Nail Sticking Out is Pounded Down

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 3/20/2007 08:15:00 PM
This story exasperated me. Zheng Ming, a Chinese professor at Renmin University who served as the dean of political sciences at his school lost his post for writing the obvious about the Chinese educational system on his blog. He commented:
They told me that I should be punished for breaking the 'hidden rules.'

Universities have become an officialdom. The over-intervention and manipulation of academia by power definitely fetters its growth.

How is China's academia doing now? Does anybody overseas read papers written by Chinese scholars? Plagiarism and theft are rampant. Obedient kids are being taught to be minions.

My first reaction was surprise that they teach political science at all in China, albeit in watered-down form. While Marxist / Maoist thought you would expect to be taught even in these days of market socialism (whatever that is), straight-up political science would be something best avoided lest it encourage dangerously independent political thinking. My second reaction was, "well duh, did you expect to get away with making these statements?" Obviously, information dissemination is very tightly controlled in China--especially on the Internet. Mr. Zheng seems all too keen on breaking away from the Confucian tradition hinted at in this post's title. What he labels "hidden rules" and "obedient kids" are merely manifestations of a longstanding tradition in which you are supposed to listen patiently to the master's words of wisdom for the most part.

After thinking it over for a while, my third reaction was a measure of sympathy for Mr. Zheng since I too teach political science. The touchy subject that he brings up is controversial for good reason, and I ask my Chinese colleagues about it from time to time. China wants to be at the forefront of education to boost its human capital. Yet, at the same time, it wants to keep tight reins on freedom of expression. Now, you might say that political science is a fairly useless subject that does little to enhance national welfare unlike subjects such as math or engineering. However, consider that many of the high-technology clusters around the world like Silicon Valley and Bangalore have a freewheeling culture. Without such an attractive culture, creative minds may not be attracted to such a place--especially knowledgeable educators in these disciplines. Even tightly controlled Singapore is learning to give in a little after maintaining a tight grip for so long. In the words of former Singaporean PM Lee Kuan Yew:
The greatest challenge to Singapore today is to get our people to move away from the old model. Just being clean, green, efficient and cost-effective is not enough. You've also got to be innovative, creative, entrepreneurial.
How compatible is Confucianism with a dynamic learning culture where tacit knowledge thrives? We will see how this exciting story unfolds in China. I suspect that Confucius will have to give more way to Adam Smith if officials want to emphasize innovation and creativity.