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Cosmopolitan Universals and the Chinese University: Authoritarian Education and Its Impact on Global Perspectives

  • Author(s): Patnode, Rene
  • Advisor(s): Madsen, Richard
  • et al.
Abstract

As an authoritarian state, the Chinese government has a vested interest in maintaining its legitimacy in the eyes of its people as well as their adherence to its directives. At the same time, China has spent the last few decades successfully integrating itself into the global economy. Correspondingly, Chinese individuals have increased access to global cultural and information flows, which might include ideas that challenge the government’s authority. This dissertation details how the government uses its educational system, in particular, to promote itself relative to global political alternatives. The dissertation further evaluates the extent to which the curriculum succeeds in its goals in ensuring students’ belief in government legitimacy and their adherence to government mandates.

This project draws on fieldwork done at a Chinese university over the course of one year. During that time, I analyzed government-published textbooks; attended the political classes required for all Chinese university students; interviewed teachers and students; and administered surveys to the students. I find that the impact of the curriculum is limited. It succeeds when its discourse matches what students already believe, such as the broadly-shared perspective that other countries persecute China. Those beliefs are not solely due to government influence. Yet the curriculum fails when its discourse conflicts with global perspectives that the students have already adopted, such as what the practice of science entails. Nonetheless, the structure of the university ensures that students adhere to institutional and political authority even in the absence of trust in the government, and the structure additionally limits exposure to foreign individuals and culture that might further modify student perspectives regarding the political status quo. The dissertation concludes with a discussion of the impact of studying abroad on student perspectives. While the more direct foreign exposure may improve student opinions on other countries, I draw on additional fieldwork at an American university to show how the Chinese government can use its affiliated Chinese Student and Scholar Association to mitigate the impact of foreign exposure and reinforce government authority from a distance.

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