2009 Student-Faculty Fellows: Swarthmore College
Living Near the Central Power:
Government Policy and the Realities of Life in Contemporary Beijing
Mentor: Hongyu Huang
Students: Miyuki Baker, William Lin, Amanda Morrison, Mary Prager, Benjamin Yelsey
The faculty mentor and five Swarthmore students traveled together in China from May 20th to June 19th, 2009 to undertake independent research projects under the above title. The goal of the student researchers is to evaluate how concrete government actions affect residents of Beijing, and how Beijingers work with, around, and through government policy. Miyuki Baker was interested to discover how art students in Beijing are educated and how they express their voices under the umbrella of government control. William Lin and Amanda Morrison explored the impact of government restrictions on healthcare within the fields of HIV/AIDS control and women’s sexual education. Mary Prager investigated the ways in which governments manage the religious lives of their people to maintain social order and harmony. Benjamin Yelsey researched the benefits, detriments and consequences of Chinaâ€™s national examination system. After returning to Swarthmore, our team plans to disseminate information to the college community and to the greater Philadelphia academic community through an information session on summer programs, a photo exhibit, and a documentary on contemporary art in China by Miyuki Baker.
My research is titled “The Effects of the Chinese Government in Training Contemporary Artists in Beijing Higher Education,” and while in China I was surprised by the amount of freedom that I was given to conduct this research. Plunging into the actual art scene in Beijing was essential to the success of my research because I was able to learn things through experience, rather than having a middleman telling me how to interpret what I was observing. As time passed, I could feel the interviews getting easier and I felt like I was able to better schedule my days to be most productive. I had successful days, disappointing days, and just average days, but in the end, all of these experiences helped me reach more balanced conclusions. I discovered that there is a population of art students who are happily continuing their studies because they view the anti-government paintings in the galleries to be a sign that China is now completely open. But when I looked harder, some Chinese artists suggested that it is not that simple. One said: “It’s either you make anti-government commercial art that doesn’t actually represent real dissent, or be kicked out of the club.” I also learned that the government is quick to act when topics like homosexuality or other unconventional ideas that might “affect” the population are brought up.
The title of my research is “The Changing Nature of HIV/AIDS Prevention and Treatment in Contemporary China.” While in China, I found that interviewing local professionals in this field was extremely valuable by giving me an insider’s viewpoint. I was surprised that although the topic is a difficult one the people with whom I spoke were surprisingly open and candid, including a high ranking government official. I discovered that although overall infection rates of HIV remain low in China, government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) cited several reasons why controlling and combating HIV is difficult. One is the conservative societal reluctance to acknowledge sex-related topics, and this aversion to discussing sexually-transmitted infections like HIV/AIDS prevents HIV/AIDS education from reaching classrooms, hampers efforts to promote safe-sex practices among the general public, and blocks HIV-positive patients from receiving treatment in hospitals and medical clinics. Moreover, a marginalized existence heightens these difficulties among the LGBT and ethnic minority communities. Prejudices also remain strong against those affected by HIV/AIDS. Social stigma and poor access to HIV/AIDS information are among the greatest challenges in the Chinese fight against the virus.
Through conversations with a diverse set of women in Beijing, I was able to gain many insights that now inform a new, more nuanced understanding of feminism on a global scale, as well as a more intimate understanding of the current status of women’s rights in China. I discovered that despite the easing of cultural taboos around discussion of sex and sexuality, lack of access to information about sexual health remains a problem for many people in China, particularly women. While women in urban areas have access to abortion and the stigma surrounding the use of contraceptives has faded, information about basic sexuality is hard to come by because it is not included in the school curriculum. There is no systemic way for women to gain access to information about their bodies and their health, and this problem is particularly acute for women in rural areas, women who are members of ethnic minority groups, and queer women.
During my month in China, I focused on interviewing non-Christian and Christian Chinese people in Beijing and in Hunan to assess and compare their perspectives on faith. So far, I have found that Christianity is often brought in from the rural provinces to the city, an epiphenomenon of the swell of immigration in the past decades. Non-Christians in Beijing tend to be open-minded and curious towards Christians, although many have told me that their materialist worldview prevents them from believing in faith. Most people I interviewed shared their personal theories as to why Christianity is gaining ground in the country; one interesting theory is that Christianity is filling the vacuum of social values that appeared as a result of the Cultural Revolution and the weakened influence of Confucianism. Further, most people in Beijing, Christian and otherwise, reported that they do not believe that their government or laws are oppressing or discouraging Christianity. The government seems to manage religious life only in order to maintain social order and harmony. This study has led me to believe that religion is an inevitable and generally positive force in human life.
The National Higher Education Entrance Examination, or gaokao, is one of the most important events in the life of the average Chinese student, and while in Beijing I conducted a number of interviews on the street, on campuses, and in offices to gain a better understanding of this examination process. At present, there is only enough room in China’s higher education system to accommodate roughly twenty percent of its college-age population, and consequently, competition in the gaokao is extreme. I am seeking to contrast the views about the examination held by Beijing residents who came of age before 1977, the first year that the examination was given after the Cultural Revolution, and after. I was fortunate to be in Beijing when the 2009 gaokao was being taken, and during this pivotal weekend, I conducted interviews with members of every level of this process. I also held an informative interview with an employee of the National Education Examinations Authority to discuss the trends apparent in the evolution of the gaokao.