The Newsletter 77 Summer 2017

'The man with the key is not here' - Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University

David Goodman

I’m an academic working on social and political change in China. With the dramatic changes after 1978, I increasingly came to think that there would be an advantage in having students learn about China, as well as learning Chinese in China. The approach is one of the lived China experience. At the same time, for myself and other academics, there are advantages to be had from living, working, and conducting research in China. The opportunity to experiment with these ideas came in 2013 when I was invited to help develop a Department of China Studies at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU) in Suzhou. 

XJTLU is a Joint Venture University (Xi’an Jiaotong University and University of Liverpool are the parents) located in Suzhou Industrial Park, to the east of the old city of Suzhou. Currently there are about 9,500 domestic Chinese students and 610 international students enrolled in 35 undergraduate degree programs and 27 postgraduate coursework programs. Teaching Chinese students in China is great fun. The students are enthusiastic and engaged, determined to succeed. Of course, their approach to China Studies is different to their international peers, not least because of schooling and socialisation. This difference sometimes makes for unnecessary gaps in the learning environment, in both directions, which the department has to provide through short courses and additional activities.

Working in China is of course not without its challenges. Many people outside China, even some of those who have been there in the past, assume that we have no academic freedom, that we are constrained in what we can teach or research, or even that we are told what to do and how to do it. On the whole, such problems are minimal. Of that kind the only real problem is that book suppliers will sometimes act on the side of caution if asked to provide a book to the Library or students. Fear of getting into trouble is their motivator, sometimes without any reasonable basis of thought. I was recently stopped from importing a Chinese language version of Mao Zedong’s commentaries on literature and art. It was a book originally published openly in China, where it had been purchased. I am still trying to work out why importation was not permitted.

More serious are the problems of living and working in a society developing from a radically different social system, by importing some of the technologies and practices from elsewhere. As all our students know, mobile phone usage and Internet access require VPN installation. Luckily the market demand is well met by Chinese providers. Office administrative practice usually fails to keep up with the speed of change: functions in the workplace most usually stop when someone with a specific task is on leave or is sick; there is little client service mentality. In the 1970s when I first lived in China we used to talk about “the man with the key is not here” – the phenomenon of the lack of access to something when a request was made. These days it’s “I’m sorry, my colleague whose responsibility to approve your emergency need for a replacement computer is away for two weeks.”

David Goodman is Head of the Department of China Studies at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (