- University Autonomy and the State:The Official Story
Su-Yan Pan's University Autonomy, the State, and Social Change in China offers a historical analysis of power relations between institutions of higher education and the government in China through a case study. Case studies can be extremely illuminating for complex and multifaceted issues, provided that they are approached meticulously. While Pan's book is ambitious in its scope, many relevant details are left unexplored and its methodology suffers from a serious flaw.
The third chapter of the book gives a historical overview of the social changes and changes in higher education in China from the 1840s to the early 21st century. The entire time period is divided into four parts, each one with a clear theme. For example, the Mao period (1949–76) is marked by tight governmental control of the universities, and, as a result, Pan argues that "Chinese higher education emphasized scientific, technical and intellectual competence and gave priority to the 'correctness' of political ideology" (p. 54). The later age of reform and opening-up (after 1977) saw "a gradual liberalization in state-university relations" (p. 63).
History, however, often defies attempts at such neat classification. The Mao period of rigid control of higher education was punctuated by consequential episodes of total anarchy. A well-known example is the "one-hundred-day militant struggle" on the campus of Tsinghua University starting in May 1968, when two factions of students used explosives, hand grenades, and other self-engineered weapons to attack each other without any intervention from the school administration or the government.1 The reform period after 1977 has not been one of continuous liberalization either. As early as 1980, university students in several big cities in China had waged independent campaigns for seats as deputies in local congresses, thus testing the limits of the government. [End Page 165] Such bold attempts were not possible in the 1990s and later. Throughout the 1980s, students held massive rallies across the country demanding democracy and better living conditions for intellectuals. The last such rally, the 1989 pro-democracy movement, ended abruptly with the June 4 massacre.2 By the early 21st century, state control of higher education remained decisive, as exemplified by the radical expansion of admission in nearly all colleges and universities across the country. This policy has been enforced by the state since 1998 and has seriously strained instructional resources at many schools. None of these events is mentioned in Pan's study, except for the 1989 pro-democracy movement, which is mentioned only briefly without any discussion. These events, besides being important historically, are not at all marginal to the titular theme of the book: university autonomy and the relation of the university with the state. For example, the contrast between the vibrant scene of student- and professorled organizations and rallies in the 1980s and the tightly controlled campus atmosphere of the 1990s may be symptomatic of a tightening of government control over university life and administration, an aberrant current in the general trend of social liberalization. Similarly, the bargaining, or lack of it, between universities and the government concerning such a vital problem as expansion of admission could be very illuminating for the issue of university autonomy. Unfortunately, the omission of these events from the historical overview foreshadow the more serious lapses later in the book.
Chapters 4–8 study the evolution of a particular institution, Tsinghua University (TU), focusing on the ever-changing relationship between the school and the state. It is an excellent pick considering that TU has undergone an intriguing metamorphosis in the past century—from a school originally funded and influenced by the U.S. government to one of the Chinese universities that is most closely intertwined with the technocratic upper echelon of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In fact, three of the nine members of the current standing committee of the politburo are TU alumni. Yet again, however, some of the most important issues concerning this transition are not addressed by Pan's research.
The 1952 reorganization...