No free speech, no political progress

In recent years, courses in public governance at Chinese universities have become a fiercely debated issue. The area of public governance has expanded on both the research and the teaching sides, and as the number of research topics has ballooned, so has available funding. As a result, many Chinese universities have expanded their course offerings on the subject. Given this trend, teachers often have little choice but to broaden their course offerings public governance, grabbing their respective pieces of the pie.

Public governance courses are offered with a mind to improving students’ acceptance and understanding of our existing political and administrative system, but in fact there’s little way of knowing what impact these courses actually have. My understanding is that most students have a strong aversion to
the courses. Those opting to take them do so only to satisfy basic requirements for the conferment of their degrees, and the teaching methods employed by course instructors are necessarily dull, constricted as they are by political necessity — if instructors attempt teach more openly and creatively, they risk “breaking with form” and are courting trouble. Instead, teachers stick rigidly to the rigid course materials.

Even more serious is the fact that the inflexible theories taught in these courses do not engender in students the idea that the study of politics is a process of truth seeking and rational exploration. Inevitably, certain precepts cannot be questioned. Facing a chasm between theory and practice, in fact, we’ve all become two faced. We engage in a kind of double-dealing, paying lip service to one set of facts and ideas, and harboring a completely different one in our hearts.

This disconnect concerns the mental integrity and health of everyone in our country, and this is an issue we should all confront.

Reforms to the political curriculum have always proceeded slowly. One important reason for this is that policy-makers in this area have their hands tied by a dominant pattern of discourse (话语模式) in our country that remains virtually unchanged. Breaking through old patterns of speaking and thinking is incredibly difficult.

For any nation, the basis for reaching new breakthroughs in political ideas is freedom of speech, freedom of thought and freedom of social and scientific research. Without these basic preconditions, it is difficult to search for new ideas.

Even more, what we need in China’s university system are courses that urge students toward a higher path of knowledge, courses that elevate the spirit. What steps we can take to create such a curriculum is a question everyone at our universities, both teachers and administrators, should actively seek answers to.

In Taiwan in the past there were the “Three Principles of the People” — the principles of nationalism, democracy and the people’s livelihood — and education in the party line of the Kuomingtang, and these were utterly inflexible. Later, however, change gradually did come and university courses grappled with such questions as what it means to be a citizen, what makes for a fair nation and government, and how to use institutions and culture to ensure that all people can live in a society with dignity.

In order to change our own system, we must gain a new understanding of what kind of society we ultimately want to build, what our value goals ultimately are, and then we must think about how to organize our curriculum, how we can create a whole new generation of citizens who are sensible and have strong characters.

Students, regardless of their courses of study, should understand why we need a government, what obligations a government has toward its people, what sorts of limits must be placed on the power of government, why we must have freedom of speech and of the press, how we can protect those freedoms, and how we can maintain a balance between social order and individual freedom.

This article was part of a five-part September 2010 series by five writers on the issue of public governance education in China, its importance and present limitations. The full series, published in Guangzhou’s Time Weekly, can be found at China Elections and Governance.

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