THE insurgence of student demonstrations sweeping Chinese cities during the past month marks the largest sustained protest since the Cultural Revolution ended 10 years ago. Press accounts cite a plethora of student demands, from better food in the university cafeterias to the overthrow of the Communist Party. What has motivated Chinese university students to risk promising careers by incurring the wrath of government officials? Western observers suggest it is frustration at the slow pace of reform, manipulation by factions within the Communist Party, and disillusion with socialism. The Chinese government's explanation is that students are impatient, misled, and misinformed.
What are today's Chinese university students thinking? I spent a year in China recently, seeking a scientific answer to that question. Partly on the basis of results from a student questionnaire completed anonymously by 133 university students and partly from private interviews with 14 randomly selected students, I concluded that student dissatisfaction is the most serious problem facing Chinese universities.
When asked to rate their university education by assigning a letter grade, students gave an average grade of C minus. That included 19 percent who gave the university a failing grade. When asked to state the one best thing about their university education, 48 percent of the students chose ``nothing,'' 13 percent chose ``friends,'' 5 percent said ``teachers,'' 3 percent the facilities, while only 1 percent chose university officials.
Why are students so dissatisfied? The main reasons are the poor quality of university education, political disillusionment, and a perceived lack of control by students over their lives.
Reflecting their displeasure with the education they receive, 41 percent of the students reported that they wished they had different teachers, 38 percent said their courses were ``boring,'' and 17 percent said the content of their courses was ``useless.'' To improve education, students said, they needed better-trained teachers, more-advanced courses, a wider range of courses, and more audiovisual and imported learning materials.
Evidence of political disillusionment emerged in student answers regarding future goals. Ninety percent of the students expressed a desire to get to know foreigners and foreign life better. Sixty-two percent said they wanted to go abroad. At the same time, 92 percent said they wanted to ``help China modernize.'' According to a number of students, the only way to do that was to adopt Western technology and Western democracy.
The most compelling explanation for student dissatisfaction, however, is that students are displeased about the lack of control over their lives. Seventy-six percent indicated that they were not allowed to decide what they learn in class, while 51 percent said they had to learn things without knowing why.
In fact, Chinese university students have less say about their education than high school students in the United States. They cannot choose their own major, the courses they take, the teachers who instruct them, or the topics of their research. All of these things, as well as their living arrangements and even their future employment, are decided for them by university or government officials. In interviews, students repeatedly complained about their lack of decisionmaking power, saying things like ``We have less freedom in class than when we study by ourselves,'' and ``The officials won't listen to us.'' Said one: ``They treat us like children.''
When asked what they would change about their education, students frequently mentioned that they should have more say in what they learn, more freedom to express their own opinions, and more opportunity to explore topics of individual interest to them, and that class attendance should be made optional.
Above all, students want to decide for themselves what they will learn and how they will use their knowledge. By demanding these rights, they have raised the hackles of Communist Party bureaucrats who are accustomed to treating the Chinese people like children.
Donald J. Ford is a technical and free-lance writer in Los Angeles.