live similarly to their counterparts in the West. The pedestrian mall beside Fudan University, in Shanghai, is lined with bookstores, coffee shops, clothing stores, and small eateries. The bookstore shelves are piled high with Western works — in translation and in the original language — including Simone de Beauvoir's biography, Orwell's 1984, the recent bestseller The Da Vinci Code, and Francis Bacon's Essays.

One summer morning, just inside the main gate of the university, two students are lost in a kiss beneath a towering statue of the late Chairman Mao Zedong. A few yards away, students lie on the grass beside a small lake, reading textbooks or just chatting. A student wearing dark black-framed glasses and a T-shirt that says Linkin Park paces back and forth while memorizing a stack of notecards.

But the similarities to the West soon stop. Chinese students — both undergraduates and graduate students — must maneuver through a plethora of regulations and restrictions that students in Western countries would find suffocating.
Most university campuses in China are walled and gated to keep strangers out and, on occasion, students in. Students are required to live in dormitories, where doors are locked at a set time each evening. When thousands of anti-Japanese demonstrators marched through Beijing's university district earlier this year, anxious students could only watch from a distance. Gates at the leading universities in the city's Haidian district were locked to prevent students from joining the protest.

Secret Exodus
Dormitory conditions are dismal. Normally, a half-dozen students are crowded into one small room, with toilet facilities down the hall. Hot water turns off at 11 p.m. And with no showers in the dormitories, students have to  walk to a shower facility elsewhere on campus. "The summers are too warm, and in the winters the heat goes on too late, and you have to use a lot of blankets," complains Zhu Ying, a senior at Capital Normal University, adding that the public showers are a 10-minute walk away, a long trek on bitter winter nights in Beijing.

Lights in rooms go off at 11 p.m. (a new government regulation rescinded that policy, but colleges have been slow to comply), so students move to the lit hallway to do late-night work, sitting on stacks of books and using chairs as makeshift desks.

"We have six students in one room and three desks," says Rui Ming, a student at Nanjing University. "The space between my desk and bed is so narrow, I have to stand sideways to let someone pass by."

The conditions have led to an undercover exodus from college dormitories in recent years, despite government regulations requiring students to live on campuses. No one knows for sure how many students have moved off campus, as they must still pay for their dorm rooms, but students generally put the figure at about 10 percent — some say as high as 20 percent.

Chinese universities also have strict rules regarding relations between male and female students. Some institutions even forbid men from entering women's dormitories and vice versa. "The guard at our building has such a keen eye that even a male fly would not be able to sneak in," the official China Daily quoted a Shanghai student as joking.

Students take the restrictions seriously, and for good reason. One student was kicked out of Shanghai University earlier this year after it was learned that his girlfriend spent the night in his room caring for him when he was ill.

Last year a university in Chengdu, in Sichuan province, expelled two students who were caught on a hidden video camera while kissing on an empty classroom floor one evening. Although the girl produced a doctor's certificate proving that she was still a virgin, the university insisted that the incident was an "illicit sexual act" and refused to back down. A court case to force the institution to reinstate the students failed.

Students are critical of such policies. "It's not the school's business," says Laura Liu, a graduate student in journalism at Fudan University, in Shanghai. "You can't regulate things like this. Students have a right to have a boyfriend or girlfriend."

When two Beijing students were found murdered in their off-campus apartment last year, universities adopted an "I told you so" attitude.

Students point in turn to the case of Ma Jiajue, a senior at Yunnan University, in southwestern China, who last year hacked four of his roommates to death in their dorm room. Mr. Ma, who was very bright, came from a poor farm family. He felt discriminated against and suffered from periods of deep depression. He was executed in June 2004.

It's a Joke

Chinese students also face a good deal of political
indoctrination. In the summer before their freshman year, all students take part in obligatory military training for about two weeks. Students speak fondly of this experience, in the way that soldiers describe the camaraderie created in boot camp.

"Standing in the sun for hours isn't pleasant," says Daisy Li, a student in Shanghai. "But by the end of the training, we had formed good ties with the trainers. Some girls have tears in their eyes when they leave."

University students must also take courses each year in
basic communist philosophy, including Marxism, Mao Zedong's thought, and theories of Deng Xiaoping. Few students — or professors — appear to take those courses seriously.

"It's a joke," says Ms. Lu. "I don't know why we have to take it. One student pretends to listen to the teacher and the rest sleep, listen to music, or completely skip the class. We just memorize the night before the exam."

Students tell of teachers who are aware of the unpopularity of the courses, and who use the time to teach Chinese
history or Western philosophy.

Some observers worry that China's pampered "little emperors" are arriving on university campuses ill-prepared for the real world. Most new students have never been away from home before, never held a job, and have not had a romantic relationship.

"They were overprotected by their parents, and when they get into university they're not used to dealing with things on their own," says Ms. Liu, the Shanghai graduate student.

Some worried parents move to university cities with their college children to take care of them; some families go so far as to hire "nannies" to take care of their university-age sons and daughters.

In the case of the Guangdong student who committed suicide this fall, the Chinese news media reported that the young man's parents had planned to rent a house near the campus to be close to him while he was at the university. But when his mother told the young man the family could not afford the rent, and would instead deliver home-cooked meals to him each day, the distraught student committed suicide.

Ms. Fang, the Peking University psychologist, blames parents for spoiling their children and being overly protective.

"They're 18 years old, but their psychological age is just 8
or 9," she says of students today. "This is because Mom is always telling them, 'You needn't do anything. I'll wash your clothes, I'll cook for you.'"

Last year, Nanjing University of Science and Technology began offering 16 types of free hotel-like services in its dorms, including room cleaning, morning wake-up calls, the posting of mail, and even putting air in bicycle tires. The new services were seen as an attempt to keep students from moving off the campus. But the venture led to a nationwide debate.

The Beijing Youth Daily welcomed the decision, saying the
new services would "free students from mundane trivial matters, allowing them to focus more on academic study." But the People's Daily concluded that hotel services would actually encourage laziness and a dependent mentality among students, and accused "overbearing parents" of having kept their children "far from daily chores at home."

Loosening Its Grip

The Ministry of Education has recently begun to take steps to relax its grip on university life. It has appeared to back down on the requirement that all students live on campus when it vaguely altered the wording of the prohibition, implying that students might be allowed to choose where they want to live.

The ministry also lifted the decades-old ban on students' getting married, a move welcomed by a China Daily commentator. "It is as if an old lady is reluctantly loosening her grip on her naughty grown-up children," the commentator wrote, adding that the move was "a trend that should be encouraged." The author went on to say that excessive supervision by schools and parents limited the opportunity for students to learn from their mistakes.

Some universities were quick to capitalize on the changes. Suzhou University announced that pregnant students would be able to obtain a one-year maternity leave — a first. Fudan University said it would no longer immediately expel
students caught having sex. The university's Web site said students caught engaging in sexual relations — whether on campus or off — would be given a warning and a negative report in their school records. Students would be expelled after two warnings.

Meanwhile, the Communist Party of China, which is less progressive than the education ministry, responded to changes on the nation's campuses with a characteristic call for a heavier hand in dealing with university students. In a People's Daily article last October that announced the start of a new political campaign aimed at students, the party complained that "a number of weak links exist in the ideological and political education of college students in the face of profound changes in the international and domestic situations."

The document announcing the campaign, which had the unwieldy title "Views of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the State Council on Further Strengthening and Improving the Ideological and Political Education of University Students," also called for better control of college Web sites and the Internet. During the past year, the government has shut down popular Internet bulletin boards. At some universities, Internet usage has been restricted to people who are physically on the campus. Students have also been told to register to use the Internet with their real names, a move that no doubt has had an intimidating effect on cyberrebels.

But in the real world, students continue to skirt campus rules intended to keep them on a tight leash.

"There's no way to force a 20-year-old," says Ms. Lu. "If you want to go out every night, no one can watch you all the time. And I don't think it's necessary. We're mature enough to make our own decisions and we know what we want. If they give us too much pressure, there will be a bad reaction."


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© 2013 Paul J. Mooney