Campus Life Proves Difficult for China’s ‘Little Emperors’: Pampered at home, students rebel against squalid dorms and limits on

PAUL MOONEY – The Christian Science Monitor

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
Ms. Fang predicts the problem will get worse, saying that the students
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 “contagi us.”
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
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
Most university campuses in China are walled and gated to keep
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
from a distance. Gates at the leading universities in the city’s
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,
have to walk to a shower facility elsewhere on campus.
“The summers are too warm, and in the winters the heat goes on too
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
walk away, a long trek on bitter winter nights in Beijing.
Lights in rooms go off at 11 p.m. (a new government regulation
that policy, but colleges have been slow to comply), so students move
the lit hallway to do late-night work, sitting on stacks of books and
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
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
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
women’s dormitories and vice versa. “The guard at our building has such
keen eye that even a male fly would not be able to sneak in,” the
China Daily quoted a Shanghai student as joking.
Students take the restrictions seriously, and for good reason. One
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
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
classroom floor one evening. Although the girl produced a doctor’s
certificate proving that she was still a virgin, the university
that the incident was an “illicit sexual act” and refused to back down.
court case to force the institution to reinstate the students failed.
Students are critical of such policies. “It’s not the school’s
says Laura Liu, a graduate student in journalism at Fudan University,
Shanghai. “You can’t regulate things like this. Students have a right
have a boyfriend or girlfriend.”
When two Beijing students were found murdered in their off-campus
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,
from a poor farm family. He felt discriminated against and suffered
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
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
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
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
Xiaoping. Few students — or professors — appear to take those
“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
Students tell of teachers who are aware of the unpopularity of the
and who use the time to teach Chinese history or Western philosophy.
Some observers worry that China’s pampered “little emperors” are
on university campuses ill-prepared for the real world. Most new
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
Liu, the Shanghai graduate student.
Some worried parents move to university cities with their college
to take care of them; some families go so far as to hire “nannies” to
care of their university-age sons and daughters.
In the case of the Guangdong student who committed suicide this fall,
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
day, the distraught student committed suicide.
Ms. Fang, the Peking University psychologist, blames parents for
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,
needn’t do anything. I’ll wash your clothes, I’ll cook for you.'”
Last year, Nanjing University of Science and Technology began offering
types of free hotel-like services in its dorms, including room
morning wake-up calls, the posting of mail, and even putting air in
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
more on academic study.” But the People’s Daily concluded that hotel
services would actually encourage laziness and a dependent mentality
students, and accused “overbearing parents” of having kept their
“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
that all students live on campus when it vaguely altered the wording of
prohibition, implying that students might be allowed to choose where
want to live.
The ministry also lifted the decades-old ban on students’ getting
a move welcomed by a China Daily commentator. “It is as if an old lady
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
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
two warnings.
Meanwhile, the Communist Party of China, which is less progressive than
education ministry, responded to changes on the nation’s campuses with
characteristic call for a heavier hand in dealing with university
In a People’s Daily article last October that announced the start of a
political campaign aimed at students, the party complained that “a
of weak links exist in the ideological and political education of
students in the face of profound changes in the international and
The document announcing the campaign, which had the unwieldy title
of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the State Council
Further Strengthening and Improving the Ideological and Political
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
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
But in the real world, students continue to skirt campus rules intended
keep them on a tight leash.
“There’s no way to force a 20-year-old,” says Ms. Lu. “If you want to
out every night, no one can watch you all the time. And I don’t think
necessary. We’re mature enough to make our own decisions and we know
we want. If they give us too much pressure, there will be a bad

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