Teaching About Democracy and Social Justice in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing

Visiting Professor in Hong Kong and Shanghai

I spent five weeks in China last spring as a visiting professor at the Institute of Education in Hong Kong and at East China Normal University in Shanghai—one of the largest and most important universities in China with a heritage similar to Montclair’s, as the name suggests.  Last year the Chinese edition of the book I wrote with David Keiser, Teacher Education for Democracy and Social Justice, was published by the East China Normal University Press. The translator with whom I worked is Youquin Ren, the Provost and Vice President of the University. I met with him at AERA a few years ago when he began the process and had secured permission from our publisher,  Routledge. I was curious, of course, about why a book with this title would be selected. He was very straightforward and said, “We know a lot about many things, but not so much about this.”

My invitation and hosts, as it turned out, came not from East China Normal University but from the Institute for Education in Hong Kong, which supplies 80% of Hong Kong’s teachers and offers degrees through the doctorate. They specifically asked that I meet with students and faculty and conduct two formal seminars of my choosing but related to democracy and social justice.  With some input from the President of the University I selected two broad areas:  a seminar that explored the alternative meanings of the concepts of democracy and social justice and a seminar on the relationship of education to the evolution of democracy and social justice in a society.  English is common in Hong Kong, as you would expect from its history. It is prevalent also in Shanghai, but much less prevalent in Beijing. The students in Shanghai had all read our book.

My expectations for China were full of prejudices probably dating from the Cold War. I had not been there before, despite many opportunities to go. I expected a grey, dark country, with unhappy people —not unlike the former soviet republics where I did spend some time. I could not have been more wrong. The culture is, of course, historically colorful and beautiful and it is celebrated every day. The history and art museums are packed. Beautiful and colorful temples—Buddhist and Taoist—were everywhere, along with mosques. Smiles and generosity were the norm. Of course, this was in major cities, largely with university people, and not rural China, but it was impressive.

As you would expect my students had many questions, some about politics and President Obama and American education. Several were surprised that the BP oil spill, which was 3 weeks old when I arrived in China, was such big news and so politically challenging. Of course China experiences events like this, although not often on that scale, but in many cases with the loss of more human lives—witness the coal mine disasters. Also in China, as the government seeks to close down inefficient coal burning plants which pollute, many Chinese stand to lose their jobs and be forced into early retirement.  This environmental issue was of interest and very puzzling. The Chinese now take pollution seriously—at least in the major cities. There is virtually no smoking anywhere in Hong Kong, including in major parks with small sections set off for smokers.

When I fielded questions about democracy I made the point that I was talking less about formal government than the way individuals lead their lives. All the groups I met easily identified the core qualities of democracy—equal rights, government of law not men, a fair court system, and so on. Of course I emphasized the importance of nondiscrimination and nonrepression as elements of social justice. One young man came to me at a break and said, “So, as I see, it democracy is a way for the majority to control the minority.” I brought that back to the entire group, and we had what I think was an interesting discussion. Someone said, “Even if that is true, it is better than the minority controlling the majority.” We talked about Toucqueville’s observations regarding the “tyranny of the majority” and explored what the group meant by democracy. They had wonderful questions and clearly had been thinking about the issues.

In all of my discussions I was reminded over and over again of the extent to which these complex ideas of democracy, social justice, freedom, and even education are essentially contested concepts with different distinct meanings for different people. Mao, in one of his speeches, spoke for democracy—which he called “centralized democracy.” Clearly democracy meant different things in China than in the United States. In Beijing I was in Tiananmen Square a day or so before the 20th anniversary of the protest and killings of pro-democracy demonstrators. It was very tranquil. Families with children sat on the cement, some with Chinese flags. Mao’s Mausoleum, on one end of the square, had lines to view his frozen remains that took up to 3 hours. All of this was dominated by the huge portrait of Mao on the wall of the Forbidden City overlooking the Square—the site of his proclamation of the birth of The Peoples Republic of China. By some accounts Mao may have been responsible for the killing of 20 to 30 million Chinese, but despite the Cultural Revolution, he remains a hero. I asked one of the young women who was from Beijing if she had visited the mausoleum. She had. I asked her how she felt when she saw Mao’s body. She said, “Proud.”

There were virtually no ceremonies to commemorate the Tiananmen Square protests on the 20th anniversary—there were a few in Hong Kong—but none in Beijing or other major Chinese cities. I asked a number of people why they thought that was. Were they actively forbidden? Most said no. One conclusion that I left with is that in converting to a market driven economy over the past two decades, which has brought prosperity for many, the pressure for political democracy has been mitigated. Young people who may have been in the protest 20 years ago are now prosperous and seemingly happy. Certainly my difficulty in finding gifts to bring for my hosts that were NOT made in China spoke to the state of the economy. My wife Tina finally suggested that for the young women in Shanghai who were so helpful to me I bring Native American jewelry, which I did. Of course, Native Americans themselves migrated from Asia!

I did naturallly discuss American democracy and the gaps between our hopes and our reality. It was clear to me that the Chinese hold up the United States and its democracy as a model. When I discussed limitations to freedom, recent Supreme Court decisions, the re-segregation of our cities, and deep inequities in education, I had a sense that they were saddened. When I distributed copies of a Utah newspaper with headlines saying “school district accused of calling the United States a democracy,” they were dumbfounded. It was a good opportunity to make the case that democracy, like education, is never done. It is something that must be worked at constantly, and this has driven my work for the past twenty years. In China civic education tends to mean teaching patriotism and love of country. I met with several professors who had developed curriculum materials to this end beginning in the early grades. We know how important education is for preparing the next generation of young people to participate in a democracy. If that means critical participation and critical thinking about civic issues, China is not there yet, and that too was a great topic for discussion. I think the teachers I met got it and were thinking about the implications when we finished.

I certainly don’t know what the future holds for China, or for Hong Kong, which seems to me very fragile. My guess is that the state of the economy will play a big role in the future and perhaps determine how much pressure for democracy and social justice emerges from the people. There were, while I was in China, several strikes to protest low wages, and they resulted in concessions to the workers. I was very heartened by the interest expressed in democracy, the openness to discuss its meanings, and the optimism that I sensed among the majority of my contacts.