How we fail our Chinese studentsRoundup
tags: education, China, protests, Hong Kong
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of “The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America,” which will be published next year by Johns Hopkins University Press.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve written several columns supporting protesters in Hong Kong. And each time, my in-box fills up with angry messages from Chinese students in the United States. Hong Kong is threatening the unity and security of China, they write. And so are liberal Westerners, with their arid ideas about democracy and human rights.
But these people are themselves studying in the liberal West. Clearly, we’re not doing a very good job teaching them.
Consider the vitriol that Chinese students have recently heaped upon pro-Hong Kong voices on our campuses. At the University of California, Davis, students collecting signatures in support of the Hong Kong protests were accosted by classmates who grabbed their flag, broke the pole and threw it into the trash. Chinese students also urged university officials to cancel a campus rally on behalf of Hong Kong.
A Hong Kong activist attending Yale reports that students have harassed him online, and the university has provided him security. And at Columbia, students attending a talk by another Hong Kong protest leader stood up and sang China’s national anthem, to show their support for Beijing.
That’s their right, of course, while they’re in the United States. But it’s not a right recognized by their government in China, where political speech is closely monitored and restricted. Put simply, the Chinese students are exercising freedom to back a regime that is hostile to it.
And that, in turn, reflects a failure of the schooling they are receiving here. Our entire system of liberal education is premised on the skills and habits of democratic life: reason, civility and the free exchange of ideas. If Chinese students spend several years in the United States and decide they don’t like democracy, we must not be making a strong enough case for it.