The need for nuance

Cambridge student discusses difficulties Chinese face at UK universities


Campus politics: Heidi He

In a recent article in The Times, Heidi He talked about the status of Chinese students at British universities in the Covid-19 era.

She told the UK newspaper that students like her were facing a “vicious circle”. What did she mean?

Heidi He knows the UK very well – arriving in her teens to study at a boarding school there. She is currently an undergraduate at Cambridge University studying philosophy. In February she co-founded the Cambridge University China Forum (CUCF), a student-run society committed to fostering constructive discussion about China. Here she shares her thoughts on the current challenges facing Chinese students in the UK, talking to Olivia Halsall, who wrote our column Olivia’s Cambridge Diary over the past year.

What was the motivation behind establishing the Cambridge University China Forum (CUCF)?

China is one of the few countries that has never been fully colonised by the West. Its distinct political, philosophical and cultural heritage brings unique narratives and complex relations between the nation, regime, heritage and people. I feel it is crucial that we embrace these complexities when we talk about China-related issues.

There was no platform in Cambridge dedicated to discussion as such. So when my friend came to me with the idea of CUCF, I immediately thought that this is something important and much-needed.

I have observed two notable trends in China-related discussions at Cambridge. The first is a lack of nuanced understanding about China – something that goes beyond the media portrayal. The second is a lack of narrative from Chinese students themselves, or indeed anyone, against the mainstream critics.

The idea that China is a ‘threat’ to Western ideologies has been growing ever since the protests in Hong Kong began. While the anxiety related to some of these topics is understandable, I also feel that there is a growing ‘us against them’ sentiment that tends to make generalisations about China as an abstract concept and simplify the issues dangerously.

Do you think there has been a shift in sentiment among the Chinese student body towards the UK since the Covid-19 pandemic too?

I think most people [i.e. mainland Chinese students] felt that the way the UK has dealt with the pandemic was not so great. Many students have been trying to get back to China because they think they would be safer there. Some of my friends have experienced verbal abuse related to Covid-19 too.

Although this might affect some sentiment towards the UK, I think most people understand that this was a unique period. Chinese students in the UK certainly find themselves in a better position than students in the US, which makes a difference as well. Although students are not happy with some of the policies installed by the universities and the UK government, most are grateful that they have a chance to come back to study in September.

In a recent article in The Times you talked about a “vicious circle” in which mainland Chinese students feel discriminated against. What do you think has caused this?

The vicious circle is this: Chinese students come to the UK and feel alienated as a result of cultural disparities (all too naturally). Local students recognise these disparities. They may then form and act out certain assumptions about Chinese students, which reinforces their feelings of alienation.

And sadly, sometimes this is not even done consciously. This draws Chinese students away from mainstream circles because they don’t think they will be understood and accepted. This then leads to a general lack of dialogue and communication, which surfaces quite strongly when difficult and complicated issues around China are raised.

At that point it seems to be the case that both parties operate in a separate ‘language game’ and neither understands what the other is talking about.

Both suspect that the other is ‘brainwashed’ or irrational, which further prevents constructive communication.

In my opinion, it is not so much discrimination but a sense of misunderstanding that the ‘vicious circle’ creates. And because of the current geopolitical landscape, it is particularly distinct and harmful right now.

There are two main reasons for what I believe has perpetuated the phenomenon. The first is a failure by Chinese students to speak out clearly and consistently in the public sphere. This is potentially a result of a cultural and political background that discourages similar endeavours. There is also their self-perception as a minority at UK universities and a feeling that ‘it is not their place to do so’. The second reason reflects the universities’ failure to actively engage their Chinese students in voicing their opinions.

Why do so many Chinese students wish to return home on graduation rather than further their careers in the UK?

I think this depends on personal preferences and ambitions. In general there is a lot that is appealing about a career in China. There are many opportunities for start-ups and creativity in sectors that are already mature in the West, and the sheer size of the population in China means it is easier to raise capital.

Moreover, various people I know working here in the West have been told explicitly by their bosses about the glass ceilings in their managerial careers as the result of their Chinese nationality. So, for them, there are greater opportunities for growth back at home.

Other young people appreciate their Western education but feel more ‘comfortable’ living and working in cities like Shanghai in the future. On the other hand, stricter state control and censorship does drive artists, journalists, social workers and academics to stay abroad. Also, some people just prefer the lifestyles in the West. Given all of this, for me it seems to be a very personal choice.

What do you think about the coverage of China news in the Western media? How do Chinese students feel and react after reading about their homeland from afar?

The narrative towards China in Western media is drastically different from the news at home. I think they are almost equally one-sided. The Western media often portrays China as a ‘threat’, a ‘competitor’ or even an ‘evil power’. It criticises the Chinese based on individual instances that are interpreted without a wider context.

It often fails to make a clear distinction between several concepts: the CCP [the Chinese Communist Party], China as a nation, China as a civilisation and the Chinese people. It imposes its own moral values on China-related issues and treats them as universal, without questioning them. It helps to incubate an ‘us against them’ sentiment but fails to provide a more nuanced interpretation.

On the other hand, the media in China is not any better at all! I think it is extremely valuable for Chinese students to read news about their homeland from afar, even if it bewilders or upsets them at the start. It is a crucial step to coming to a more objective understanding of what is going on.

I would hesitate to say which version of the news is more legitimate. I think people in the West should also take a look at news outside their homeland every now and then too.

In the future, do you think Chinese students will want to study in the UK to further their education?

It’s hard to tell. Chinese students are often drawn to the West for a more liberal education and better opportunities to get into good universities such as Oxbridge or the G5 (in comparison to entering top universities in China, such as Peking and Tsinghua Universities).

I also think there is an increasing inclination to study in the UK, instead of the US or Australia, because of China’s worsening relations with those two countries. The UK is still a relatively welcoming place. Whether Chinese students will continue to want to study there depends on whether it remains the same, amid the flare up of tensions between our two nations.

How can UK universities make Chinese students feel a welcome, integrated part of intellectual circles?

UK universities can show respect and welcome by being ready to listen to alternative opinions and trying to understand the reasons behind them. They should not fear differences in opinions. Doing so does not imply passive conformation, but genuine debate and discussion. By opening up and encouraging a variety of narratives, universities can help to break down ‘the vicious circle’ and expose both parties to each other’s logic.

In the long run this is beneficial to everybody as we can begin to develop a more nuanced understanding of a range of issues, as well as a more coherent view of the world around us.

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