In a rare alignment of the political stars, next month the world’s two largest economies both face changes in leadership. On November 6, the U.S. will hold presidential and congressional elections, and on November 8, the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party will begin a once-a-decade passing of the reigns of power in the world’s most populous country. Americans are used to a full-throated debate over our political institutions: From op-eds that decry the influence of money in politics to civics lessons on the electoral college, political discussion is nearly impossible to avoid. What might be more surprising is that in China—a country known in the West for tight limits on political speech—there are places you can go to find active debates that look remarkably similar to those in the U.S., as long as you’re a university student.
China’s censorship regime is alive and well, but some citizens find a way to talk politics nonetheless. One such person is Liu Yu, a young professor at Tsinghua University who teaches classes on American and comparative democracy. Her classes are open to the whole school and are so popular that students have had to stand in the aisles of her hundred-person classroom. “Most students in China are taught, either by school or the whole national propaganda machine, about how bad—or at least unnecessary—liberal democracy is for China,” Liu notes. But in her class, most appear to be “quite liberal.” In one exercise, she asked students how they would decide the U.S. Supreme Court Case Snyder v. Phelps, in which the father of a fallen soldier sued the Westboro Baptist Church for protesting tolerance of homosexuality near his son’s funeral. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011, which ruled that the protesters should be immune from suit because of the fundamental importance of freedom of speech. It turns out that Liu’s students agreed. “Most of them actually chose to let this vicious Phelps have his freedom of speech,” she recounts, “even though the message he conveys is quite malicious.” The students’ votes presented a stark contrast to the standard operating procedure of the Chinese government, where harmony is a justification for constant, sometimes violent, censorship.
It’s unusual for college students to feel so free to share diverse political viewpoints. “Higher education and education in general is kind of an extension of politics,” says Liu Xin (no relation to Liu Yu), a philosophy professor at Sichuan University. It’s hard to imagine a place where the politicization of universities is more explicit than in China: Schools have a mandate to pass communist ideology on to China’s next generation; teams of censors sit in on classes; party-trained professors lead courses in Marxism; students inform on teachers whom they think are too liberal. Earlier this year, China’s soon-to-be president, Xi Jinping, called on propaganda officials to increase indoctrination at the college level before the major transition in Communist Party leadership planned for this fall. Such efforts include cracking down on student demonstrations, intensifying censorship, and trying to recruit more young teachers into the Communist Party. In a regime that sentences dissidents to house arrest, prison stays, and forced labor, not making tenure is the least of a professor’s worries if she voices dissident opinions.
But some other professors have developed tactics to enable candid conversations. According to Liu Xin, “If you want to discuss topics on a philosophical level, a deep level, you have enough freedom.” On the Internet, Chinese bloggers use homophones of politically sensitive words in order to avoid automated censorship software. In scholarly writing and in the classroom, professors cloak themselves in the jargon of political science and philosophy. A familiar list of topics—Tibet, Taiwan, single-party rule—are more likely than others to get a professor into trouble and demand extra caution. But one professor at a provincial-level university says he isn’t too worried about censors; when they come to his class, he modifies his lesson plan to lean heavily on academic English vocabulary, and the teams simply can’t follow the lecture’s content. The government, says Liu Xin, is mainly worried about an essay’s or lecture’s capacity for mass influence: “If you use terms that general people can understand,” he cautions, “the censorship is very severe.”
Liu Xin and Liu Yu are both motivated by a void they see in their students’ lives. “Young people do not have very many opportunities to think deeply,” says Liu Xin. China’s college entrance exam is notorious for depriving the nation’s students of free time and schools are focused on preparing students for them; some schools allow just one day off per month for relaxation. In the meantime, China’s youth are constantly exposed to official propaganda—“Putting people first!” “Building a harmonious society!”—everywhere from subway advertisements to schoolyard loudspeakers. It’s not until college, Liu Xin argues, that they really get the opportunity to “train their brain” for social criticism.
For Liu Yu, serious discussion of fundamental political principles is key to China’s future. “In a way, China now is like the 18th century of America or Europe,” she says. “You’re at a crossroads, you’re in a place of encountering all different possibilities.” She worries that the Internet, often considered the home of Chinese liberal dissent, is more conducive to rumors and polarizing disagreement than real debate. In China’s academic circles, discussions abound over how China’s political institutions could improve. The ideas on the chalkboard range from complete laissez-faire capitalism to new forms of communism, including institutions inspired by traditional Chinese thinkers like Confucius or Mencius that don’t easily fall into Western political categories of left- or right-wing.
Liu refers to these issues as those that China will face “when”—not “if”—it democratizes. “Chinese toleration of this kind of arbitrary politics, arbitrary government, is becoming less and less,” she argues. “The current system is becoming more and more vulnerable and defensive.” It’s a bold claim, and not one that all her peers agree with. China’s government spends more on domestic security than on its military, and crackdowns in preparation for November’s change in leadership illustrate the Communist Party’s willingness and capacity to intimidate those who threaten its power. Only a small portion of Chinese society sits in classes like Liu Yu’s or Liu Xin’s, and professors in such circumstances rarely claim to have a significant influence. But in anticipation for the day China sees political reform, Liu is training her students to think not just about the advantages of democracy but also its challenges. China’s problems—environmental degradation, ethnic tensions, intense inequality—will not simply go away if its citizens get to vote. For Liu Yu, the question isn’t just whether China will democratize: “It’s how much democracy can solve.”