University students in the 1920s

In 2021, there were 40 million students enrolled at mainland China’s 3,012 colleges and universities. According to the 2010 census, the proportion of college-educated Chinese went up from 3.61 percent in 2000 to 8.93 percent in 2010. In 1998, when Jiang Zemin was president, he announced plans to bolster higher education. At that time Chinese universities and colleges produced 830,000 graduates a year. In May 2010, that number was more than six million and rising. Still at that time only 11 percent of university-freshmen-aged young people entered university compared to 64 percent in the United States.

About a quarter of all Chinese in their 20s have attended some university. Twice as many 18- to- 24-year-olds are enrolled in colleges in the late 2000s were enrolled a decade earlier. Chinese universities produced 23,500 PhDs in 2005, 70 percent of them in science and engineering. In the early 2000s, only 15 percent of college-age youth got an education beyond high school. Most were urban. Only a third of China's university students are female. Now over half of China's university students are female. Rules have been changed in recent years that allow older people to attend college.

Percent of people 25-34 that completed four years of university (or equivalent) or more: 17.8 (compared to 39 percent in Australia and 14 percent in South Africa. [Source: China Statistical Yearbook 2021, Wikipedia Wikipedia ]

Educational attainment, at least Bachelor's or equivalent, population 25+: 3 percent; male: 4.1 percent; female 3 percent (cumulative)
Educational attainment, at least Master’s or equivalent, population 25+: 0.4 percent; male: 0.4 percent; female 0.3 percent (cumulative)
Educational attainment, at least a Doctorate, or equivalent, population 25+: near 0 [Source: World Bank]

Growth of the Number of University Students

An average of 8 million Chinese students graduated from university a year between from 2016 to 2020. This figure is nearly ten times higher than it was in 1997 and is more than double the number of students who will graduate this year in the U.S.
The increase in the number of university students is at least partly the result of a government policy in the late 1990s to reduce unemployment by doubling the number of college and university students.Katherine Stapleton wrote in The Conversation, Just two decades ago, higher education in China was a rare privilege enjoyed by a small, urban elite. But everything changed in 1999, when the government launched a program to massively expand university attendance. In that year alone university admissions increased by nearly 50 percent and this average annual growth rate persisted for the next 15 years, creating the largest influx of university educated workers into the labour market in history. [Source: Katherine Stapleton, The Conversation, April 10, 2017]

“Growth in the number of engineering students has been particularly explosive as part of the government’s push to develop a technical workforce which can drive innovation. But overall student numbers have increased in all subjects – even in the humanities and social sciences. New universities have sprung up and student enrolment numbers have rocketed. The second most popular subject major is in fact literature – and the fastest growing is law.

In 2006, the government decided there were too many university students, saying the high numbers had resulted in overcrowded campuses, overworked professors and graduates who were unable to get decent jobs. To reduce the number of university students the government decided to raise the value of vocational training and high school diplomas, making a university education seem like less of a necessity. An effort was made to police universities to make sure they didn’t admit low quality students to make money. Attempts in the past to reduce the number of students have largely been ineffective.

Life of University Students in China

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University dormitory room
Most students live at home and commute to classes or live in crowded dormitories. A typical dormitory room has four or six students. Students find it difficult to study there and often go to the library at 5:00am to 6:00pm to secure seats. Many university blast the national anthem at 7:00am on public address systems and require students to be out of their dormitories by 8:00am. The doors are locked and not reopened until 11:00am. Lights are turned off at 11:00pm.

Chinese students tend to study harder and party less than their American and British counterparts. Some engage in heavy drinking but not nearly to the degree and frequency found in American universities. Students used to perform military service and help with harvests. In recent years mandatory military training and manual farm labor requirements have been eased. These days they go to peasant villages for 10 days and watch.

Students tend to live off of cup of noodles they buy at convenience stores and cheap meals they buy at university canteens or small restaurants near campus. Many have been spoiled by their families growing and have no idea how to cook or do housework. In their free time students read newspapers and magazines, surf the Internet in the campus computer lab, play ping pong and tennis. They usually don’t have the money to do much than that. On their vacations they return home and watch pirated DVDs of Hollywood films.

At some university universities so many parents accompany their children to their first day of school as freshman that mats are set up on the gym floor for them to sleep on. One student told the Los Angeles Times. “You really don’t learn anything in Chinese universities, It is very difficult to get into college, but more relaxed once you get there.” University graduation is usually in June.

Chinese University Students in the Communist System

University education traditionally has been free with students being given a stipend, which was sometimes increased with good grades. Training is highly specialized from the start. Students often spend five or six years studying their subjects and take only courses in their fields. Future doctors take only medical classes and future lawyers take only law classes. Until recently there was no such thing as a liberal arts curriculum.

The Communist system traditionally dictated what classes university students would take and decided what jobs they would take after they graduated. The system encouraged students to go into pure and applied sciences, engineering, medicine and agriculture. About 50 percent of all students majored in engineering with hopes of getting a prestigious, well-rewarded job in a large state institution. The best and the brightest were often picked for scientific jobs with military applications.

The number of slots open in universities was determined by five-year plans which took into consideration the needs of certain regions and the number of doctors, engineers and scientists the government decided country needed. The children of tradesmen and landowners from generations back were sometimes punished for their pedigree and had a harder time getting into good universities that those from peasant stock.

After the Cultural Revolution ended a students began flowing back to the universities many of the best and brightest majored in literature and philosophy. These days they are more likely to be pursuing MBAs.

University Students in Chengdu in the Early 2010s

Matt Lombardi wrote in The Daily Beast: When a student who went by nickname Harry “was not copying my entire reading list and selling it at a bargain, then he was giving a TED Talk–like PowerPoint presentation to a packed house of more than 80 students on how to live in New York, where he has never been before; or he was presiding over the “English Club” he headed, where they have met to discuss such texts as the Gettysburg Address and the script for the pilot episode of Friends; or he was acting as class president, an unelected position to which he was appointed by the preceding class president and friend of the family. Harry’s dream is to become a wealthy CFO of a large company in Switzerland, where he once visited on a business trip with his father and was impressed by the friendly people, cleanliness, and beauty of its cities, though he believes Canada or the United States to be more realistic options. Like Jay Gatsby, and many of my students, Harry’s family came from rural poverty. His father grew up a poor sheep farmer in Inner Mongolia, but as the youngest child he managed to attend college at Xi’an Jiaotong University, where he met his first girlfriend and later his wife. Harry’s parents worked as engineers for the government in Beijing and lived in a cramped, leaky sixth-floor walk-up with no heat or air conditioning, until Harry’s father was sent on a business trip to Italy to study some new machinery. It was there he was offered a job with a Swiss company looking to expand in China. After that, Harry grew up away from home at boarding schools in China. [Source: Matt Lombardi, The Daily Beast, May 20, 2013]

“I brought up Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese writer and human-rights activist who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, but was and still imprisoned in China for criticizing the government. Harry shook his head and smiled wider, “Why would someone who causes disruption to his own country get a ‘peace’ prize? This does not make sense to me.” While the majority of students rolled their eyes at the Communist Party’s severe control (they refer to the government’s online censorship as “The Great Firewall”), Harry always gave me the party line. Like a self-conscious but loyal child covering for the detrimental parent, he often assured me the government only did what was best for its people. Harry wanted to be proud of his country, but I got the impression he was curious to try the government’s talking points out on an outsider for his own clarification. As Harry explained regarding North Korea (a country he described as China’s “annoying little brother”), “China does not have many friends in this world,” and Harry wanted to understand why. Despite the government’s attempt at creating its own narrative through censorship and state-controlled news, young adults in China are perhaps more aware of the world than any generation that preceded them, thanks to the Internet and stories passed around from friends who have traveled abroad.

“Like Harry, Antonia is a 19-year-old sophomore. Her legal name is Mengting Yuan.... Antonia told me she chose her name because of the Dutch film, Antonia’s Line, a 1996 Oscar winner often described as a feminist fairy tale. “Mengting,” the name her mother gave her at birth, which Antonia said means “dream and beauty,” is the name of a character in a popular romance novel by the Taiwanese writer Qiong Yao. But Antonia feels her new name makes her more of an independent woman. Other students agreed. In my classes I had a Jolie who named herself after Angelina Jolie, a Scarlett after Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett O’Hara, and an Oceanid in reference to Greek mythology.

“Antonia wore black plastic-framed eyeglasses and parted her long dark hair down the middle. She often dressed casually in button-down shirts, sweaters, and skinny jeans. Being a strong woman in a country run by men is not easy, Antonia often pointed out in class. Between familial pressure, a six-day academic schedule, a long-distance relationship with her boyfriend, and worrying about her future career, she found life to be very stressful. “Whenever I get sick, or miss my home, or family, or am so stressed,” she said. “I watch Friends.” The American television show is already regarded in China as “a classic.” It’s Antonia’s favorite because six “completely different” people from various educational backgrounds, who all want different things out of life, can hang out together. Her eyes teared up a little. “They don’t care what their parents tell them to do and they follow their hearts and their dreams,” she said. “This cannot happen in China.”

“Victor, who had stylish spiky hair he sculpted forward and a pouty expression that gave him the hip, brooding appearance of a keyboardist in an ’80s new-wave band, is also headed to New York this summer to complete the second half of his degree as an accounting major. He comes from a family of poor farmers on his mother’s side. His grandfather on his father’s side was a landowner, but was forced to hand his property over to the government during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and to live in poverty. Victor’s mother is a university professor, and his father, a former professor, is described by Victor as a businessman who now runs two companies. I asked Victor how his life differed from his parents’, who had to work their way through college. “I never suffered,” Victor told me. “The economy boomed rapid[ly], so my life was getting better and better all the time.” He has a collection of 25 pairs of brand-name basketball sneakers that he proudly showed me on his iPhone, the gem being the Nike Airmax 360 for which he paid more than $200.

Chinese Students of the Late 2010s and 2020s

Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker: In my first book, “River Town,”“, written about his experiences in the 1990s, “I described the “childlike shyness” of my Fuling students, who seemed young because they were entering a new world. To some degree, this had been true for every generation of modern Chinese. Time and again, young people had entered the maelstrom of overwhelming change, whether it involved war or revolution, politics or economics. But my students at Sichuan University”, among the top forty or so institutions in China, in the late 2010s and early 2020s were old souls. They knew how things worked; they understood the system’s flaws and also its benefits. The environment they were entering was essentially the same one in which their parents had worked: for the first time, China has been both stable and prosperous for a period that’s longer than a university student’s memory. [Source: Peter Hessler, The New Yorker, May 9, 2022]

“When they wrote about their parents’ generation, and about the society that they would someday inherit, they could be completely cold-eyed: My parents were born in the 1970s, and I think they now fit into the lower middle class in China. They are characterized by firm patriotism and nonchalant cynicism. They strongly support the People’s Republic of China, not by praising the Chinese government, but by criticizing foreign governments. They refuse to use Apple products, decline to travel to Japan, and dismiss Trump as crazy and malicious. Yet they seldom admire China with passion. They have witnessed corruption in Chinese bureaucracy as well as injustice in society, which they are not able to redress, so they always say, “Things are just like that.” . . .

“I think my generation, born in the age of the Internet, is puzzled and somehow depressed by the conflict between Chinese beliefs and Western ones. Propaganda about liberty and reason prevails on the Internet while propaganda about patriotism and Communism prevails in the textbooks. Youngsters are mostly attracted by the former, but when passing exams and pursuing jobs, they should bear in mind the latter, and in practice in China, more often than not, the latter functions better.

"Reading words like that felt heartbreaking but also inspiring: even the act of describing a situation with no easy solution is a kind of agency. Despite the stifling political climate and the soul-crushing gaokao routines, the Chinese educational system produced no small number of people who could observe and analyze, think and write.”

University Student’s ‘Empty Heart Disease’

Harbin Engineering University
Eric Mu wrote in I knew intuitively that university would by no means be as wonderful as the teacher depicted to me. Compared with three years ago, I was now older and in no small measure, wiser. My feeling was vindicated; university life was but another cycle. We would go through another round of anxiety, angst, boredom and disillusion, only with different tokens for goals: then it was about passing the exam and going to university, now it was about becoming a Party member and finding a girlfriend and getting a job. [Source: Eric Mu, September 2, 2011]

In 2016 A Peking University professor said that 40.4 percent of first-year students at the prestigious university feel life is meaningless, and 30.4 percent hate studying, news portal Sina reported. Sixth Tone reported: Professor Xu Kaiwen, the deputy head of the mental health education and counseling center at Peking University — China’s highest-ranked university — made the remarks at an education summit in Beijing earlier this month, and referred to the phenomenon as “Empty Heart Disease,” or “kongxin bing” in Chinese. [Source: Fu Danni, Sixth Tone (November 23, 2016]

“Xu described the symptoms of “Empty Heart Disease” as: feelings of depression, loneliness, and indifference; a sense of not knowing what life is for, despite outstanding achievements; maintaining good relationships but feeling that they are based on social obligation; and even suicidal thoughts.

“The news and transcript of Xu’s speech quickly spread through the media and through students’ online social networks. On, the most popular online discussion forum for Peking University students, it’s easy to find students’ posts discussing their mental health struggles, and responding to Xu’s comments. In one post titled “Empty Heart Disease,” an anonymous student wrote, “I’m a member of the 30 percent, and possibly even more severe […] in fact, I’ve thought about ending my life more than once.”

“But other students caution that a little existential uncertainty isn’t necessarily a sign of depression. Qu Tienan, a 19-year-old freshman studying philosophy at Peking University, told Sixth Tone that he felt he had encountered “Empty Heart Disease” as an ordinary part of the human experience. “I would question the meaning of life, and the purpose of what we have done, but I don’t think it’s such a serious thing because everyone has doubt in their lives,” Qu said. “It’s natural.”

“Others say that the pressure cooker of China’s education system can exacerbate psychological stress. Intensive preparation for the gaokao, the notorious national college entrance examinations, can start as early as middle school, and competition to get into top schools like Peking University is fierce. For some students, that can mean they run out of steam once they get there. Forced to take stock, they realize the momentum that pushed them forward is missing. “Lots of students have this hallowed dream of studying at Peking University, so they put a lot of time and hard work into getting here. But after they pass the exam and come here, they lose interest in continuing to study,” said Ji Runyidan, a 22-year-old postgraduate law student at Peking. “They were studying with the goal of getting into Peking University rather than wanting to come to Peking University to study.”

“Xu’s comments aren’t the first to put the discontent of students at China’s top universities into the spotlight. Earlier this month, an article by a Fudan University student attracted more than 100,000 views for its frank perspective. The student, writing under a pen name, said she had spent her whole adolescence studying, only to realize at university that without strong relationships, emotional intelligence, and knowledge extending beyond academic curricula, her high gaokao score meant nothing on its own.

“Ji, too, says that many assume students at prestigious institutions should be pleased with their achievements, while in fact the pressure only intensifies at university. Where many Peking University students were the best and brightest at their high schools, at college they’re surrounded by intimidating peers. Some are saddled with loans, and others feel like imposters in the elite environment. But Ji and other students have also questioned the way that Peking University collects research on the mental health of its new students. Ji mentioned that some questions in a survey for freshmen were biased towards negative choices. One asked students to describe their current mood, but the only available choices were “so-so,” “unhappy,” “very unhappy,” and “extremely unhappy.” “There was no choice of ‘very happy,’” Ji recalled.

Attitude of Chinese University Students About the Chinese Government

Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker: For many students, the experience of the pandemic seemed to confirm a general idea that the benefits of the Chinese system greatly outweigh its flaws. In assignments, a number of them wrote angrily about the government’s initial coverup and missteps. But they recognized that China was the only large country in the world that, after early mistakes, had been able to dramatically change course and keep fatalities to a minimum. They were realists, but I wouldn’t describe them as cynical. In the course of several semesters, I asked more than a hundred students if they expected their generation to have a better life than their parents’ generation had, and eighty-three per cent said that they did. [Source: Peter Hessler, The New Yorker, May 9, 2022]

In my experience, the Chinese students of twenty-five years ago were much more nationalistic, and much less aware, than the students of today. Li Chunling, one of China’s most prominent sociologists, has carried out many large-scale surveys of young Chinese. In her book “China’s Youth,” she describes a pattern of less interest in joining the Party, in addition to a tendency for high income and higher education to correlate with reduced national identification. But Li emphasizes that this is not a sign of dissidence. “They see Western democratic institutions as better than China’s current systems,” she writes. “But they see little value in immediately instituting a Western-style democratic order, because China’s current situation seems to demand the institutions that it has.”

Li also writes that, with regard to highly educated young Chinese, “simple propaganda-style education will not be effective.” Over the course of four semesters, I couldn’t remember any student bringing up Xi Jinping in class. I recently reviewed more than five hundred student papers and found the President mentioned only twenty-two times, usually in passing. Undoubtedly, fear played a role. But there also seemed to be a genuine lack of connection to the leader. I often gave an assignment that I had previously given in Fuling, asking freshmen to write about a public figure, living or dead, Chinese or foreign, whom they admired. In the old days, Mao had been the most popular choice, but my Sichuan University students were much more likely to write about scientists or entrepreneurs. Out of sixty-five students, only one selected Xi Jinping, which left the President tied with Eminem, Jim Morrison, and George Washington. The student who chose Washington wrote, “The reason why I admire him most is that he gave up his political power voluntarily.”

Attitude of Chinese University Students About the Chinese Education System

Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker: And there’s a point at which competition becomes a highly effective distraction. For most of my students, the greatest worry didn’t seem to be classroom security cameras or other instruments of state control — it was the thought of all those talented young people around them. In October of 2019, when China celebrated the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, I asked students what the holiday meant to them. One freshman wrote: Holiday means others went out to play and I am studying, which is the time that I have the highest relative efficiency. I could learn more than others and I will get a higher GPA. Holiday is the best time that I can go surpass my classmates in study. [Source: Peter Hessler, The New Yorker, May 9, 2022]

At Sichuan University, there is one independent and liberal student-run publication. Changshi, or Common Sense, was founded in 2010, and the name is partly in homage to Thomas Paine’s pamphlet. Somehow, Common Sense has survived the current political climate, although it no longer publishes on paper, uses no bylines, and has no list of staff writers. During my final semester, the most prominent stories were an investigation into the sudden death of a student on campus and a feature about an undergraduate who was trying to sue the university because of low-quality cafeteria food. A number of journalists from the magazine had taken my nonfiction class.

The week before I left the university, I met off campus with the publication’s staff. There were about twenty students, almost all of them female.” In my experience, female students seemed less nationalistic than the men, and I suspected they were less likely to jubao a professor. During our meeting, the Common Sense staff asked what I thought about young people today. I mentioned the intense competition, and I said that I had been impressed with my students’ understanding and analysis of the system around them. “But I don’t know what this means for the future,” I said. “Maybe it means that they figure out how to change the system. But maybe they just figure out how to adapt to the system. What do you think?” “We will adapt,” somebody said, and several others nodded. “It’s easy to get angry, but easy to forget,” another woman remarked. A third woman, one of the smallest in the group, said, “We will change it.”

Image Sources: 1) Louis Perrochon ; 2, 3) Ohio State University; 4) Nolls China website; 5) Bucklin archives; 6) Poco Pico blog ; Wikicommons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2022

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