CHINA isn't easy for an outsider to make sense of, especially a non-Chinese speaker living in Hong Kong, its only semi-Westernised city.
Sometimes small experiences can help explain more than masses of figures or policy statements.
Over a period of 10 days in November, I was directly involved in three events on campus here at the Chinese University of Hong Kong that point in a consistent direction.
All were related to education: jiao yu is the Chinese term, meaning teach-knowledge and raise-cultivate. That isn't unlike our Latinate term, which means lead forth or maybe bring out. Or the German bildung, growth. But in all three cases education seemed to be understood in terms quite different from these.
The first event was a lunchtime seminar. Our new research centre for human values at CUHK was hosting a series of events featuring prominent members of the local community, talking about ethical issues they face at work. Our speaker on this occasion was a well-known member of the Hong Kong legislative assembly. Her topic was the debate about democracy and values in Hong Kong and what is
Nothing could be of more importance to the future of this city. Inevitably, both the talk and the discussion afterwards revolved around the conflicting values of democracy and autocracy. The speaker noted that in the Zhao Lianhai melamine milk case pro-democrats saw the issue as one of rights, while pro-government opinion saw it as one of leniency. Transparency v efficiency. And interestingly the local students were not anti-efficiency. Singapore works better than Hong Kong, they noted. Barack Obama can't get anything done. The mainlanders were disappointed in the recent Hong Kong government decision to bulldoze a village to make way for a railway. They had hoped Hong Kong would be unlike the mainland. But they saw this as a civility issue not a democratic one.
The next evening the distinguished, Nobel prize-winning master of the college I belong to on campus held a dinner in honour of the vice-chancellor. All students attended. Everything was in English: fluent, articulate. Over dinner and in the Q&A session after the VC's speech one problem preoccupied them: competitiveness. (Other) students cared about nothing but grades. Many took courses simply because they were easy to score well in. The CV was all that mattered.
Mainlanders and local students agreed the story had been the same since they were small. Baby MBAs, nursery school diplomas, extra-curricular courses, certificates: it didn't matter what you studied, as long as you did well at it and it was on the record. The VC said all the right things about what university should be about, indeed what life should be about, but clearly competitive exams are burned into the Chinese consciousness more deeply than their subject matter.
The next Saturday we held a welcome dinner for 12 university drama teams from the mainland, Macau, Taiwan and Hong Kong. They were here to take masterclasses in Shakespeare from a visiting New Zealander. They were preparing for our annual Chinese universities Shakespeare festival, which culminates at CUHK in May, and gets a lot of publicity on the mainland, with teams from 40 universities entering this year. Of the many things we said during the welcoming speeches the one that got sustained applause was a remark that the festival isn't about winning, but about learning. Motherhood stuff, you'd have thought. In Australia or US the response would have been along the lines of "yeah, whatever". But these young people really wanted to be told this. They are funded to attend by their universities because the festival is a competition, and if they don't win, or at least place, the funding may dry up.
Three small stories over a few days. A couple of hundred students altogether, all ill at ease with the values of competitiveness or efficiency that seem to override those of education and cultivation: not jiao yu but jing zheng (compete-struggle).
This must be the most competitive society on earth. Prosperity is about winning, efficiency maximises prosperity. Even Confucian values - duty, piety, harmony - seem to contribute to the wrong side of the dilemma.
As ever we're hardly in a position to criticise. Universities in the English-speaking world are caught in the same trap, and as with us (for example, the London riots) students feel the problem most acutely.
Simon Haines is professor of English at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.