The cognitive dissonance of overseas Chinese students – Xiaoyu Lu
“Why were you defending an authoritarian regime?”
Tina, a friend from Comparative Politics class, asked me this as we walked out of the seminar room. We had began our graduate course at Oxford three years ago, and both carried on with doctoral research in Politics. Despite the occasional hostilities between our home countries (China and the US), we quickly became close friends and suspended the ideological differences between us. Still, her question left me half shocked and half puzzled. During the past two hours, we had been debating furiously about the “doomed future of democratization” and the “crisis of liberal democracy.” As usual, I was critical of mainstream political thought, especially any definition of democracy that delimits itself to a few institutional yardsticks, along with a tone of moral proselytism that renders democracy as a dividing battle between us and them.
Yet this critical perspective did not categorise me, in my peers’ eyes, as a cynically postmodern left-wing liberal, as perhaps it would have my European or American counterparts. Rather, I was seen as an international student who came to the “free world” from an “authoritarian regime” that once suppressed his rights of free speech. Following this logic, anything that I said against a liberal democratic regime must be a remnant from my past life, haunted by the fears and shadows of a police state and ideological propaganda. It was therefore not surprising that my reflections on Western democracy were thought to be too similar to my home country’s official clichés criticising the Western model.
As I dwelled longer on Tina’s question, I became restless. Was I defending China’s authoritarian regime unconsciously? Could I separate my national identity from my intellectual stance? And why didn’t I develop a stronger resonance with the so-called liberal world? Almost immediately, I realised I was not alone. Years of conversations with other Chinese students abroad had left me with a strikingly homogenous impression. Put simply, we are not enchanted by the West. Why do years of lived experience in a liberal democracy fail to validate, and largely shake, our belief in it? I became a double dissident, both at home and abroad – upholding scepticism of China’s system, while also finding myself a dissident of liberal democracy.
“Why do years of lived experience in a liberal democracy fail to validate, and largely shake, our belief in it?”
To explore the issue, I profiled four young overseas Chinese students who seemed least likely to disagree with the liberal democratic system. They all studied politics or social sciences in British and American universities over the past five years, showed an enthusiasm for public affairs, and blended in comfortably with local communities. When returning to China, their family backgrounds and networks did not provide them with privileged career positions, and thus they were not, at least, the direct beneficiaries of the inequalities in China’s socio-political system. According to conventional wisdom, they should have been ideal candidates to convert to liberal values. Yet they all developed a critical attitude towards liberal democracy, just like me.
In the outlines below, I trace their lived experiences abroad and at home, and identify the events that shaped their attitude. Their names are anonymized, replaced by their current professions: Banker, Functionary, Powerbroker and Journalist. (The style is inspired by Czesław Miłosz’s famous 1953 work, The Captive Mind.) In presenting this selection, I hope to illustrate the prevalence of their ideological and cognitive dissonance, but cannot claim that they are representative. Instead, I tell their stories to demonstrate a tendency to reflect, rebel and reposition one’s political attitude regardless of societies and systems that one lives in.
Banker transferred to a British university after one year as an undergraduate in China. His family had prepared to send him to the United States for high school, but back then he did not feel the urge to go abroad. It was his disappointment with China’s higher education system that changed his mind. Many of his peers were selfish careerists: some queued for hours for a public lecture, but left immediately after they signed in, because attendance was required and they only came for the credits. Banker was repelled by this egocentric pragmatism. Those kind of students, he said, were like “headless flies circulating around immediate gains” (唯利的无头苍蝇).
In the UK, Banker started a foundation course in business and economics. There, many of this classmates instead struck him as naïve and simple-minded, adopting a condescending tone in criticising China’s human rights records and political regime. At first, Banker maintained a neutral stance, but soon he started to argue with them, underlining the fact that most of them had never been to China. There was a world map in one of his classrooms, and Banker and another Chinese student realised that Taiwan and mainland China were marked in two different colours. They took this as evidence of a deep-rooted bias.
After taking courses in politics and international relations, Banker’s political attitude shifted. He rarely read news from Chinese media anymore. Intellectually he embraced liberalism and the aspiration to individual freedom. He dressed like an English country gentleman, and took up golf. He felt incompatible with the ideological orthodoxy and institutions back home, and hoped for rapid change in China.
“At first, Banker maintained a neutral stance, but soon he started to argue with them”
After five years in the UK, Banker moved to the United States to pursue a postgraduate degree in Finance. Here, his political views were shaken once more. America struck Banker as modern, but just as materialistic and socially divided as China, and not as open and adaptive to new technological developments. His holidays in China painted a different picture, of a society rapidly introducing the digital economy to transform everyday consumption and transportation. The stagnant mind and unwillingness to adapt among Americans were, in his mind, clear indicators of the country’s decline. If democratic institutions were resistant to new changes and ideas, he thought, then why cling to them?
The second day after his graduation exam, Banker flew back to China, after two years in the States. His lifestyle remained modestly European, and he refused to admit that his belief in liberalism had ever eroded. “I simply revolt against wherever I live,” he told me. Now he was leaning towards the Right again (in Chinese political terms, democratic liberalism), simply because he was back in China. “Human beings are essentially primates,” he said, “and on that ground, there should not be any difference in the institutions designed to regulate our basic needs and behaviour.”
Functionary became a civil servant in a “relatively important” Party department shortly after her graduation from the London School of Economics (LSE). She had always wanted to be part of the system, ever since I knew her in high school. Yet her career ambitions never stopped her from being critical of the regime. She ridiculed the state newspapers and analyses of international events by officially endorsed experts. She admired outspoken dissidents, for their courage and uncompromising stances. Even though she only shared those views among close friends, her intellectual disobedience against the state ideology was clear, and her silence at public Party events was a way of protesting.
The condition for any substantial change in China, for Functionary, was to be close to the decision-making core and reform the Party from within. This contributed to her comparatively objective and sober attitude towards liberal democracy. She did not hold an unquestioning admiration of it, nor did she reject it as a future direction for China. In fact, her belief in democracy as a better system in terms of accountability and rule of law remained consistent throughout her time at home and abroad.
“Rather than consolidating her commitment to democracy, the experience convinced her that the Western model could not be transplanted to China”
After graduating from a Chinese university known for its networks among diplomats, Functionary enjoyed her stay at LSE. She studied international history and settled into a life in Britain that she could have happily continued. Yet rather than consolidating her commitment to democracy, the experience convinced her that the Western model could not be transplanted to China. “Western democracy is good,” she said, “but the more you live there, the more you realise that it has a history, it has a constitutional tradition, that did not exist in China.”
Functionary did not see a multiparty system as the defining character of democracy, as factions within one political party could demonstrate a resemblance to mutual checks and balances of power. What distinguished political regimes in her mind was how they performed under the Constitution: in West they were beholden to it, while in China the Party was established above the law, with the final authority to interpret it. To change the current political condition in China, she felt, one had to return to its own history and political basis. “The real question is not about whether China is democratic,” she said, “but concerns the non-applicability of the Western system.” The West became irrelevant. Functionary submitted her application to the Chinese civil service exam while still in Britain.
Powerbroker is a political animal. It was clear from the beginning of his studies in the UK that he did not belong to the enclosed Chinese student community. Confident, ambitious, and with a gift for social networking, he was drawn to politics; yet being involved with Amnesty International and the Tibetan government-in-exile, he also dared to confront sensitive issues. He freely talked about the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and human rights violations in China, and became known for his sharp and unfettered commentaries.
To some extent, Powerbroker deliberately cast himself in this image of a liberal dissident. He met the Dalai Lama personally twice, and was involved in presidential campaigns in Latin America and the United States. He worked as a lobbyist and political broker for politicians seeking international connections and publicity, and travelled widely. His Chinese peers envied him, at the same time distancing themselves from him. Powerbroker was too politically daring to be a citizen of his own country, many of them said – he was not a typical Chinese.
“It seemed to him that among global political elites, there was no difference in their rationales”
With such exposure to Western politics and ideals, one would expect Powerbroker to uphold liberal values. Instead, his commitment to democracy faded. He found his university’s advocacy for human rights to have “more symbolic value than practical effects.” While running a college politics organisation, he often complained about the “internal politics that was equally ridiculous as the Chinese student association.” In his high-level social circles, he saw corruption, greed and struggles similar to in China, while the grassroots were just as marginalised and disempowered. It seemed to him that among global political elites, there was no difference in their rationales: they all thirsted for power. The rhetoric of democracy was lip service rather than a real preference. “Democracy was so overrated,” he quoted from the TV series House of Cards, continuing “we have finally waited for the Americans to admit this.”
Powerbroker continued to keep a close eye on politics, for his work, but his passion for a political career vanished, after realising there were no real opportunities for him either back home or as a first-generation minority migrant abroad. “Democracy still leaves room for imagination,” he told me. But it was just imagination, with little chance of success without the power to match it.
Journalist has always been an idealist. She was privileged to have an international education and the freedom to choose her own path without financial concerns. Yet for a long time she felt unfulfilled, dissatisfied and unsettled. She was strong-headed and uncompromising, frustrated by the things she could not own – and one of those things was a liberal and open society. Implanted with liberal values early on during her undergraduate education in the UK, Journalist was angered by China, and could not tolerate the “cooperative behaviours,” as she put it, of her family members towards the regime.
Graduating with a degree in politics, Journalist did not return to China but went to Africa to pursue a career in international journalism. She changed jobs three times and was based in Kenya for three years, becoming a field reporter and appearing on mainstream media in China. It was during this time that her political attitude took another shape. The politics in Kenya and neighbouring countries demonstrated some realistic pictures of newly-democratised states, and how “tribal politics persisted under the masquerade of democracy.” In relation to her home country, Journalist felt there was just as much a lack of foundation in China for the liberal democratic model, which might result in similar conditions of conflict and social inequality.
“Journalist’s anxiety was replaced with a desire to understand imperfections”
As Journalist met people from all around the world, she realised her anxiety had unique Chinese characteristics. She termed it “the middle-class burden,” for Chinese who were educated from childhood to compete with each other, expected to get top marks in everything, which implanted a mentality of competition and comparison. We applied this pattern of thinking to politics too, she said, and felt our “middle-ranking country” was falling behind in many aspects. She wanted economic growth, social equality and a democratic regime all at once, but sometimes it was just impossible to have them all. As a result, she felt the constant anxiety of unfulfillment.
When I met her in Beijing, she had made peace with herself. Journalist believed she was too quick to judge China before, but failed to understand it. “We are essentially all liberals,” she told me. “Not fighting explicitly against the regime does not mean you accept it. Call yourself a liberal in the US, and it is not like after Trump being elected you would start a revolution straightway. Instead, you would try to figure out what is going on.” Her political attitude was entwined with her own personal life, as growing tolerance of compromise at a personal level shaped her reaction towards the regime. Journalist’s anxiety was replaced with a desire to understand imperfections, and learn to live with them.
Dissent in a pluralist era
The rebellion against liberal democracy of these four individuals does not fit into prevalent narratives that portray Chinese overseas students as isolated, materialistic and politically insensitive. Their critical reflections came from genuine transnational exposure. However, does it mean that they became more nationalistic and supportive of China’s system? There is a further layer of complexity: most of the returnees I talked to insisted on their liberal values, agreeing on fundamental ideas of an open and inclusive society. In other words, they believed there was still a political gap for China to fill, but not one that followed a Western standard. This picture is perhaps troubling for both home countries and host countries, as they aligned with no particular model.
What they rebelled against was not the existence of a common value. Rather, it was the sense of superiority, the idea that there was no alternative, and the belief in liberal democracy as an orthodoxy,which they found frustrating. They became disillusioned with Western liberal democracy, because it did not live up to the promise of being a liberating force. Instead, they felt it limited democracy to a particular geography, history and set of institutions, which denied the participation of others. Their views underlined the tension between contemporary democratic values that reflect human universals, and the parochial politics that excludes so many people from claiming citizenship of a global community.
Their dilemma was how to express alternative views against liberal democracy while not being the proponents of political repression. Like me, they questioned a singular understanding of democracy, yet wanted to avoid relativism. They were hesitant to criticise the Chinese government, but also didn’t want to unquestioningly accept it. Their transnational encounters made them open to pluralism, and tolerant of multiple views and values, yet their pluralism was not always compatible with contemporary liberal democracy. Above all, they rejected that a single model or idea from another country could be the saviour for China. Rather, they are much more nuanced: double dissidents in an age of globalisation. ∎
This is an edited version of an essay written as part of the author’s tenure of a Dahrendorf Scholarship at St Antony’s College, Oxford. The full version can be found here.
Header image from pxhere.com